Former President Bill Clinton has officially opened his office in Harlem, the center of African-American culture in New York City. The community welcomed him with open arms.
Hundreds of Harlem community leaders and residents celebrated the arrival of their new neighbor Monday with a traditional block party along 125th Street, Harlem's central shopping area and the location of Mr. Clinton's new office.
The scene was reminiscent of a political rally, with local officials on a red, white and blue-bedecked stage with the former President. But the spirit was more like that of a street fair, with music and food donated by local businesses.
Local baker Winzle Clayton decorated a cake in red, white and blue. "It is two layer cakes. It is a total of 16 layers with assorted fillings," he said. "For instance, we have strawberry in some, chocolate in some, pineapple in some and lemon."
Mr. Clinton told the crowd he feels like home in Harlem. And he hopes his new address will help him get a chance to finally play his saxophone at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater.
"I dreamed when I was a young musician that one day I might be like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington," Mr. Clinton said. "Well, I never made it to play at the Apollo. But I have eaten at Sylvia's and I ain't dead yet. I may play there yet before it is over."
Mr. Clinton initially planned on moving into an office in the expensive midtown section of Manhattan. But he changed plans after an uproar in the local media concerning the rent and found office space in Harlem for one-third the cost. As a former president, Mr. Clinton's office is paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
After years of being plagued by poverty, drugs and crime, Harlem is now enjoying the fruits of New York's prosperity. New restaurants, hotels, and shops beckon foreign visitors and New Yorkers who have not ventured to Harlem in years.
Terry Lane, one of the organizers of the welcoming events, says Mr. Clinton's decision to locate his office in Harlem is a great moment not only for Harlem, but for all of urban America. "President Clinton's coming here helps to buttress the economic fiber as well as sending a signal to leaders across the country that the urban agenda must be put on the forefront and should be put on the forefront," he said.
Mr. Clinton has close ties with many prominent Harlem leaders. And African-Americans have been a bedrock of support throughout his political career, which he acknowledged during his speech. "You were there on the darkest days and the best days," he said. "And I want you to know I want to be a good neighbor in Harlem on the best days and the dark days for all the people who live here."
Still, there are critics who fear the former President's presence in the neighborhood will accelerate Harlem's revitalization and, in the process, send rents soaring and push out longtime residents.
Mr. Clinton recognized those concerns. "What I am going to do here is try to promote economic opportunity in our backyard, around our country and around the world, to try to help people to work against AIDS, and other diseases and ignorance and for education in our backyard and around the world, to try to help people make a community out of all this crazy diversity we have here in our backyard," he said.
Mr. Clinton's 14th floor Harlem office overlooks Central Park. His staff began moving in last week but the former president was waiting for some last-minute work to be completed. Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton has already become accepted as a New Yorker. He is frequently seen attending the theater, charity events and fund-raisers.