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A National Embarrassment January 25, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Barack Obama, Economic Stimulus, Economy, National Politics.
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National Mall, Washington
National Mall, Washington

When I was a kid, I took a couple of trips to Washington, DC as a Girl Scout.  This would have been in the early to mid 1970’s.  What I remember most – besides falling off the curb and nearly being hit by a taxi in front of the White House – was how beautiful it was.  The entire city was like a park with lush green lawns and flower beds everywhere.  The National Mall was the best place in the whole city.  Surrounded by all the museums and most of the monuments, it was a beautiful oasis where you could sit, rest, and reflect. 

In July 2007, my family and I took a trip to Washington.  My husband and daughter had never been there, so they were eager to hear my stories and couldn’t wait to see it for themselves.  I was excited, too, because there were several new monuments that I had not seen having not been there for over 30 years.  On a steamy July morning, we made our way to the Washington Monument.   I was appalled.  Not a single flower and the grass was yellowed and interspersed with sandy patches of dirt.  The graveled walkways were cracked and poorly repaired.  As we made our way along the Mall to the Smithsonian museums, we noticed the interior of the park had huge grassless voids and whatever grass was there was trampled and dying.  Later that day we went to the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.  Crude metal barriers warned us away from parts of the Tidal Basin and the Reflecting Pool – stretching between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument – was green with algae.  Forget having to use the restroom – there aren’t any.  We had to either use a porta-pottie (yech!) or get ourselves into one of the museums.  At dinner later that night my husband brought up the condition of the mall.  “What a disgrace,” he said.  “Did you notice all those foreign tourists around the monuments today?  Imagine what kind of impression they’ll take home of THAT!”

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Restroom in Italy

Yes, imagine it.  Though not a world traveler, I have been to Europe a couple times and have traveled through Canada.  Anywhere tourists gather is beautifully maintained, clean, and there are adequate facilities.    Even the restroom I used in Italy where the toilet was a porcelain-rimmed hole in the floor was cleaner and better maintained than those porta-johns. 

All of this bubbled forward in my consciousness as I watched the inauguration on TV this week.  Even through all the crowds you could see the epic deterioration.  I could only shudder thinking that the eyes of the world were trained upon that national embarrassment.

The National Parks Service (www.nps.gov) estimates that 25 million people visit the Mall each year.  They refer to it as “America’s Front Yard”, an apt description.  The Parks Service, however, has had to attend to the Mall for many years with ever-shrinking budgets.  They estimate that there is approximately $350 million in deferred maintenance that must be done to save the Mall.  The seawall around the Tidal Basin is sinking, the Reflecting Pool and various lakes are fouled due to lack of filtration, the underground sprinkler system is broken and needs repair, and the flower beds have been torn out because the Parks Service can not afford to maintain them.  The Capitol, meanwhile, glistens with fresh paint and manicured lawns. The difference is that Congress employs 2,000 maintenance workers to tend 300 acres housing 535 lawmakers and their staffs.  The park service employs 300 workers to care for 700 acres that sees 25 million visitors.

The Parks Service has set up a fund for private donations to restore the Mall, like the trust set up to restore the Statue of Liberty in the 1980’s.  The Trust for the National Mall  hopes to raise awareness and dollars for the “Centennial Project”, a plan to get the Mall in shape for it’s 100th anniversary in 2016.  But we must do more.

As part of President Obama’seconomic stimulus package, $200 million is earmarked for repairs to the National Mall.  Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana and other Congressional Republicans have already attacked the proposed appropriation as “pork-barrel spending.”  Apparently keeping up the lawns where he works with tax money is not pork. 

When the Olympics were broadcast from Beijing, China this past summer, much was made over the BILLIONS the Chinese government spent in ensuring the world saw the beauty of the Chinese landscape.  China had far bigger challenges than Washington, DC would have.  What they did have was pride.  That’s what we need to get back.

(Please see an excellent article from the LA Times on the Mall’s condition here)

(Visit the National Coalition to Save Our Mall here)

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