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National Mall reflects magnificence and neglect

The sad decline of the historic promenade shows in trampled lawns and unfiltered pools. With 2 million visitors expected for the inauguration and 25 million yearly, the park service can't keep up.

January 08, 2009|Faye Fiore

WASHINGTON — Millions will cram shoulder to shoulder to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office this month as the nation's 44th president, another indelible snapshot of American democracy in full display on the National Mall.

But beyond the reach of the camera's lens, the historic promenade that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol -- the place often called America's Front Yard -- is itself a monument to neglect.

Patches of the once-lush lawn have been trampled to dust. Half of the underground sprinkler system doesn't work. The sea wall around the Jefferson Memorial is sinking, and lately, wildlife is dying in the unfiltered waterways.

Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service, which maintains the Mall, likes to say it has been "loved to death," an American treasure battered by 25 million visitors a year -- more than Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks and the Grand Canyon combined. As the crowds have grown, the budget has shrunk, and with $350 million in overdue care, the park service cannot maintain a standard that befits what many consider a national jewel.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
National Mall map: A map of the National Mall in Thursday's Section A, highlighting areas that need repair or cleanup, labeled 12th Street as 10th Street.

"This is America. This is how we show ourselves to the rest of the world," said Line, 51, an encyclopedia of Mall trivia in pine-tree-green pants and a razor-brimmed hat.

If 700 acres in the shape of a kite can tell the story of a nation, the Mall is the embodiment of America. Its major monuments honor three wars and four presidents. It hosts the July 4 celebrations, contains war protests and oversees the nation's important conversations, including immigration, abortion and civil rights. It reminds us of where we came from and who we are.

Today, though, the Mall is a study in contrasts, glorious and broken all at once. The story of its place in history and its sad decline is best understood on foot, and so Line, who bikes past the monuments every day and walks the grounds every chance he gets, agrees to show us 23 of the nation's most treasured and timeworn blocks.

A cold December wind cuts sideways as Barry Porter looks out across the historic expanse for the first time in 30 years. He used to play hooky here, ditching junior high to check out the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum or marveling at Abe Lincoln's big concrete feet.

This isn't the way he remembers it. Straight ahead is the elegant pool that is supposed to reflect the Washington Monument. It sometimes still does, when the water isn't fouled by algae and goose droppings. The grass borders around it are pitted and bald. A plastic grocery bag slaps at one edge.

"It just looks beaten down. This grass used to be so green," says a disappointed Porter, 56, a respiratory therapist who now lives in North Carolina.

The Lincoln Memorial towers behind us as visitors traipse its broad steps, mostly unaware of the history that has transpired here. Halfway down is the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in the summer of 1963. Only yards from there, 10 summers later, a frustrated Richard Nixon paid a surprise predawn visit to antiwar protesters camped out on the steps. And at the foot of the staircase is where African American contralto Marian Anderson sang at the invitation of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on Easter Sunday in 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her performance at Constitution Hall.

Dead ahead two miles, the U.S. Capitol dome gleams at the end of an unbroken vista lined with American elms where the iconic monuments unfold -- Lincoln, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Washington, Korea, Vietnam, World War II. This cherished view, inspired by the wide streets of Paris, is protected by an act of Congress. But lately Congress has been blind to the Mall's poverty. The park service budget has dwindled to $31 million, even as more attractions bring relentless wear and tear. A $100-million appropriation for repairs failed to pass last year.

"We welcome everybody, but it is reasonable to expect that 25 million visitors -- 50 million feet -- are going to take some sort of a toll. The challenge is how do we welcome those visitors and still keep it looking as nice as it can," Line says.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial alone draws 4 million people yearly, a moving chronicle of casualties etched in polished black granite. Ron Brooks, 63, of Atlanta, a Vietnam veteran making his first visit here, has just found the names of two of his buddies.

"It's beautiful," Brooks says, reaching for words to describe his emotions, his eyes still wet.

The wall sits in Constitution Gardens with a lovely little lake. It's a peaceful setting, except, like most of the Mall's waterways, the lake has no filtration system and smells so fetid in the hot months that families stay away. Last summer, dozens of dead fish floated up near a memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

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