|Harlem has historically been at the core of social and political activism in New York City|
Traditionally the backyard of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Harlem is now abuzz with Obama fever.
The United States’ epicentre of black culture is bracing itself for the prospect of the nation’s first black presidential candidate, more than six decades after Harlem elected New York’s first African-American to congress.
The fight between Barack Obama and John McCain is creating history and residents of the New York neighbourhood are filled with pride and excitement, but also fear.
Arleen Hatcher, the 47-year-old owner of Fisher’s of Men restaurant on 125th Street, never thought she would live to see this election day and confesses to frazzled nerves.
“I think it is [a] wonderful thing that, even if he doesn’t win, the opportunity has presented itself that an African- American can actually run and be nominated today.
“It is one thing that we have fought very hard for, what my ancestors died for – that cause – and to finally see it done is overwhelming,” she says.
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“I can’t wait to see it over because I am all filled-up inside about it and I have a nine-year-old son and we have been telling him all about it and tomorrow he will be by our side at the poll to take advantage of this.
“It’s an opportunity we thank God for. It’s such a blessing!”
If Obama is elected president, Hatcher says millions of white Americans will have voted for him.
“In that office, he will represent not just blacks but all Americans.
“There’s a time for a change and when it is time for a change, God put someone in place for the change to happen,” she says.
Emma Clark, a retired teacher who was looking to purchase an Obama T-shirt with her 93-year-old mother on Malcolm X Boulevard, agrees.
“What we love most of all about him is that he is a Black American who is for all people, representing all of America.
“The key thing is that he is [for] everyone – not for blacks alone, for Hispanics alone, Asians alone, whites alone, he is for everyone,” Clark says.
Nor is she alone in her thinking.
All across Harlem, great expectations for an Obama presidency continue to rise.
Higher wages and social security payments, cheaper housing, better jobs and affordable services are just some of the expectations.
“This world is in crisis, not only New York. People are struggling – food is high, rent is high, the subways are high, phone is high, car rent is high …. so what can we do?” says Alfred Evans, 83, who has been living in Harlem for the past 40 years.
“We’ve got somebody that can help us. So then we have to live for the hope that it will be better … Obama is the second Moses.”
With those sorts of hopes and dreams resting on his shoulders, some people wonder if an Obama presidency is bound to disappoint the millions of African-American voters who are casting their ballots for him.
“It’s not going to be easy for him, but I know – I feel it in my heart – that Obama is going to turn this country around,” John D Williams, a young disabled man, tells Al Jazeera.
“We cannot wait another four years. So if you want less drama, a lot of respect from your mama, then you should vote for Obama.”
Struggle for support
Harlem’s affection for Obama was not always a sure thing.
Once Hillary Clinton’s turf and the home of Bill Clinton’s office, the community’s support was fractured between the senators from New York and Illinois.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton received twice as many votes as Obama in Harlem’s district during the New York Democratic primary in February.
|Malik Payne says the world is witnessing a historic event|
But 10 months later, after a lengthy and bitter Democratic race, Harlem’s political leaders and Clinton backers have slowly got on board with the Illinois senator.
Obama signs now adorn nearly every street corner and many Harlem businesses.
Black Americans are by far the most reliable voting bloc for the Democrats, with an estimated 90 per cent of African-American voters casting their ballots in favour of the Democrats in an ordinary election year.
That figure has risen to 98 per cent amid Obama’s run for the White House.
“Hillary Clinton was actually my first choice and I thought of Obama as vice president,” says Williams.
“People were saying he didn’t have the experience. Since then, I think he is ready for it and has great leadership.”
For more than a century, Harlem has been among the cultural centres of African-American life in the United States and the core of robust social and political activism in New York City.
Although Harlem has produced iconic black political figures, such as Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell to name two, one resident, 34-year-old Malik Payne, a nursing student, says the world is witnessing history.
“This is a historic event, especially for those who saw people die for the right to vote,” Payne says.
“We need something that the people can believe in again. Children of today that do not believe in anything will see that a black man or anybody that comes from where they come from can become whatever they want,” Payne says.
“And that right there alone is a great accomplishment. I feel very proud and it was long due.”