WSJ: For Inaugural, Obama Faithful Say It's Washington or Bust
Hurdles Aside, They Vie to Witness History; Princely Room Rates at the Red Roof Inn ((($700 a night -- 100 x the regular rates, babe!)))
WASHINGTON -- Well before Barack Obama vaulted ahead in pre-election polls, Donnette Dunbar and her husband, Larry English, were making plans to attend the Presidential inauguration. So back in June, the couple bought train tickets and booked hotel accommodations in Washington, D.C.: $700 for one night at the Red Roof Inn downtown.
"We want to be among that sea of people just basking in the flow of change," says Ms. Dunbar, co-owner of a New York public-relations firm. "I said to my husband, 'What price is history?' And he said, 'Book the darn room.' "
The couple is part of a groundswell of African-Americans determined to get to Washington on Jan. 20 to be part of an event many thought they'd never witness. Many are vowing to make the trip in the absence of solid plans -- such as where they can sleep, or how they might score tickets to the inauguration and the balls and parties leading up to the big day. Residents of the nation's capital, meanwhile, are readying their homes for an influx of out-of-town guests.
"I think the trek to Washington, D.C., right on the heels of the [Martin Luther] King holiday, for many of us will be akin to a kind of spiritual pilgrimage," says Raphael Warnock, 39-year-old pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King was once co-pastor with his father. Mr. Obama spoke at the church early in his run for office.
President-elect Obama's inauguration is reminiscent of historic black gatherings like the massive 1963 rally in Washington, where Dr. King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and the huge Million Man March in 1995 that called for black men to support each other and revitalize their communities.
Unlike those events, which attracted predominantly black Americans, the inauguration is expected to draw people of many races and backgrounds eager to witness Mr. Obama -- the nation's first black president -- take office.
Rosslyn, Va. resident Marc Raimondi, who is white, says he has been bombarded with emails from friends and family about the proceedings. His mother will be coming down from Massachusetts, along with others who've expressed little interest in past inaugurals. "Regardless of your political affiliation, you can't deny that this election has really moved people,"says Mr. Raimondi, who works in public relations.
Inauguration ceremonies have emerged as mileposts in American history before. John F. Kennedy's inauguration speech, for instance, inspired many in the post- World War II generation to pursue public service.
A total of roughly 240,000 tickets are likely to be issued for Mr. Obama's swearing-in, according to Carole Florman, a spokeswoman for the congressional organizing committee for the ceremonies. Some tickets have been set aside for members of the media; the rest will be distributed by members of Congress and the president-elect's own inauguration committee. Around 1,600 will be reserved for dignitaries.
The District of Columbia's municipal government is "bracing" for the influx, and has its own local committee coordinating public safety, national security and transportation for the event, says Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for the city's mayor.
While the city has only some 29,000 hotel rooms, there are approximately 100,000 within the greater metropolitan area, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia, says Chris Gieckel, a spokesman for the local tourism agency.
At this point, hotel rooms in the Washington, D.C. area are extremely scarce. Despite some rates surpassing the $1,000 per night mark, rooms are also booking, on average, three times faster than for the last inauguration, according to the travel Web site Expedia.com. Many hotels have imposed two- and three-night minimum stays.
Private citizens are picking up some of the slack. As soon as Mr. Obama won the election, Ona Dosunmu started hearing from friends wanting to stay at her house in Washington's Mount Pleasant area. She's agreed to host two families from Boston and New York with a total of six children -- in addition to her own two kids. "The challenge," says the 42-year-old general counsel for a non-profit organization, "is we only have one bathroom."
The Web site Craigslist is crammed with ads offering townhouses and apartments for inaugural stays. An ad posted Friday listed a one-bedroom unit, described as four blocks from the Capitol, at $5,000 for a week-long rental.
Rev. Floyd Flake of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in New York, disgusted by steep accommodation prices, has settled on a day trip for his congregation. The former U.S. Congressman says the church will charter buses in addition to the three it owns but hasn't yet sorted out the details.
The 63-year-old minister has warned his flock that it will be cold outside and spectators will likely be standing very far away from Mr. Obama. "For people in my age group, it's the remembrance of what you went through and the joy of being able to see this. For [younger people,] Obama means to them what MLK meant to us," he says.
Indeed, many say the journey is about witnessing history with family. Eileen Reed, a 61-year-old member of the Cincinnati public school board, is flying with her husband and 87-year-old mother to join her daughters, grandchildren and other relatives.
"We'll have four generations and it means a lot to all of us," she says, adding that they'll be staying with one of her daughters in nearby Maryland. Another of her daughters, India Gary, is flying in from London and booked her $450 roundtrip ticket on Wednesday.
"All the black Americans I know here are coming," says 38-year-old Ms. Gary. She has lived overseas for 10 years, works in financial services at a London-based investment bank, and flew back to the States briefly this summer to volunteer for Mr. Obama's campaign. She says she is "calling everybody I know" to get inaugural ball access.
For Christa Mangrum of Dallas, her sister and a friend from Atlanta, the trip will be about making a journey that their mothers, who died this year, couldn't. They'll wear buttons bearing pictures of the two women. "We want a visual representation to say that Linda Jean and Mimi will be there," she says.—Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.
Write to Melanie Trottman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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