Ground Zero at the Obama Inauguration (2009)


On November 4th, 2008, I have unenthusiastically voted for Barack Obama. He strikes me as too much on the center at a time when bold leadership is needed. He has failed to say a word about my top national issues.


But this is as it has always been. I’ve never been excited about voting for a presidential candidate in my life. So this time, I reluctantly pull the lever for Obama, knowing that he almost certainly will not achieve what we must begin immediately if we have any hope at all of avoiding a very grim future.


Once again, I am voting against someone instead of FOR someone.


It is early January 2009. I have decided against going to the inauguration, even though I live in nearby Richmond – largely because my spouse has no time to join me, but also because I am not thrilled by his upcoming presidency.


But I change my mind.


Why? Because I have the time to attend, the means, and the fact that it is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle (I can never resist spectacles). It will be a chance for me to say someday that “I was there,” in the same way that some in our society can boast that they attended Woodstock.


This will surely be an unforgettable event.


So I find myself taking the Amtrak train up to DC, which means I’m arriving in the Capitol in the same way as Obama and his Vice-prez elect Joe Biden this weekend (I am encouraged by the symbolism of their arriving by train, as restoring the US passenger rail system is in my “top national issues” list.


Before I go, I must change my Amtrak ticket to arrive earlier, so that I can attend the free concert at the Lincoln Memorial the day I arrive.


I am strolling from Union Station toward the concert. Surrounding me in all directions are the humbling, gigantic federal buildings (the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Senate Building…). I am humbled by the immensity and grandeur, and feel overwhelmingly thankful that many of these buildings were built at a time when wonderful classical architectural style was not something today’s architects so often seem allergic to. Had these buildings been built in contemporary times (as the awful, embarrassing Hubert Humphrey HUD building was, for example), we’d be stuck today with a collection of ugly, embarrassing, bizarre, utterly unlovable Capitol buildings that would do nothing to induce civic pride or national affection. Can we imagine what, say, the White House would have been like if it was modernist? Blocky slabs of concrete. No pillars or columns or ornamentation. A Capitol Building that looks more like a bomb shelter. “But at least it is not reactionary,” the modernist architect would snobbishly tell us.


After over two hours of walking and waiting in lines, I finally arrive at the Memorial. Stationed alongside the reflecting pool about midway down, I am way too far away to see the stage, and actually have no idea of where the stage is situated. Instead, hundreds of thousands of us (one estimate says 700,000) are squeezed along the narrow slivers of Mall real estate flanking the pool, gathered in front of Jumbotrons to see the performances.


The show includes many of the heavyweights of the music world. Springsteen starts the show on an acoustic guitar, and is followed by Mellencamp, John Bon Jovi, Denzell Washington, Beyonce, Sheryl Crowe, James Taylor, Tom Hanks, Jack Black, Herbie Hancock, and Stevie Wonder, among many others.


Curiously, Garth Brooks is given three songs to sing -- more than any other performer. His rendition of Shout! turns out to be one of the highlights of the show. Bono and U2 played one of the last songs, predictably performing a highly enthusiastic, happy version of one of their classics, “In the Name of Love.” Bono’s closing brings tears to my eyes, as he makes reference to the dreams of the Palestinians.


Despite their superstardom, each performer gives a deer-in-the-headlights glance and wave to Obama and Biden, who are sitting on the side of the stage.


The next morning, I am astonished to see a large color photo of the concert crowd on the front page of the Washington Post. Astonished because I was standing next to the subjects of the photo throughout the entire show, and even noticed when they were being photographed. I had thought it was a friend shooting a memento photo. I did not realize that I was only a few feet away from the immortality of being pictured on the front page of the Post on one of the days when even MORE of the world is reading the Post.


On this day, I accompany my sister-in-law, who is working with the Alliance for Justice to hold a panel discussion about “driving change” – what the agenda should be for activists. The event is kicked off by Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of Peter, Paul & Mary fame on acoustic guitar. The event closes with him, but this time Ben Vereen joins him.


The panelists include JoDee Winterhoff of CARE, Van Jones of Green for All, and Eli Pariser, founder and CEO of Move On. Van was particularly entertaining, impressive and funny in his remarks.


Afterwards, I experience the good fortune to have a brief one-on-one chat with Eli, the immensely successful and savvy Internet/Email political networking and mobilizing system. I inform him that as an urban designer, I fear that his work is cut out for him in his admirable efforts to build a better world by building a better community. After all, sprawl and car travel has mostly made us a nation of loners.


It is 6 am the next morning (inauguration day – the main event), and I am already at the metro train station near my sister-in-law’s house. The train is already full, yet somehow hundreds of inauguration battalions of people squeeze onto the train at the next three stops (having watched Spiderman with my nephew the night before, I start wishing I could cling to the train car ceiling to avoid the increasing crush).


All of my advance planning about logistics – where to be at certain times, where to access the National Mall to watch the Inauguration, what to avoid, how to travel, how to avoid masses of people – start making me feel like I am engaged in the planning and implementation of strategy for a military campaign.


At 6:15 am, the train arrives at Metro Center, which appears to be the closest stop to the Mall. I fight my way out of the metro train car and station, and for all intents and purposes have “paratroopered” into the thick of the “battle” ahead of me – not knowing if I will emerge alive on this day of uncertainty.


After getting what bearings I can (although I’m actually unsure which direction is north or south), I come to the 13th Street intersection. There is an enormous crush of people crowding the entire street, apparently waiting to pass through security. I hustle to 14th Street, and while there is a more orderly line here, instead of a mass of humanity, the line stretches for several blocks. If I wait on either of these streets, I’ll miss the inauguration!! I backtrack to 12th Street. Here, another long line awaits, but the line is shorter.  I get in it.


I wait in this line for over an hour, inching along all of 14 feet in this agonizingly slow-moving line. After all this frustrating waiting and inching, a police officer mounts a platform and uses a bullhorn to announce to us that these lines are for those who want to watch the parade on Pennsylvania Ave. Those wishing to go to the Mall must go north, walk several blocks east to cross at a tunnel, then walk several blocks west to enter the Mall on the south side (!!!!!).


Thousands of us, horrified and infuriated about the fact that this crucial information was not made available to us by the security system, move en masse toward the tunnel. As an aside, I am certain that this information blunder by the security folks meant that many thousands ended up unintentionally changing their prior plans. They will watch the parade, instead of their intent of watching the inauguration. One would think that after 44 inaugurations, DC would get it right. How? Oh, I don’t know. How about putting up huge signs at these closed street intersections informing people what the lines were for and where to go to get to the Mall? And maybe mentioning this on the local TV news in the morning (I watched to check for such info). Or informing police officers of this information (I asked one at the metro station). Not a single word mentioned on the TV news. And the cop didn’t have a clue. This is not rocket science. But after 44 tries, apparently it is…


Having wasted over an hour in this line to a place where I don’t want to be, I break into a slow run for most of the 25 blocks where I can enter the Mall. Not a bad thing to be running, mind you, as the exertion warms me up on this frigid morning.


I finally arrive at the Mall over two hours after my “military insurgency” has started at a metro station no more than a five-minute walk to the Mall.


The estimated crowd of about 2 million of us gather around the Jumbotrons lining the Mall. We are treated to close-up views of governors (including The Terminator), elected senators, members of the House, former presidents, and assorted other luminaries (such as Howard Dean) as they walk through the corridors of the Capitol from their limo motorcades.


When the recent presidential hopefuls emerge—McCain, Hillary Clinton, Gore, and Kerry—I cannot help but presume that each of them regretfully wishes that it was they who were being inaugurated on this brisk winter day. But then I realize that as they looked out in utter awe at the assembled masses of millions on the Mall who had come for what amounts to the Obama coronation, it occurs to me that they must admit to themselves that this is Obama’s moment. That they could have never managed to be so adored by so many millions of well-wishers assembled before them.


Oddly, there is a live microphone at the platform where the inauguration is to take place. With this mike (and no play-by-play from a Jumbotron announcer), those of us in the Mall are either guessing who we are seeing on the screen in front of us, or listening in to the idle chit-chat of these national government luminaries taking their seats. Do any of them have any idea that millions of us on the Mall are listening to their inane comments? Fortunately, no one says anything…embarrassing.


At the end of this long procession, the crowd roars as we see Obama striding confidently toward the platform from within the Capitol Building corridors. He appears so cool and calm that he seems almost bored by the whole thing, even though this is not only the biggest moment of his life, but perhaps one of the biggest moments in anyone’s life – and with the whole world watching, no less.


His address, as is so often the case, is stirring and inspiring. I wonder whether any of his statements will end up being timeless, along the lines of “Don’t ask what your country can do for you…” The speculation is that the return to “responsibility” will be the most important message from Obama.


One thing I tip my hat to Obama for, in his remarks, is his acknowledgement that we must extend full rights and privileges to all races, stations, and creeds – including that of nonbelievers. I am certain that this is the very first time that an inaugural US president has acknowledged the existence, let alone the rights, of those who are non-religious. Extraordinarily impressive.


Many times before and during the inaugural speeches, a number of people on the Mall tried, unsuccessfully, to begin a loud chant (such as “OBAMA!!!OBAMA!!!OBAMA!!!”). But no chants seemed to sustain themselves. I believe this was because the Mall is an unconfined space. Without being surrounded by stadium or arena walls, even a unified chant of hundreds does not reverberate. Without the thunder found within an enclosed space, there is nothing to propel or frenzy us with. It is an important urban design lesson for us. The lesson of the importance of enclosed, human-scaled spaces. Without that, we are atomized, alone, and uninspired. We are not able to feel the inspiration of community.


The cheering and flag-waving of the throng on the Mall was frequently captured by the Jumbotrons. Sorry for my repeated military metaphors, but the image appeared strikingly like what it must have looked like to Roman Emperors as they looked out at a sea of the legions of the Roman Empire. We have truly become (Modern) Romans.


After those at the Mall starting thinning out, a thick blanket of litter (mostly newspapers) is left behind on the grounds – emblematic of what American has shamefully become.


I look up, and the timing could not be better. It is George and Laura Bush, freshly ex president and First Lady, flying over me in the presidential departure helicopter on their way back to Texas. Good riddance…


I go inside the Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian (on the Mall). It is my first time inside. Mercifully, the Museum has been opened up to allow the frozen thousands to warm up. I take the opportunity to walk through and admire the impressive aircraft and space exhibits.


After returning my body to a temperature a few degrees above hypothermia (and eating my “K-ration” bag lunch of a bagel, a banana, and an energy bar), I head for a metro station – thinking that the number of people at the inauguration has thinned sufficiently after several hours.


I run into the first of many streets that are blocked off by security fences, and am forced to backtrack. The first two metro stations I find are so jammed with people that I pass them by. I head for Union Street. There, an enormous number has gathered. Once again, due to the absence of signs, thousands wait a long time in the massive assemblage of humanity, only to learn from a security guard who happens to be standing nearby that those looking for Amtrak must walk to the other side of the building to board!


Would it have been too difficult to place a large banner on the Union Street building to inform us where to go??


Fortunately, I am using not Amtrak but metro on this day, and I am quickly on my way back to my sister-in-law’s house.


It is now 12 hours after my odyssey has begun.



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