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Does America Really Need The National Mall?

The National Mall, looking west from the Capitol, pre-2007.
Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress
The National Mall, looking west from the Capitol, pre-2007.

Just a few weeks ago, the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall staged a music festival — featuring Drake and the Strokes — to benefit the remarkable public space in Washington, D.C., that includes some of America's most recognizable landmarks, including the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and Washington Monument.

The Trust reports that the festival drew an estimated 50,000 people and raised some $570,000 to be used for improving, preserving and restoring the Mall, which is sometimes known as "America's front yard."

Indeed. The National Mall, says Nancy Levinson, editor of Places Journal, "is a remarkable space — one of the greatest public spaces in modern times — and it deserves to be repaired, restored and honored. Just think of its history, of the activism that it's been the setting for, from suffrage marches to the Bonus Army to Marian Anderson to Martin Luther King to the AIDS Quilt to Stewart & Colbert's 'Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear' ... and those are just some of the most famous events."

The bad news, though, is that in many ways the National Mall is a mess. People who know it well — even those who love it — point out its problems. According to the Trust, the Mall is currently up against a maintenance backlog of $400 million and requires an estimated $350 million in necessary upgrades and sustainable improvements.

In the face of such staggering financial needs, the obvious question arises: Does America really need a National Mall anymore?

Cracked And Crumbling

"Frankly, people think of the National Mall as they see it on TV — lush grounds dotted with perfectly polished memorials," the Trust's MacKenzie Babb tells NPR. "Unfortunately, the reality is a far cry from that ideal."

She cites several examples of deliquescence and disrepair:

  • In April 2014, a 5-by-3-foot stone toppled from the portico roof of the Jefferson Memorial. "Thankfully," Babb says, "this took place in the early morning hours and no visitors were injured. That said, the stone has yet to be replaced; still today, portions of the memorial remain cordoned off to the public. What could speak more clearly to the need to restore our National Mall than one of our temples to democracy literally crumbling?"

  • In Constitution Gardens — the 38-acre area connecting the Vietnam Veterans, World War II and Lincoln memorials — "a large gravel plaza sits empty," Babb says. "Dedicated in 1976 for the nation's bicentennial, the plaza was meant to become home to a building that would offer food, restrooms and recreation to visitors, but before construction could begin, federal funds ran out and the site remains today unused and unknown. Some of the granite walls surrounding the lake have begun to collapse. The concrete-bottomed pond is covered in algae and is responsible for annual fish kills. Many of the trees meant to buffer city noise and create a contemplative atmosphere are instead severely stunted and struggling to survive because of poor soil quality and inadequate drainage. And at the north end of Constitution Gardens, the historic Lockkeeper's House — which oversaw the last lock on the canal that once ran down the center of Washington and remains the oldest building still standing on the National Mall — now sits boarded up and abandoned."

  • The U.S. Park Police Horse Stables constructed in 1976 as a temporary structure just south of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool have never been converted to permanence because of budget restraints. "These stables are the home to the horses used daily by our U.S. Park Police Horse Mounted Unit to patrol the National Mall and keep us all safe," Babb says. "Yet the horses that serve to protect our nation's capital are living in stables marked by outdated machinery, rusted and unsafe doorways, poor ventilation, flood-inducing drainage, and insufficient turnout space."

  • Throughout the park, she says, "basic visitor amenities such as restrooms and food options are hard to find — making it difficult for families with young children to spend a day in the park. Cracked and flooded sidewalks are impassable to some of our visitors in wheelchairs."

Too Much Love

How did the Mall reach this sad state of affairs?

Imagined in the 1790s by urban planner Pierre L'Enfant — as a gigundo public gathering point for a new nation — the National Mall today attracts an estimated 29 million visits each year. That's more than the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks and the Statue of Liberty combined.

Factor in stagnated federal funding, which has not kept pace with the needs of the Mall, according to MacKenzie Babb, "and you're left with a park that has quite simply been loved to death. Moreover, unlike many of America's other national parks, the National Mall charges no admission fee — rather, it is a uniquely inclusive and open space that welcomes all to learn, pay tribute to and participate in the American story."

The Trust for the National Mall wants to keep it free. And for years now, the group has been seeking funds.

Common Ground

But in this age of social media and virtual meetings and online protests, why do we need a large public space for people to physically gather?

"The National Mall is a uniquely American space where we are invited to speak truth to power without fear of persecution," says Babb. "It's where women fought for the right to vote, protesters marched to end the Vietnam War, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a dream that sparked a new American reality."

She adds: "As much value as online platforms can provide, there are few things so powerful as coming together on our country's common ground to make your voice heard. That's probably why even in today's Digital Age, roughly 3,000 events are permitted to take place on the National Mall each year. People travel from across the country and around the world to the National Mall, using the grounds where American history is remembered to make history of their own."

Nancy Levinson of Places Journal agrees. "Digital media," she says, "aren't in any important ways replacing physical public spaces. We know that all the rallies listed above happened not just because their organizers were passionate about a cause but also because the Mall exists as an actual, physical, photographable place — the ultimate place — to bring a cause to national attention. With the Mall as a destination, you can mobilize thousands for an event that might make history."

Perhaps we do need such a public arena, but can we afford it? "At urban design conferences it's become the familiar cry: There's no money for public works," Levinson says. "But the U.S. is a very rich country, and the money's there; we just need — once again — to tax for it. ...

"But even without real tax-code reform, surely we can muster the funds on behalf of the most important public space in America," she adds. "What would it say to the world if we don't, about our pride as a nation?"

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Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

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