CHICAGO — Renee Pearcey anxiously awaited voting results from her home state of Florida — an electoral battleground — in Grant Park on Tuesday night.
But long before the Sunshine State was called, the show was over.
At 10 p.m. local time, Sen. Barack Obama had officially been projected the next president of the United States, eliciting roaring cheers from the hundreds of thousands who had assembled here for an unprecedented election-night rally that was part Woodstock, part Fourth of July.
While 70,000 ticketed guests were admitted to Hutchinson Field to see the stage where Obama spoke, the rest of the visitors — about 170,000 of them — streamed first into Petrillo Music Shell and then throughout the surrounding Butler Field, where attendees watched CNN’s election coverage on six Jumbotrons.
News of Obama’s win came just moments after the contested state of Virginia was called in the Illinois senator’s favor — an earlier-than-expected jump start to a victory celebration that would last all night.
A chorus of chanting began, as pockets of spectators joined in refrains of: “Yes we can! Yes we can!,” “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” and “O-bama! O-bama!”
One girl in a group of female students from Chicago’s North Park University, overwhelmed, shed tears of joy, not unlike many in the crowd. The girls’ plans for the rest of the night?
“Bubbly for Barack!” one shouted.
On an unseasonably warm night, the rally drew a mixed crowd, with many young people in attendance. Although alcohol was technically prohibited, attendees stole sips from bottles and flasks in celebration.
Alejandro Trevino, a student at the nearby School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had brought with him a several-foot-high canvas painting he had created of Obama, showing the senator against a purple-pink background, his brow furrowed and his head resting on his fisted hand.
“I wanted to do something for tonight,” Trevino explained.
Pearcey, an art teacher who canvassed for Obama in her state, said she had made the trip from her hometown of Tampa because she “didn’t want to sit at home mad” if Florida went to McCain.
“He’s got new ideas,” she said of Obama. “He’s fresh. He’s serious.”
After McCain’s concession speech and a selection of songs, the moment that had drawn hundreds of thousands of people to Chicago finally arrived.
People climbed trees, park gazebos and portable toilets to catch a glimpse of the president-elect.
When Obama’s long-awaited appearance became an on-screen reality at 11 p.m., the moment finally felt real. “He’s our president!” one crowd member noted, as if experiencing an epiphany.
After the speech, which echoed the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago resident Gail Gottner sat on a bench to soak in the scene.
“I think this is just phenomenal,” she said.
The news marked the arrival of the country’s first black president-elect, though Gottner said that more than anything, she is glad the nation has elected a capable, “quality” leader.
But when the night was over, downtown was transformed. Streets became pedestrian walkways as people poured through the city, cheering, singing and smiling. A sea of revelers flooded Michigan Avenue, where vendors sold “Yes We Did” shirts and pins, among other Obama paraphernalia. The city’s elevated rail system, the “L,” became so overcrowded that security officials soon had to turn people away, leaving many to walk home. At least one man was bleeding in the street, where police officers attended to him.
Amid the screaming and crying in the park, Gottner stepped outside the immediate euphoria of the moment to put the night in context.
“This is history,” she said.