There is an old saying that something that belongs to everyone belongs to no one. The National Mall in Washington belongs to all of us, and it shows.
The Mall is one of the world’s great urban spaces: Two miles of greensward stretching along one axis from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial on the short axis.
The Mall is lined with museums and dotted with monuments, including the achingly sad Vietnam Veterans Memorial. From a distance, it is still a world-class park for a world-class capital.
But up close it is a different story. The lawns are worn down to bare earth. The gardens are in need of fresh plantings. The geese around the Reflecting Pool, whose fetid waters are no prize either, have left ample evidence of their presence. And even the most oblivious visitor can’t help notice the sinking seawall around the Jefferson Memorial and the buckling sidewalk that may one day follow it into the drink.
Cost of the backlog of maintenance — around $400 million. A bill to spend $100 million fixing the Mall failed. Congress even killed a $3.5 million earmark to fix the seawall, while managing to send $181 million back to individual lawmakers’ districts through National Park Service earmarks.
The source of the problem is visually obvious where the threadbare Mall ends and the lush Capitol grounds, the preserve of Congress, begin. The Associated Press notes that Congress employs 1,900 workers to tend the lush grass and meticulous flowerbeds of the 250-acre Capitol complex, while the Park Service has about 200 workers to care for the 650-acre Mall and its memorials.
The District of Columbia doesn’t have full-fledged congressional representation, only a non-voting delegate. Thus, Congress with impunity deleted $200 million from the stimulus bill intended for Mall renovations. The Obama administration did direct $55 million to the Mall from a separate stimulus account. That’s only a down payment on the work needed.
The Mall deserves better. Surely the 25 million people who visit the Mall each year would agree.