Out with the old and in with the — what?
With the nation at war on two foreign fronts, the economy uncertain, terrorism a threat and environmental catastrophe on the list of possible destinies, a sense of starting fresh remains elusive for many, who wonder what sort of new legacy they can build beginning on Jan. 1, 2010.
"The meaning of the new decade is going to be diminished by the hangover of the last decade," says Bob Batchelor, professor of mass communications at Kent State University and author of "The 2000s," published before the decade was even done. "That makes it tough to be as optimistic as Americans usually are."
In the spirit of fresh beginnings, people around the world planned Thursday to celebrate the transition. In New York's Times Square, new giant digits are in place to mark the new decade, as are 3,000 pounds of confetti.
Sitting with his wife and two daughters in a Manhattan atrium as they discuss plans to celebrate the new year with family, D.J. Alemayehu says he is finding it hard to feel positive about the future after the last decade's jumble of bad news and nagging worries.
"It's very muddled. There's no clear policy. There's no clear direction," says the Englewood, Colo., resident. "We're not in control of much, individually or as a nation."
For this family, it is left to the younger generation to seize hold of optimism. At the end of the only decade she has known, young Escadar sounds a positive note: "I'm just excited because I'm turning 10!"
She will remember the last decade primarily for the election of the nation's first black president, Escadar says. And in 10 years, when she's looking ahead to the '20s — and her twenties? Life, she believes, will be even better.
Older observers have a hard time seeing such a clear path.
For 45-year-old Manhattanite Susana Buencamino, the last decade was defined by a single act of terrorism and its myriad repercussions.
"Sept. 11, 2001. That changed the whole decade," the systems analyst says near her midtown office. Looking forward to the coming years, one thing seems certain. "The terrorists will still be around."
"All of us, we're going to be worried. Wherever we are," she says.
Such a wary outlook is no surprise after a 10-year stretch that started with fears of Y2K disaster and never quite regained its footing, says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
"If people were looking for an apocalypse, they kind of got one," he says, listing a string of chaotic milestones, beginning with the contested election of 2000 and the Sept. 11 attacks and ending with the economic crisis and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When one looks at the end of this decade, it's good riddance. ... It's a time to wipe the slate clean," he says.
Planned celebrations are taking many forms, with concerts, fireworks, and the timed drop of favorite local symbols.
In the Tennessee cities of Memphis and Nashville, organizers plan to drop a 10-foot, red guitar. In Atlanta, an 800-pound fiberglass peach is to take a 138-foot plunge. In North Carolina, Brasstown, near the Georgia border, will have its annual opossum drop, Mount Olive drops a 3-foot glowing pickle, and the capital city of Raleigh lowers a giant acorn. In Eastport, Maine, an 8-foot wooden sardine is dropped. And in Times Square, an 11,875-pound ball covered with more than 32,000 bulbs is in place to be lowered at midnight.
In Boston, more than 1,000 artists and performers are participating in the "First Night" celebrations. Artists plan to display six ice sculptures, including a recreation of one of the Boston Museum of Fine Art's 4,000 year old Egyptian sculptures.
And in Chicago, the city's Transit Authority is offering rides for a penny to help residents and visitors get in place for fireworks displays planned during the evening and at midnight.
At Times Square, organizers planned to mix about 10,000 handwritten wishes into the thousands of pounds of confetti to be dropped over the crowds. They include appeals for the safe return of the troops, continued employment and a cure for diabetes.
The hundreds of thousands of New York City revelers brought out heightened police security, displayed a day earlier when police evacuated several blocks around Times Square to investigate a parked van without license plates.
Police and other officials planned radiation sweeps for biological contaminants in the area and a command center was to be staffed by FBI, New York and regional police. Thousands of officers were to staff Times Square, where revelers will be banned from carrying backpacks and open bottles.
Among the revelers eager to see the ball drop in Times Square are 23-year-old Leonardo Colombo and 31-year-old Gilberto Oliveira — both visiting from Sao Paolo, Brazil, where they have seen the last decade transform their nation with the promise of economic power and new wealth.
Their fears are tempered by a sense of possibility.
Oliveira says the decade now in its final hours was defined by "the development of technology and the evolution of communication," changes he believes will soon give us medical advances and new tools to improve our lives.
His friend adds: "The new year is a time for change."
"What defines the new decade? Hope."