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Harlem street jam welcomes Clinton to new office

Cicely Tyson, Clinton
Harlem native and mistress of ceremonies Cicely Tyson welcomes Clinton.  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Proclaiming Harlem as his home Monday, former President Bill Clinton said he wants to help revitalize the largely African-American district and use his new office there as a base for a global initiative to fight AIDS and poverty.

"What I'm going to do here is to try to help promote economic opportunity in our back yard, in our country and around the world," Clinton said in a speech that resonated with political undertones.

Political leaders from the African-American community and the New York area praised Clinton throughout the lengthy outdoor rally, celebrating the former president's first day in his Harlem office.

"Now I feel like I'm home," Clinton said as the crowd cheered. The celebration got under way Monday morning, just blocks from Clinton's new office on 125th street.

Clinton explained that his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York's Democratic junior senator, and daughter Chelsea were not at the ceremony because of a family illness.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa reports on local reaction to the opening of Bill Clinton's new office in Harlem (July 30)

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CNN's Brian Palmer has more of the neighborhood's reaction

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Gov. George Pataki proclaimed Monday as "William Jefferson Clinton Day" in Harlem.

Supporters chanted "We Want Bill" while a small group of protesters told the Arkansas native to "go home."

Clinton abandoned plans earlier this year to rent office space in Carnegie Towers, a midtown building that would have cost twice the amount of his Harlem office.

In the wake of that controversy, the former president said he chose the New York neighborhood of Harlem because he wanted to be part of the federal empowerment zone -- which provides federal aid for an economically depressed area -- he helped to create.

"It was very significant that ... former President Clinton would have his office located here in central Harlem," said Terry Lane, president and CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. "His being here helps to budget the economic fiber of urban America."

However, not everyone thinks Clinton's arrival will spark an economic resurgence. About a dozen members of the New Black Panther Party voiced their disapproval during Monday's celebrations, telling Clinton to go back to Arkansas and chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" Members of the radical, largely African-American group believe Clinton's move could increase rent so that local businesses would be forced out of the area.

"I want to make sure I'm a good neighbor in Harlem," Clinton said. "I'm glad the property values are going up, but I don't want the small business people to be run out because I'm coming in."

Clinton: "I want you to know that I want to be a good neighbor...on the best days and the dark days, for all the people here in Harlem."  

The U.S. government pays for office space for retired presidents for life, including $93,000 a year for former President Carter's Atlanta office and $285,000 a year for former President Reagan's Los Angeles office.

Clinton's 8,300-square-foot office, which has a private bathroom and a personal shower, will cost about $354,000 a year, after renovations. That's about half of the $700,500 price tag for the midtown office Clinton was considering. However, some critics feel taxpayers should not have to pay former presidents' rents.

"This is nothing more than corporate welfare for Bill Clinton, incorporated," said John Berthoud of the National Taxpayers Union. "He's going to have earning potential of millions and millions of dollars because he's a former president. There's no reason in the world we should be paying, taxpayers should be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to subsidize his office space. It's ridiculous."

Berthoud noted that his organization's stance is not a partisan issue.

"We criticized it when President Reagan got his pension and his office space," he said.

-- CNN correspondents Brian Palmer and Maria Hinojosa contributed to this report

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