Turning Point for the National Mall?

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Here at ATM, our inclination is to glorify the National Mall, the cross-shaped greensward running east and west between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and north and south between the White House and Jefferson Memorial. After all, it is the home of the Smithsonian Institution complex of museums and its wealth of scholars. To us, it’s an American university, a continuing education.

About 25 million people visit the National Mall each year, and many of late, looking beyond the museums, have their share of complaints. The Mall's scorched grass, murky reflecting pools and limited access to food, drinks, bathrooms, parking, public transportation and shade top the list of grievances. Yet, with more than 3,000 groups applying for permits to protest or host a festival on the grounds annually, it’s no wonder it’s showing some signs of wear and tear.

"The area is being loved to death," National Park Service spokesman Bill Line told Newsweek in July. The National Park Service has a yearly budget of $31 million for Mall upkeep when, in fact, the area needs a $350 to $500 million facelift. The fear is that "America’s front yard"—the unkempt lawn that it now is—could depreciate in value if something isn’t done to revitalize it and steer its future.

Roger K. Lewis, an architect and professor at the University of Maryland, recently wrote a column in the Washington Post suggesting that Congress and President Obama add The National Mall: Rethinking Washington’s Monumental Core, a new book edited by Nathan Glazer and Cynthia Field, to their reading lists. When I heard about it, I quickly added it to mine. (Glazer is an emeritus professor of sociology and education at Harvard, and Field happens to be one of the Smithsonian's own. She is architectural historian emerita at the Institution, in addition to being part of the Corcoran College of Art’s faculty.)

The book, which contains essays by Mall juggernauts such as architectural historians Michael J. Lewis and Richard Guy Wilson, anthropologists Edith L. B. Turner and Richard Kurin, and Judy Scott Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, describes how the Mall has evolved over time.

"What happens to it, and on it, is a physical expression of the nation’s historical memory, its cultural values, hopes, and sense of the future," writes Feldman, the feistiest of the writers featured. She blames the state of the Mall, in large part, on the fact that there is no real agreed upon definition of the space and its purpose. (I can go with her on that. The Mall is both my office and my playground, a place where I meet interesting folks to interview and go for an afternoon run.) "The people’s vision of the Mall is a good place to start imagining the future," she concludes.

What is the National Mall to you? A place for patriotic meditation? An urban park where you play Frisbee and kickball? A tourist hotspot you avoid?Be honest. Write a comment below.

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