D.C.'s National Mall In Disrepair

Politicians like to say that the National Mall in Washington DC is America's front yard. The Mall could use some attention. But its isn't just about grass and trees or even money. The head of a citizens group to save the Mall says it's really about vision.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People like to say the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is America's front yard, although at the moment it's the kind of front yard that might make you think of your neighbor's yard that's a little bit of a dump, as a lot of people got to see firsthand at the inauguration of President Obama. Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS: Judy Feldman was in the inaugural crowd on the National Mall. She was near the Washington Monument. As the crowd slowly dispersed…

Ms. JUDY FELDMAN (Coalition to Save Our Mall): All of the sudden swirls of dust rising out over the mall as people moved away and the wind picked up the soil and swirled it across the mall and up into the trees and around the Washington Monument.

LEWIS: Feldman saw a symbol in that swirl of dirt and trash. She heads a citizens group called the Coalition to Save Our Mall.

Ms. FELDMAN: And you realize that it has been mismanaged and underfunded and ignored by Congress, by the nation, for so long, that the poor grass, the poor walkways, the infrastructure, all of it, this is now something we need to refocus our attention to.

LEWIS: Mall supporters seize any opportunity to get additional funds to help the mall, and they got an appropriation in the original stimulus package. But the $200 million budget line became a target of critics in Congress and in the media. Republican House Whip Eric Cantor described it this way in an interview with Fox News.

Congressman ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): When you're seeing four times as much money spent on grass in Washington - that is actually lawn grass in Washington - than you do to help small businesses, that has your priorities backwards.

LEWIS: So Democrats ended up taking the money for the mall out. Caroline Cunningham is president of the trust for the national mall. Cunningham says the money would have gone for a lot more than grass.

Ms. CAROLINE CUNNINGHAM (Trust for the National Mall): We have 700 acres right now that we do not take care of. These are the most important icons that we have in our country and what everyone finds inspirational and tells the story of democracy - you know, every eighth grader comes here to learn about the culture and history of our country, and we're not taking care of that space.

LEWIS: Millions of feet trample the mall. This stretch from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial hosts 3,000 events a year, from the recent inauguration to protests to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. The wear and tear adds up to $350 million of needed maintenance and the longer it's put off, the more expensive it gets. So it's clear that it will take money to tend the mall. The question is, is that all it needs?

Congresswoman ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): What's wrong with the mall is nothing that some money won't cure.

LEWIS: That's D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. She says money for repair and for restoration for decent bathrooms and sitting spaces will fix it. But Judy Feldman of the Coalition to Save Our Mall and some other critics say money isn't the only problem. They think the mall needs protection from interest groups that want to create new monuments.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT (Los Angeles Times): One of the critically important features of the mall is open space.

LEWIS: Christopher Knight is the art critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. KNIGHT: But when an interest group sees that open space, they think, ooh, I could put something there.

LEWIS: Congress passed a moratorium on building on the mall back in 2003 amid complaints it was getting over-crowded. So why does Knight think the mall needs more protection?

Mr. KNIGHT: If your group has enough clout and can get enough financial backing, if you can convince enough political folk, you can get a forbidden spot on the mall.

LEWIS: He notes that Congress passed the moratorium only after granting exception for three major projects - a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, a Vietnam Memorial Visitors Center, and a Museum of African American History and Culture. And Knight says there's nothing to keep Congress from making more exceptions in the future. He and Feldman's group think the only way around this is to expand the mall to adjoining land. National Park Service spokesman Bill Line says it's clear Americans recognize how important the mall is. The park service gathered 30,000 public comments for the preliminary plan it recently released.

Mr. BILL LINE (National Park Service): We see people come here and cry. It means that to Americans, how do we take all these comments that try to encapsulate those type of feelings with putting that into practical use.

LEWIS: One of the most frequent comments the park service has gotten: No more monuments or memorials on the mall. Any more, one commenter wrote, and it will look like a jumble sale lot.

For NPR News, I'm Libby Lewis.

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