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Americans gather to cheer Obama -- together
PHILADELPHIA -- From the boisterous streets of New York to the suddenly silent casinos in Las Vegas and virtually everywhere in between, Americans celebrated Barack Obama's inauguration by answering his call for national unity: They gathered together.
"I knew I had to be with people for this moment, not just sitting at home by myself," said Amanda Hoff, 32, who skipped work to watch Tuesday's ceremonies with hundreds in a Philadelphia skyscraper. "It's the kind of moment where you'll always remember where you were when it happened."
Across the country at the plush Paramount Theater in Seattle, Christine Ditzler knew the feeling. The venue was filled to its 2,807-seat capacity and rocked with cheers when Obama gave his address.
"There was a lot of good energy," said Ditzler, a visiting student from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "It was nice to be around a lot of people rather than watching it alone at home."
The national crowds that craved fellowship included some 1,200 youngsters, most of them ninth and 10th grade boys, who watched on three big screens at Cleveland State University.
They stood up and cheered at the first live image of Obama walking to the ceremony. Two boys, side by side, held up placards reading "I AM a man," and "I AM now president."
The buzz of the Las Vegas Strip and the clang of slot machines were briefly silenced when casinos switched from ESPN to CNN. A handful of beauty queens, in town for the Miss America pageant, bowed their crowned-heads for the opening prayer.
Behind the scenes in the employee dining rooms, the cooks, waitresses and card dealers at The Mirage watched the transfer of power. Gathered around two TV -- one airing inaugural events in English, the other in Spanish -- the workers heard Obama call on Americans to make good on "the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
The crush of people trying to get into the Asylum Sports Bar & Grill in downtown Portland, Maine, forced organizers of an inaugural party there to turn people away.
Melinda Wilkins, 31, said she had to come because she felt the need to be with others. "I wanted to share -- what's the word? -- the powerfulness of this event with other people," she said.
In Boston, Barbara McDonald remembered feeling full of hope as a teenager watching President John F. Kennedy deliver his inaugural address. Nearly a half-century later, she got that same feeling watching Obama.
"I think he is going to do good things. He is going to do what Kennedy did for the country," the 66-year-old McDonald said, as she listened to Obama's speech -- along with about 700 other people -- at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
After Obama took the oath, the crowd -- including school children, senior citizens, whites, African-Americans and immigrants -- erupted in applause and gave the president a standing ovation.
In southern Ohio, Rhonda Evans, her children Naomi, 5, and Jeffrey, 4, and husband Jeffrey watched in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati.
"We thought it was important for them to see this and to be around other people to get the significance of this day," said Rhonda Evans. "They might not realize it now, but we can talk about it as a family and help them understand."
The significance of the day also wasn't lost in Topeka, Kan., where several hundred gathered at the national historic site dedicated to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring school segregation unconstitutional.
"I finally feel like I belong," said Carolyn Jackson, a 49-year-old federal employee who grew up in segregated Haynesville, La., a town of 4,000, in the 1960s. She recalled being 7 and wondering why she couldn't drink from certain water fountains in her school.
"If it wasn't for the Brown v. Board decision, I wouldn't have this job. I wouldn't be standing here," Jackson said. "This brings it all full circle." Claire Richardson knew Tuesday was going to be emotional. She helped organize a viewing party at Centennial Hall in Juneau, Alaska, that drew more than 1,200 people.
The gathering was a true community event, with people bringing potluck breakfast items, everything from muffins and rolls to quiche and salmon strips. Anticipating tears when Obama was sworn in, Richardson stocked up on tissue so every table would have a box.
"It was great to see him, but it was being with all those people," she said. "I thought part of the energy of this new presidency is when people come together to celebrate or to work out problems, and I thought this might a good beginning."
From barber shops and restaurants to college halls and churches, Illinoisans had special reason to pay attention -- Obama is a Chicagoan.
Some erupted in cheers. Some began to cry. Others sat in silent reflection as they shared a moment most had only dreamed about.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" 65-year-old Laverne Mangum yelled as Obama took the oath, then repeated over and over: "President of the United States Barack Obama."
"I think this is the most memorable day of my life, that I lived to see an African-American president," said Mangum, one of about 75 people who gathered at a restaurant in Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood.
The atmosphere inside the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis was equally festive, with about 700 people -- old, young, black and white.
"I'm moved to think that these kinds of gatherings are happening all over the country right now," said Chris Conry, who works for a nonprofit group that advocates for health care reform among other things.
In another theater -- this one at Occidental College in Los Angeles -- students in commemorative T-shirts snapped photos with a life-sized photograph of Obama under a warm morning sun, a dramatic difference from the chilly weather at the Capitol. A banner overhead said, "President Obama '83," his class at the college he left after two years.
Like Obama a generation before him, Sidney Matthews, an 18-year-old freshman from Oakland, Calif., said his eyes have been opened to a larger world while at Occidental.
"I wasn't interested in politics before him," Marshall said. "When he first started running, I didn't know if a black man could become president."
In Alabama cities large and small -- at historic Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham and the bridge where marchers were attacked in Selma in 1965 -- people marveled that an African-American was president less than 50 years after blacks won the right to vote in Southern states.
"It's like I'm someplace else. It's like I'm not in America," Beverly Branson, who teaches at Alabama State University in Montgomery, said at the auditorium.
History also loomed large at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Gerald Peterson watched Obama while standing next to the bus that Rosa Parks had ridden decades ago when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.
"I'm not sure that old bus even runs anymore, but I swear I saw it move just a bit when President Obama said `So help me God,"' said the 68-year-old Plymouth resident. "This is a great day -- for all Americans."
The dawn of Obama's presidency held a special meaning in Hawaii, whose residents provided the first islands-born president with his biggest majority of any state in November.
"I have a lot of expectations, a lot of hope, and I expect to see a lot of change," said Beth Charlton, 56, a Honolulu medical technician.
Cheers, prayers and tears of emotion greeted the sight of the 44th president in New York's Times Square, where hundreds of people gathered on a 27-degree day to watch the inauguration on a giant screen.
"We wanted to see the American people celebrate, so we came here to Times Square," said Camilo Munoz, 19, an engineering student from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "I think the whole world is proud."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)