For more than a century, the National Mall has been a place where news is made. It’s where suffragettes marched for voting rights, where presidents have delivered inaugural addresses, and where the country celebrates its birth each Fourth of July in spectacular fashion.
During the government shutdown, the mall itself had become the news, after barricades went up around the park’s iconic memorials. The closure of the park even prompted some very determined World War II veterans to exercise their First Amendment rights to peacefully demonstrate. And, to compensate for the lapse in regular park maintenance, a man with a lawn mower made headlines with his earnest attempt to pitch in, and others were inspired to follow.
These events represent more than just a curious few weeks of news making. They serve as a reminder of the importance of the National Mall to people from all walks of life. It has become America’s front yard: a beautiful vista to learn about, experience and reflect upon our nation’s history and values. It is a global stage for free speech and sacred ground for honoring those who shaped and defended our country.
Now that the government shutdown is over, the TV cameras will move on. But, visitors to the National Mall will still notice some troubling sights.
Decades of wear and tear and strained financial resources have left the National Mall in a terrible state. Everywhere you look, you see signs of disrepair and decay. Dead, rock-solid turf; broken sidewalks; a tidal basin that floods daily; a fetid pond.
Back in 1791 when Pierre L’Enfant imagined the National Mall’s ceremonial spaces, its memorials to noteworthy citizens, and its grand avenues sweeping out from the seat of power of a fledgling nation, he couldn’t have foreseen welcoming 25 million visitors and 3,000 permitted events each year on this now-famous public green.
Even before the shutdown, government resources had not kept pace with the park’s growth. The last major overhaul was nearly four decades ago when America celebrated its bicentennial. Today the National Mall has more than $400 million worth of deferred maintenance, to say nothing of the $300 million in restoration and improvements to support visitor growth in the coming years.
Ongoing budget fights make it even harder to commit sustained resources to fund important repairs and upgrades.
Years ago, another American icon — the Statue of Liberty — was in serious disrepair at a time when public funds were tight. So President Reagan appointed Lee Iacocca to head a joint public-private effort to restore her. It turned out to be one of the most successful restoration efforts ever mounted.
Iacocca fondly remembered how proud Americans stepped up to lend a hand. “We raised millions of dollars from ordinary people all over America,” Iacocca said. “We got almost $2 million from school children sending in their nickels and dimes.”
In recent years, state and local governments have increasingly turned to public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure and other capital-intensive projects.
Done right, these partnerships can enhance limited government budgets by leveraging the expertise, enthusiasm, and financial resources of the private sector. Companies, private foundations, and individuals can take pride in seeing the impact of their contributions pooled together to serve the common good.
Now more than ever, it’s time to channel this same passion to restore America’s most visited national park.
To get a start on this, the Trust for the National Mall — a nonprofit group of private citizens – was founded to raise half the needed funds to refurbish the National Mall. Working with the National Park Service, we’re facilitating year-round volunteer opportunities and charitable donations from all corners of the country. Today, a small but generous group of Americans are supporting repair work, sustainable landscaping, and new designs for major upgrades and visitor amenities. The Trust also provided half of the funds for the ongoing restoration of the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument through a gift from citizen-philanthropist David Rubenstein.
This organized call for funds and volunteers is not just about improving the environment and the infrastructure of a park. It’s about protecting and defending a living symbol of American democracy, even when it’s not in the headlines.
Caroline Cunningham is the president of the Trust for the National Mall. This essay is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service.