D.C. readies as millions head to city

Obama’s inaugural events are expected to draw unprecedented crowds.

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty images
Historic: A D.C. police officer keeps an eye on the VIP podium where Barack Obama will be sworn in as president.

Sonya Ali is bracing herself for Inauguration Day. Since Barack Obama ate lunch last Saturday at her family’s diner – Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington landmark – folks have been stopping by to see where the president-elect sat and then order what he had: a chili half-smoke and sweet tea.

But nothing will compare with the crowds expected on Jan. 20, when the District of Columbia will play host to an unprecedented crush of humanity, coming to witness history as America inaugurates its first black president.

Predictions range from 1.5 million to 3 million visitors, but who knows? Weather will be a factor. Around town, inaugural planning – both official and unofficial – has been in the works for months. Essential employees who work downtown are preparing to sleep at the office on inauguration eve, rather than risk traffic the next morning. Restaurants are laying in extra supplies.

“Fifty big cans of potato chips came in today, and 100 more are coming tomorrow,” says Ms. Ali. She predicts hours-long lines at Ben’s on Tuesday, “bigger than [at] our 50th anniversary last summer.”

Around the White House, signs of presidential turnover abound. Construction workers are putting the finishing touches to the reviewing stand for the inaugural parade.

Stepped up security has made it hard for tourists to take the usual snapshots of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Across Lafayette Park, a stone’s throw from the White House, security around the Hay-Adams Hotel – the Obama family’s temporary residence – is presidential-level tight.

But it’s all the events of this long weekend, starting with a big concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, that have sent planners into overdrive. Around downtown D.C., portable toilets are sprouting up like mushrooms after a spring rain (a total of 5,000 are planned).

Each day, it seems, new details emerge for dealing with the expected masses. Visitors and local residents are being discouraged from driving into the city. Folks living or staying in Virginia who want to head into D.C. are going to have it especially tough: Personal vehicles will be banned from all Potomac River bridges from Virginia into the district beginning at 2 a.m. on Inauguration Day. That’s the thanks Virginia gets for voting for Mr. Obama, some wags are muttering.

Layers of security

The Secret Service has mapped out street closures in D.C. for Inauguration Day, and authorities have already begun sealing off a several-square-mile area around the Capitol, where Obama will take the oath of office. More than 20,000 law enforcement personnel, some in plainclothes, plus bomb-sniffing dogs and air patrols will be deployed on Inauguration Day, according to published reports.

Inauguration-goers will face layers of security as they get closer to the Mall. Those who make it to the Mall, but are not among the 240,000 people with tickets to the swearing in, will be able to watch the festivities on JumboTrons. Those with tickets to the inaugural parade face a list of banned items, including: strollers, umbrellas, coolers, duffel bags, backpacks, and signs. People tempted to bring small children and babies might think twice.

Companies are marketing Inauguration Survival Kits, but it’s not hard to figure out what to wear and bring. Sensible shoes and layers of warm clothes top the list (all events are outdoors). Tissues, lip balm, hand sanitizer, and heat packs also make sense.

Cellular gridlock could also be an issue, leading to calling and texting delays. Wireless providers have spent several months temporarily expanding capacity, but if everyone decides to send a video of Obama saying “so help me God” to their aunt in Florida at the same time, nothing will go through. First responders will have a special code for their communications devices that will allow them to jump to the front of the line, if necessary.

The housing question has spawned stories about area residents renting out their homes to out-of-town visitors for five-figure sums, but the reality is more down to earth. At this point, a few hundred dollars a night can still get you a condo in Dupont Circle, within walking distance of all events. Some hotels still report vacancies. Many visitors are staying with friends and family. Some who live farther out in the suburbs are staying with friends who live closer in. Then there are the people (i.e., Republicans) fleeing town for the long weekend.

Mounting excitement

But when all is said and done about logistics, Washingtonians and their visitors are excited about the coming extravaganza.

“It will be joyous, and not official Washington,” says Mark Plotkin, who comments on all things D.C. for WTOP-FM radio. “There will be a sense of exuberance and euphoria, and also a diversion from all the bad stuff.”

Janet Ryder, an AFL-CIO employee from Philadelphia and Obama delegate at the Democratic convention, applied to be in the parade with the labor float, and was accepted. Now, she wouldn’t miss coming to D.C. for anything. She got a room at the Washington Hilton through connections, and she’s bringing her walking shoes – “plain, black, flat ugly shoes that feel good” – and long underwear.

“As I go around and talk to different community groups and organizations that I deal with in my job, people are into this inauguration like I’ve never, ever seen in my lifetime,” Ms. Ryder says. “And I’m 57 years old.”

Larry Breitkopf, an 80-something retiree from Skokie, Ill., who volunteered for Obama in Iowa, got a ticket to the inauguration from his congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky (D). But finding a place to stay took a lot of work. He tried university and religious connections, and finally got a place three blocks from the Capitol.

Was all the effort worth it? No question, he says, repeating what he told a Chicago TV interviewer: “The whole world will be watching, and I’ll be there.”

After the swearing in ceremony and inaugural parade, there will about 100 official parties, including 10 inaugural balls plus concerts and receptions. For the first time, there will be a “neighborhood inaugural ball,” featuring low-priced tickets and A-list talent, including Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and Alicia Keys. Obama will attend this ball first, then drop in on the nine others.

Star-gazing will be another pastime for inauguration-goers. Actor Will Smith told reporters in Los Angeles last month that he and his family are “definitely going.” “We’ll go there and just cry – probably two, three days in a row. Just lots of crying. We’ll probably cheer a lot, too,” he was quoted as saying in US Weekly.

Anyone who wants to catch a glimpse of Bruce Springsteen, John Legend, Sheryl Crow, Usher, Shakira, and others need only show up at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, for the opening “inaugural celebration” and free concert at 2:30 p.m.

Obama rolls and Biden brunches

Aside from lots of advance logistical planning, local restaurants are also getting into the inaugural act with special dishes.

Asia Nine is offering the “Obama Roll,” with mixed green vegetables. The “Biden Roll,” named for Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, contains crabmeat, cucumber, and wasabi cream sauce. In honor of the departing administration, there’s the Presidential Lame Duck Roll, containing roasted duck, cucumber, scallions, soy nuggets, and hoisin sauce.

For January, Nage is offering “Biden Brunches,” featuring a Biden impersonator performing political sketches and serving up “Bidenisms” – poking fun, no doubt, at the future veep’s tendency to talk for too long and at times off-message.

And for those who want an inexpensive inaugural treat, Ben & Jerry’s has temporarily renamed its butter pecan ice cream, “Yes Pecan!”

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