The National Mall is becoming a national eyesore. The walls are sinking around the Tidal Basin. Sidewalks are crumbling. The lawns between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial have been trampled to topsoil. There are too few public restrooms and park rangers to accommodate the 25 million visitors every year. Congress needs to start catching up on $350 million in deferred maintenance. The mall is historic ground, and it should be protected for future generations.
This vast expanse of park space stretching from the Capitol to the Potomac River is known affectionately as "America's front yard." For residents and visitors alike, it is the dropping off point to view some of this nation's most sacred symbols: the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, memorials to the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam and the arts and history of the Smithsonian museums.
But the maintenance backlog has grown to 10 times the mall's $31 million annual budget. The mall has more visitors than those to Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon national parks combined — and the wear is on embarrassing display. Last year, dozens of ducks died of botulism in a fetid mall pool outside the Capitol. Tourists tromp around the cherry trees because sidewalks are closed. While the Obama administration committed $55 million in economic stimulus money for repairs, that is but a fraction what the mall needs. Because the District of Columbia has no vote in Congress, the mall has a disadvantage in competing for federal earmarks. But it truly is the nation's preeminent public space.
According to the National Park Service, 2 million people flocked to the mall in January to witness Barack Obama take the oath as president. Some 3,000 events are held there every year, from festivals and fireworks to concerts, protests and organized sports leagues. Slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. The mall is not merely a portal to history but a piece of it, and it should be maintained as a national asset.
Congress needs to make a hefty down payment on a major renovation of the mall. The nonprofit Trust for the National Mall is working with its partner, the Park Service, to restore the mall and make it more convenient, attractive and engaging to visit. But private donors cannot do the work alone. Congress needs to recognize the mall's contribution to the character of the nation's capital and to history itself, and provide regular funding to keep it in shape.