Prospects for an Obama presidency are wearing especially well in Harlem

By Ayman Oghanna200810282249901-election1.JPG
Special to The Daily Star
NEW YORK: Below the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building, Olivia Harris sets up shop in the shade at the street stalls on 125th Street – the heart of Harlem. Handmade T-shirts, baseball caps, and buttons are all carefully placed on a white plastic picnic table. Interested, a lady in a blue business suit approaches to examine a $10 t- shirt.

“Do you have the one with ‘Hope’ on?” she asks.

“Hang on,” says Harris, reaching into a pile of folded clothes. “No,” she sighs, “No ‘Hope.’ I got a lot of ‘CHANGE.’ You want ‘Change?”

“I can do ‘Change.'”

Shirt sold. Harris hands over the black t-shirt. Printed below the letters “C-H-A-N-G-E” is an image of the man responsible for the sale. In the vivid red, white and blue printed on the shirt, Barack Obama, the best-selling face on the streets of Harlem, stands out.

With just days left until the US presidential election, the Obama street brand is booming. The first African-American candidate to earn a major party’s nomination for president, Obama is also the face of Harlem’s hottest street merchandise. His face is plastered on hats, sweatshirts, buttons and badges. He smiles on pictures, perfumes, posters and pins. From rhinestone-encrusted watches to refrigerator magnets, some slice of the nominee is available to buy at almost every street stall.

Success at the stalls is a reflection of Harlem’s electoral energy for Obama. Many vendors describe their motives for selling as being political, not economic, and customers don’t just flock to the stalls to buy merchandise. Stalls are becoming places for people to engage in political debate and to register to vote using the forms some vendors provide. However, there isn’t a John McCain or Sarah Palin badge in sight.

A Harlem street vendor for over 50 years, 83-year-old Robert Smalls can’t recall another figure ever having such an impact at vendors’ tables.

“He’s bigger than everything up until now,” Smalls says, holding a t-shirt picturing Obama next to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

“People have never been so excited,” he says, adding that as the election draws closer, sales of merchandise are rising. Smalls says he is introducing a new Obama street item each week.

Both white European tourists and local residents have been flocking to Smalls’ stall. The World War II veteran cites their excitement as proof of Obama’s unique political potency.

“The man is going to change the world,” he says.

Across the street from Smalls, Victoria Lassiter unloads more “Yes we can!” shirts from her van. Four months ago Lassiter, 55, started selling a few Obama shirts as a side product at her oil and fragrance stand. Now Obama is her biggest seller. Shirts for $10 and $5 caps bearing his name sit in place of incense burners and oils. Lassiter even created two homemade fragrances: “Obama” for men and “Michelle,” named after the candidate’s wife, for women. Since she started selling Obama products, three months ago, Lassiter estimates that people have bought more than 350 t-shirts from her.

“I don’t have to sell him, the man sells himself,” she says, “People run up excited and say, “Man, you got Obama?”

Monika Webb, a customer at the stall, says that buying an Obama shirt is the perfect way of making both a political and fashion statement.

“It shows my support, it gets people excited and it looks better than a badge,” she says.

With every purchase Lassiter reminds her customers to vote and, like some other vendors captivated with the candidate, keeps a stack of voter registration forms close at hand.

Despite never having sold political merchandise before, all three Harlem vendors describe their selling as a political task, not an economic one.

Growing up during the depression, Smalls is able to say with rare authority that he sees in Obama a hope he hasn’t witnessed since Roosevelt. Harris and Lassiter donate portions of their profits directly to the campaign and both women view their vocations as a duty rather than simply work.

“Some people do it for the money, [but] my main reason for getting into it was to get the drum beating, to bring our country together,” Lassiter says, proud to help the candidate she calls a “gift sent down from God.”

The enthusiasm trickles down to their customers. Around their stalls, the conversation inevitably turns political.

“Did you see Michelle on Larry King last night?” a female customer asks Harris. “Wasn’t she amazing?”

Over at Harlem For Obama, members of the campaign staff view the excitement surrounding the street stalls as one small part of the community’s political mobilization.

“The streets are saturated with Obama stuff because people here are passionate,” says Chet Whye at the Harlem For Obama office at 133rd Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

Whye said he was often taken aback by the amount of merchandise being sold, overwhelmed by signs of Harlem’s support for the candidate.

“I’ve seen grown men stand in front of that piece of cardboard with tears in the eyes,” Whye says, pointing at the almost-life-size cardboard cutout of Obama greeting visitors when they enter the building. “It’s been an emotional campaign.”