Harlem gave President Barack Obama a mixed, but mostly warm welcome on Tuesday night.
President Obama made the trip uptown for a fundraising dinner to support his reelection campaign—the first time he has been to Harlem since his election. And while the crowds of local residents were excited for a glimpse at the leader of the free world, some had their misgivings about the nature of his stop.
Barricades and trucks blocked the streets around Red Rooster for a block on all sides, keeping the hundreds gathered around from seeing most of the action at 125th and Lenox Avenue. The six-table dinner fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee cost $30,800 a head.
In an area that has intensely supported Obama and where the median income is $25,000, some in the crowd were vocal in their disapproval of Obama’s choice of venue.
“Harlem would be a good location if he was actually doing something for the community,” said recent San Francisco transplant Robert Moore. “But he has salt trucks blocking the community from even seeing him.”
Still, for many others the barricades were simply a source of excitement.
Tom Mariotti saw barricades set up along 125th Street on his way to work at 9 a.m. and wondered what they were for. At 7 p.m., he was waiting for the President to leave the restaurant.
“This event isn’t meant for everybody to go and dine with him,” Mariotti said. “Of course he chose Harlem, he’s the first black president, he’s in New York, there’s no reason not to be here. It’s a perfect location, a nice restaurant, and he’s raising money. I support him 100 percent. He has the toughest job in the country, maybe the world.”
Obama arrived at about 6:30 p.m., taking a roundabout Fifth Avenue route in a black SUV, waving to onlookers from behind a tinted window.
Strolling around outside of the restaurant was Dan Chevreux, 12, the son of restaurant consultant Alain Chevreux, who was part of the crowd that dined with Obama.
“They’re in the basement,” he said. “They won’t let me in, but people are really excited.”
Harlem-born resident Ron Grantt waited since 2 p.m. to see Obama and said she understood the purpose of dinner.
“He has his reasons,” Grantt said. “He needs to gather funds. He’s not a rich person like Bloomberg, and he wants a select crowd to support him. There’s a great feeling that the black vote was what got him over during the election, and by him not coming back to say thank you, it doesn’t sit well, but I understand. I have to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Harlem resident Thomas Carswell agreed.
“I don’t have any problem with it whether it’s done at the Waldorf Astoria or in Harlem. I wish it was $50,000 or $100,000,” he said.
The price to enter the event—$30,800—is also the maximum amount that a donor can give to a national political party. There was another reason for the choice of Red Rooster, which opened in December 2010: its owner Marcus Samuelsson is the celebrity chef who also presided as chef at Obama’s first White House state dinner.
Protestors included James David Manning, the controversial pastor of the All The Land Anointed Holy World Missionary Church, who stood outside the restaurant with about 50 protestors behind him in a straight line, silently holding signs.
But others were quick to denounce those seeking to malign Obama.
“I disapprove of the way they are going about things,” said 61-year-old Thomas Carswell, on the opposite side of Manning and his supporters. “He’s our president! This is a man of God and he should get more respect.”
Afterward, Obama left to give what DNC officials described as a thank-you speech at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Resident Barbara Stanley captured the cynical but hopeful view that many in Harlem expressed, quipping dryly, “Maybe he’ll come out the subway.”