Nearly a Quarter of a Million Fill Grant Park for Obama Victory Rally | WBEZ
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Nearly a Quarter of a Million Fill Grant Park for Obama Victory Rally

It's estimated that nearly a quarter of a million people packed Chicago's Grant Park last night to celebrate as Illinois Senator Barack Obama was elected President. About 70,000 were at the field near the south end of the park where Obama held his official rally. Thousands more watched jumbotrons all over the rest of Grant Park. Chicago Public Radio's Ben Calhoun was at the park and spent the day with people who came from all over the country to be there.

Related:
Sights and Sounds from Grant Park
Visit the Election File Blog for more from election night

By early afternoon, people were already gathering at Congress and Michigan on the west side of Grant Park.

As afternoon turned into evening, they shared early election returns—bought t-shirts and buttons.

With security high, they also got specific instructions about what they were not allowed to bring in with them.

RECORDING: Signs, banners, large bags, strollers, umbrellas, pets, blankets, lawn chairs, food and beverages, will not be permitted inside the premise.

Just outside the security gates—people looked for friends and family. Many also looked for tickets.

SEYMOUR: I was determined, whether I had a pass or not, I wanted to be here.

Chicagoan Will Seymour was walking north along Michigan.

Decked out in an Obama hat and t-shirt, he said he wanted to be at the park because he thought history would be made.

SEYMOUR: I was here when Harold got elected.

Seymour, like so many people milling around before the rally, talked about the day of the election as a time of nervous energy and eager anticipation.

SEYMOUR: Like Christmas. Waiting for Santa Claus to come.

ZING: Everybody's anticipating, and I know my wife is nervous to the point she's not talking, which is very unusual for her.

Kyle Zing from Naperville, just like Will Seymour was on looking for a ticket to the rally.

Now, Zing's wife had gotten a pair of tickets to the official campaign event—one for her, one for a guest.

ZING: We have one guest. Well her daughter is completely excited. This is her first election. So I bit the bullet and said 'Go have a great time.' And now I'm trying to beg for a guest ticket in so I can join them.

By 7 pm or so, most of the crowd had filtered into the campaign's official rally site, or into the overflow areas north of the rally.

They watched returns come in—cheering when states were called in Obama's favor.

ambi: CHEERING

But as the returns continued, and it became increasingly clear that Obama had won, the crowd seemed to hold back, clinging to a sense of disbelief.

That is until 10pm, when polls closed on the west coast and the race was officially called.

ambi: CHEERING

As the crowd erupted, people shouted and hugged each other—some broke down in tears.

The cheering went on for more than a minute. Then the crowds in Grant Park settled in for speeches from  the candidates.

First Senator John McCain conceded from his rally in his homestate of Arizona.

Several times, the Obama rally applauded McCain's speech as he struck a gracious bi-partisan tone that contrasted sharply with the long and sometimes bitter campaign.

MCCAIN: These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face. I urge all Americans...I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together.

Shortly after that, the crowd—the crowd, which had stood packed into the park for hours, got what it was there for.

OBAMA: Hello Chicago!

Throughout Obama's 17 minute speech, the crowd teetered constantly on the edge of applause.

OBAMA: To all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright—tonight we proved once more, that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

After the photo ops on stage, and after the rally was over—the crowds spilled out of Grant Park and on to Michigan Avenue.

Police closed the street to traffic, as people sang, danced, stood shouting from ledges and waving banners in the air.

CRISP: I enjoyed every bit of it. It's history. I love it. I love it.  I love it.  Couldn't have been no better.

Josette Crisp from Dolton and Greta Robinson from Long Beach, California, were sitting taking a breather as the crowds streamed by.

Robinson said as she made her way home, she was trying to put the events of the night in historical context.

ROBINSON: I remember stories my grandmother used to tell me, you know, and I'm imagining what she would be doing right now. She wouldn't believe this. The stories she used to tell me—she would have never thought that someone from the black community could actually have a chance to be president.

As Crisp and Robinson were talking two young white women walked up them, and out of the blue the four hugged.

SOUND: We did it, we did it SCREAMS

Still, some walking along Michigan last night, amidst all the celebrating, looked more thoughtful.

I ran into Ahmed Gordon as he was finishing a phone call, telling the person he was talking to “Yes we did” before hanging up.

GORDON: What else is there left? There are no more firsts. The firsts are done. That was the last first right there.

Just like Greta Robinson, Gordon said as he walked home he was putting the events of the evening in historical context—but also, in the context of his own life.

GORDON: You hear older African-Americans talk about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier—talking about Martin Luther King. I wasn't alive to see that. But this is my time to be alive to see something for the first time.  Something that later on I can tell the younger generation, 'I was there when Barack Obama became the first African-American President.' That is ridiculous.

Gordon said he was thinking about, well, one other thing too.

CALHOUN: When you get home tonight, what do you think you're going to be thinking about?
GORDON: Man. I got to get up in the morning and go to work.
CALHOUN: So you're going to work tomorrow?
GORDON: Yeah. I don't know how many other black folk going to work tomorrow. But I know I got to be there.

And with that, Gordon, continued on alone north on Michigan Avenue. Carrying a poster under one arm. Making his way through the crowds on his way home.

I'm Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio.

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