Nobody can spend much money at the National Mall, and some people think that’s a problem.
The Mall isn’t a shopping center — it’s the broad tract of turf that stretches from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Smithsonian museums line the sides for part of its length.
A private group wants to develop the Mall for more public use. Now it’s a site for the odd softball game and an occasional demonstration — it was the site of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech — as well as a prime destination for millions of tourists.
The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, which will report on its plans Thursday, wants to pursue the idea of Maj. Pierre L’Enfant, the designer of the capital city, who described his plan in a letter to George Washington.
Envisioned as ‘place of general resort’
The Mall should be, L’Enfant wrote, a “place of general resort” lined by theaters, assembly halls, academies and “all sort of place(s) as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.”
That sounds like the lower part of the Champs-Elysees in Paris, which developed much later. L’Enfant envisioned the Mall in Washington as such an avenue but that is not being considered now. There are already three broad thoroughfares alongside it: Pennsylvania, Constitution and Independence Avenues.
“Mostly we want to make it livelier and more friendly,” said Judy Feldman, an art historian who heads the coalition. She pointed out that there are few benches, little shelter from rain and not many restrooms or restaurants when museums are closed.
She says the Mall is animated largely by tourists carried by bus from museum to museum along its margin. She wants the museums to develop more outdoor activities, like the Smithsonian Institution’s summertime folklife festivals. This year’s festival brought oyster shuckers and boat builders from Chesapeake Bay, demonstrating their skills and cuisine. It also celebrated creativity in Haiti and Latino music.
Private enterprise to be encouraged
The coalition also wants to encourage private enterprise, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the Mall’s public purpose.
Such enterprises cost money, and Feldman isn’t sure where it should come from.
“We’re not going to sell off the Mall,” she promised.
An event on the Mall to celebrate the start of the football season last September was heavy with advertising and provoked wide criticism.
Feldman said money questions could be taken up by one of the nine private task forces to be recruited at a meeting Thursday. These are to be privately funded and peopled, with participation invited from government agencies. Together the task forces would make up a kind of “conservancy,” such as exists for Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, with more attention to public participation and historical meaning than on conserving the physical area.
Work has already started on the task forces, with one of them up and running. It will create a map and brochure on the Mall. Feldman says a private initiative is needed for that because at least seven government agencies share authority over the Mall, and while each of them has contact with the public, no easily available information exists on the Mall as a whole.