National Mall, national shame

Americans planning to spend some time here this summer — those who can afford the transportation costs — probably will want to stroll a few moments on the Mall, Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s effort to preserve a pastoral oasis in the new nation’s Capitol. It was to be a well- manicured haven in the grand European style for those trying to escape the hustle and bustle of a busy government.

It of course became something else — a place not only of national monuments of every shape and size but a major site of protests and peace marches and festivals and July 4 celebrations that draw tens of thousands at any one time. Add to that some 20 million tourists a year and the result is trampled grass and dusty paths and a general atmosphere that is more like one of those dirty roadside stops that dot the countryside from Maine to California. There is even a beat-up little place under a torn canopy and overflowing trashcans where one can eat outdoors in case he or she gets nostalgic for the highway.

But those of you who are appalled by all the cracks and crevices and crummy restrooms in what was supposed to be a welcoming manicured environment, don’t despair. The Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln Memorials and the famous reflecting pool and the Tidal Basin and a new Indian Museum and a startling view that stretches from the West Side of the Capitol to the Lincoln still make it all worthwhile.

Also, writing one’s congressman, the age-old method of trying to get something done in this country, just might help move along "plans" to spend needed millions on the maintenance of this national jewel. The more of your Senate and House members who are made aware that the condition has become a disgrace, the more likely things will be improved. But you should know that what really is needed is more than just an immediate outlay of a few dollars. It requires a long- range plan that addresses the underlying problems, the most serious of which is overuse of the Mall as a place of festivals and rallies.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival which every summer leaves the mall even more thread bare and uninviting is a case in point. The result of a million happy dusty pilgrims entertained by crafts no longer practiced outside these kind of tent shows is hard use for this frail environment. It should at least be reevaluated.

That suggestion is made at the risk of an onslaught of e-mails with allegations ranging from senility to insensitivity to down right stupidity. But the fact is this is a place better served by strolling families and loving couples as they make their way along what is one of the world’s most inviting thoroughfares of museums and monuments and beautiful resting spots. It is a spot where all Americans can come with pride and it should be treated with love and care.

A few years ago, the Mall suddenly turned dangerous with thugs preying on unsuspecting tourists in the evening hours. But that threat went away with instant public outrage that brought arrests and beefed up security even as the latter was being enhanced in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Security — including tightened access to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial — has slowed the free flow of travel as it has everywhere. But it is the price we must pay for protecting these precious symbols of our liberty.

These are slight inconveniences and there remains enough of the original opportunity for Mall traveling to make it a delightful experience. That is if this Congress and what’s left of the Bush administration, which seem almost unable to do anything these days, can get their acts together and provide the kind of polishing and replacing and upgrading this wonderful place deserves. The Mall still looks good if one stands on the Capitol steps and gazes all the way to the Potomac. Up close and personal, however, it is a different sight and one that shouldn’t be allowed to deteriorate further. Whatever it takes to preserve the original concept and repair the damage should be undertaken without hesitation.

Park Service officials say national parks across the country need $6 billion in deferred maintenance, according to published reports. Well, considering what is being laid out elsewhere in this spendthrift nation that seems a mere pittance, especially if it means our national treasurers like the Mall and Yellowstone and Yosemite are at stake. So if you show up here this summer and stroll the Mall, make sure your representative gets a firsthand report.


(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)