State of the National Mall, Post-Inauguration

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Nothing knows ecstasy and agony like the National Mall. On one hand, a record 1.2 million people gathered in America’s backyard to witness President Obama’s inspirational inauguration. And on the other hand, that’s 3.6 million feet that trampled on the precious space that just lost out on a desperately needed, $200 million renovation. Last week, the funding, originally included in the economic stimulus package, was yanked.

Back in December, in response to newspaper and magazine articles discussing the vulnerable state of the Mall, I spoke with Cynthia Field, the Smithsonian’s architectural historian emeritus and author of The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core.

I went back to Field to ask for her thoughts. She went down to the Mall the day after the inauguration with some out-of-town guests. "When I saw the ground, I was horrified," she said. "I had never seen it like that in all my years in Washington—and I worked on the Mall and saw it twice a day."

The grass has been wiped away in large areas and pounded down to dust. "When did you last see grass on the Mall?" Field asked me.

Real honest-to-goodness grass? Geez, I don’t know.

"You saw something that looked like weedy ground covering," she quickly corrected.

With the inauguration, says Field, we found significant meaning in gathering on the National Mall: "Here’s this magic moment where we all looked at it and said, that’s it. It’s supposed to be where the nation gathers despite differences of one kind or another and sees themselves as a community."

Then, out go the funds.

"I can’t believe that we cannot, now with this understanding of its importance, address the fact that this is as important a symbol as the Capitol building, which we’ve just put a lot of money into, or the White House," says Field.

To come up with the needed cash, a Washington Post reader recently wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that the 1,200 free parking spots around the Mall be metered. As the Post noted, 1,200 spots at the city’s meter rates only drums up $4 million a year. The Mall is due for $350 million in repairs. But it’s a clever idea at a time when ideas are needed.

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