Hundreds of thousands gathered at the crossroads of the world to witness a crystal ball with more than 30,000 lights descended at midnight. Lady Gaga and Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the crowd in the final-minute countdown of the famed crystal-paneled ball drop.
Many approached the new year with more relief than joy, as people battered by weather disasters, joblessness and economic uncertainty hoped the stroke of midnight would change their fortunes.
"It was a pretty tough year, but God was looking after us and I know 2012 has got to be better," said Kyralee Scott, 16, of Jackson, N.J., whose father spent most of the year out of work.
Some New York revelers, wearing party hats and "2012" glasses, began camping out Saturday morning, even as workers readied bags stuffed with hundreds of balloons and technicians put colored filters on klieg lights. The crowds cheered as workers lit the crystal-paneled ball that drops at midnight Saturday and put it through a test run, 400 feet above the street. The sphere, now decorated with 3,000 Waterford crystal triangles, has been dropping to mark the new year since 1907, long before television made it a U.S. tradition.
In Times Square, hundreds of thousands people were crammed into spectator pens ringed by barricades, enjoying surprisingly warm weather for the Northeast this time of year. The National Weather Service said Saturday it was about 49 degrees in nearby Central Park. That's about 10 degrees warmer than the normal high temperature this time of year.
As the country prepared for the celebration, glum wasn't on the agenda for many, even those who had a sour year.
"We're hoping the next year will be better," said Becky Martin, a former elementary school teacher who drove from Rockford, Ill., to Times Square after spending a fruitless year trying to find a job. "We're starting off optimistic and hoping it lasts."
Many expressed cautious hope that better times were ahead after a year in which Japan was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami, hurricanes wreaked havoc across the country and a debt crisis devastated Europe's economy.
"Everybody's suffering. That's why it's so beautiful to be here celebrating something with everybody," said Lisa Nicol, 47, of Melbourne, Australia.
For all of the holiday's bittersweet potential, New York City always treats it like a big party - albeit one that now takes place under the watchful eye of a massive security force, including more than 1,500 police officers.
Dick Clark, who suffered a stroke in 2004, put in a few brief appearances mentioning that he has hosted his namesake New Year's Eve celebration for years, but said "tonight, it's better than ever." Clark, looking cheerful but struggling with his speech, introduced a performance by Lady Gaga and also assisted in the countdown. The show, hosted by Ryan Seacrest also featured a performance by Justin Bieber.
The weather was mild for the celebration with evening temperatures still in the 40s That's about 10 degrees warmer than normal.
One reveler from Ecuador says the weather is "amazing."
Ron Martin says he's super-excited to be in the city to mark the beginning of 2012.
The clean-up began as soon as the celebration ended. City Sanitation Department spokesman Keith Mellis says 149 workers converged on Times Square as New Year's Eve celebration ended early Sunday. They used 22 trucks, 24 mechanical sweepers and 37 backpack blowers to clear an estimated 40 to 50 tons of confetti, party hats and other remainders of the revelry.
Mellis says Times Square reopened to traffic at 6 a.m. Sanitation workers are still there tidying up remaining bits debris, such as confetti that is belatedly wafting to the ground from widowsills and rooftops.
Meanwhile, dozens of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators tried to return to Zuccotti Park, the plaza they held for two months before police kicked them out in November. On Saturday night, they were again met by police. (CLICK TO SEE PHOTOS)
Shortly after midnight, the protesters began marching down lower Broadway toward Zuccotti Park. It was the largest such demonstration since the protest movement was evicted from the park where it began. A large police presence was summoned to the march route, including mounted units. Clashes and arrests soon followed. Officials confirmed one police officer had been injured, but remained in stable condition. No official word on how many protesters were arrested.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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