Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
With more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined, the National Mall is sometimes called the nation’s front yard. But it’s hard to keep your yard looking good when 22 million people tromp across it each year. As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963, we explore the challenges of maintaining the Mall as both the country’s most-visited open space and its favorite place to protest.
- Judy Scott Feldman President, National Coalition to Save Our Mall
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
Time Lapse – Inauguration Day 2013 On The Mall
Time Lapse – National Mall From The Top Of The Washington Monument
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. As the nation gears up for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington next week, the dream of a national gathering place that can stand up to huge protest while also welcoming everyday visitors continues to be a challenge. The National Mall, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic, I Have a Dream, speech gets 20 million visitors a year, more than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome come to play kickball with colleagues or visit the museums and memorials or enjoy a picnic on the grass. Others show up en masse to speak their truth to the government and the world. The Mall serves as both the nation's front yard and its favorite place to protest. But it's hard to keep your yard looking good when millions of people walk on it every year. Joining me to look at the many roles of the National Mall is Roger Lewis.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's an architect and the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Welcome back, Roger. Good to see you again.
MR. ROGER LEWISThank you. Likewise. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Judy Scott Feldman, founder and chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. Judy Scott Feldman, thank you for joining us.
MS. JUDY SCOTT FELDMANThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. What changes would you like to see in the National Mall? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Roger, talk about the history of the National Mall. It didn't always look like it does now, with wide expanses of lawn and open views to the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. What was Pierre L'Enfant's vision for the Mall when he laid out the city in 1791?
LEWISWell, we have to speculate a little bit because what we have basically is a drawing, a couple of drawings, and some historical memory of the intention. It's clear that it was -- he was inspired by the notion of creating a large, open space, a monumentally scale open space extending east-west, with the Capitol up on Jenkins Hill, on the -- anchoring, if you will, the east end of that space. Of course on the west end, much of what's there now wasn't there.
LEWISAt the west was essentially the river. I mean, it was a space that extended to the landscape. I think part of the notion was, in fact, not unlike what Jefferson, I think, intended at the University of Virginia, which was to create this large axial space that pointed west to, you know, to sort of suggest that Americans should expand in that direction. It was not -- there was no landscaping plan. There was no -- the plan did not have any details about whether there should be trees or not trees, or whether cattle should graze on the lawn or what have you.
LEWISSo it -- the initial concept was, I would say, schematic. During the 19th century, just to take people forward 100 years from the 1790s, the mall got highly vegetated. During the Victorian era, it became covered with trees. A railroad station ended up at, I think, at the end of 6th Street. Judy knows this better than I. She should comment -- correct me if my -- I'm not an historian. There were, you know, cattle, livestock grazing...
LEWIS...on -- and, you know, it was envisioned as sort of pastoral, natural landscape. This is during a period when, in fact, in Europe and the United States, people were very interested in aesthetically doing architecture and other things representing nature, representing -- you know, being not classical, not rectilinear and ordered, but rather kind of naturalism in composition. So that -- that's -- it was like that until the beginning of the 20th century when -- at the very beginning of the 20th century, the McMillan Commission got formed.
NNAMDIThe McMillan Plan comes into place.
LEWISAnd the -- and they generated a plan. This is -- again, you have to look at the context. People in the late 19th century decided that a lot of Victorian ideas about design really were not appropriate -- we lost sight of Greek and Roman classicism -- and decided, well, maybe we ought to take another look at the Mall. Maybe it shouldn't be just covered with trees and bushes and flowers and, you know, with these kind of curvilinear walkways, et cetera.
LEWISSo they came up with a new plan that showed the Mall once again looking a little bit more like what they thought L'Enfant intended, which was, you know, an ordered space that was not filled with plant material and trees and that would, again, celebrate, if you will, the fact that this was the capital of this young nation and that it was grand in scale and orderly.
NNAMDIJudy Scott Feldman, you were born and raised here in Washington. The Mall looked different in the 1950s and the '60s, much different than it does today. What was it like at the time of the March on Washington in 1963, and how did physical changes in the '70s transformed the space?
FELDMANYeah. When I was a child, we thought of the Mall as really only the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument because west of there were a lot of temporary buildings. At the foot of the Washington Monument, just west of it, were World War I, World War II buildings. On both sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool were World War I and World War II buildings, and they didn't even come down until about 1970.
FELDMANSo when I was a child, the area where Martin Luther King and the March on Washington took place was actually surrounded on three sides by temporary buildings. And if you look at aerial views of that event, you'll see that there are buildings behind the trees and at the foot of the monument. So it wasn't the grand, open, continuous space we think of from the Lincoln to the Capitol. But for the March on Washington, the key thing was not that the Mall was an open space, but that the Mall had a Lincoln Memorial.
FELDMANAnd that Lincoln Memorial was a great symbol to the civil rights movement, and it was a great stage as well. And I think that's one reason why the Lincoln Memorial continues to be a key element in the public life of Washington is because it's not only a symbolic, powerful monument, but also it stands in full view of the Washington Monument, the Capitol and its grand stage for activities. It embraces the people.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a conversation on the National Mall as America's gathering place. We're talking with Judy Scott Feldman. She is founder and chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, which is not to be confused with the Trust for the National Mall, which is an official partner of the National Park Service and raises funds and helps select design plans for Mall projects.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Roger Lewis, architect and "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In connection with the memory you just shared with us, here's Al in Crystal City, Judy. Al, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALWell, actually, the -- your -- one of your guests actually already commented on the temporary buildings, which I remember as a child. And actually, we, I think, in those days did not look upon the Mall as an attraction, certainly the attraction it has become today. And, in fact, I think it was just regarded as part of the government's structure and another area for government activities.
NNAMDIIs that so, Judy, as in your memory?
FELDMANWell, that's -- I remember it as a place for museums. When I thought of the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorial, two of my favorite monuments in all of Washington, they were places you had to drive to because they were quite distant, and they still are. But, in fact, yes, the Mall was a place we went to look at art and to history and science and so on. But that's just how different things have become in the 50 years since then that the Mall really has taken on a whole new quality as the American public has made it their own.
NNAMDIAl, thank you very much for your call. Indeed, Roger, on Saturday, thousands of people are expected to return to the Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's, I Have a Dream, speech and that demonstration for freedom and jobs that took place there at the time. What makes the Mall, then and now, such a compelling place to exercise our First Amendment rights, to assemble and speak freely?
LEWISWell, I mean, to use a cliche, you know, it's the nation's front yard. It's the space that is immediately adjacent to physically and then metaphorically, if you will, the place that connects the seat of our national government, the Capitol and the White House, along with these very important national memorials. I mean, I think it's -- if one had to say, well, where in the United States would you like to have your -- have the cameras focused on you and hearing what you have to say and seeing what you have to display on your posters, this is the place you would go.
LEWISThis is the first place you would choose to do it because of the -- both its symbolic significance and its clear visibility to people who are in the decision-making halls of government. I think one of the things that your question and Judy's previous comment, I think, makes important to remember is that the Mall has always been a work in progress, and it is still a work in progress. It -- you know, unlike some of the museums and some of the monuments that are finished, I mean, the Lincoln Memorial, other than a little bit of the green paint that someone -- is a finished and complete, holistic work.
LEWISAnd you can say that for a number of the structures. But the Mall, the idea of the Mall, even, as Judy might talk about shortly, even what defines the edges or the extent or the landscape and totality of the Mall is up for negotiation. I -- so I think it's an interesting question. I don't think it's the only place to -- for people to show up and express themselves, but unquestionably it's the first choice, especially if it's -- involves national issues.
NNAMDIYou talk about one of the issues Judy might want to speak to. I think Billy in Lanham, Md., will take us there. Billy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLYYeah. Hi. Thanks, Kojo, and Roger and Judy. I have a couple of questions, so bear with me. The first is in all three of your opinions, at what expense should the restoration and then, you know, continuous upkeep of the Mall, what expense should be taken in the planning of major events like the Solar Decathlon or the beloved Smithsonian Folklife Festival? You know, at what expense should those events, you know, be sort of, we'll say, compromised due to the new regulations in upkeep?
BILLYAnd do you feel that the, sort of, I guess, the exclusion of, we'll say, programmed events versus First Amendment events -- I'm not being very articulate, but it seems as if the new regulations are going to be very open to First Amendment, which I'm glad to hear. But it also seems that the tried and true annual events that make the Mall such a, you know, a wonderful place for families to visit, you know, seem to be compromised. I know that the Solar Decathlon is gone. I'll take the answer offline.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Billy. Judy?
FELDMANWell, I think this is one of the real tensions in planning for the future right now. The 1901 McMillan Plan was really for the grand, kind of imperial landscape, beautiful grass, beautiful trees. But the Mall today is really something quite else that never was imagined in 1901. So on the one hand, the National Park Service and its partners are trying to upgrade, maintain the existing landscape. But now the tension comes. How do you make that kind of formal landscape that almost evokes their sigh into something that accommodates hundreds of thousands and millions of people?
FELDMANAnd you're right. Things like the book festival and the Folklife Festival may no longer be allowed in the green space, and this becomes a major question that our National Coalition to Save Our Mall has tried to address. In 1966, the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill plan proposed putting such events like that under the trees, under hardened areas. What we have proposed as well is to expand the Mall again. As Roger Lewis has pointed out, the Mall used to end at the Washington Monument.
FELDMANThen it was expanded to the Lincoln and Jefferson. And what we propose is look at the federal land, especially like in East Potomac Park, along the Potomac waterfront, and we could create beautiful welcoming expansions of the Mall for places like -- for things like the Solar Decathlon. So these are questions that right now have not been addressed because most of the planning being done right now by government entities is maintenance planning of the historic landscape.
FELDMANBut that's why we believe a larger conversation is needed that can allow exactly this kind of question. We want the Solar Decathlon. We want the book festival. But how do we accommodate them without harming the landscape? And I think we need creative solutions such as mall expansion.
NNAMDIWe do have to take a short break. Roger, hold your thoughts for a second because I have a couple of questions to ask you in addition to your own thoughts to this. But if you have questions or comments about the National Mall, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can send email to email@example.com. What do you think is the right balance between, oh, well, Frisbee and free speech on the National Mall? 800-433-8850, or send us a comment at our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the National Mall as America's gathering place. We're talking with Roger Lewis, the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He's an architect and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Also in studio with us is Judy Scott Feldman, founder and chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What changes would you like to see in the National Mall?
NNAMDIRoger, a two-part question for you, the first is about the tension that Judy talked about earlier. The National Mall is widely used by tourists, residents who like to play Frisbee and kickball, fly kites, stroll, picnic. Talk about the tension between a reverent space for public reflection and a recreational space for all varieties of uses. And then after that, I'd like to know about your thoughts on expanding the Mall to the river.
LEWISWell, first of all, as Judy has pointed out, if you really look at the landscape in totality, including the spaces that are beyond just the central axial, as they've -- as we've often pointed out, it was kind of imperial, stretch of land that runs from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial -- there is enough real estate. There is enough acreage to do all of the above. I don't think we have to exclude anything.
LEWISI think what we need to do is recognize that it's reasonable to in fact assign or allocate some of the functions that we traditionally have allowed to go on the central east-west access of the Mall such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which I think is a great thing to do. There are places where that can be accommodated without being on the central access of the Mall. My own feeling from a designer's point of view is that space really should be essentially preserved as an unobstructed visual space, this two-mile extraordinary space. We should not be building stuff in the middle of that.
LEWISBut there are places tangential to that. For example, to the north of the Washington Monument, the parks that Judy mentioned, the East and West Potomac parks, very well-suited for putting things like the Solar Decathlon or the book fair or the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and have people playing Frisbee. Actually, I have no problem with people throwing Frisbees even down the middle of the axial space of the Mall, but I strongly feel it's time to stop building structures where if I stand at the Lincoln or at the Washington Monument, I can't even see the Capitol Building.
NNAMDIJudy, you have also said that the Mall could really use underground parking, an underground parking garage to get tour bus parking off the streets. How feasible is that?
FELDMANWell, we believe it's feasible. If you -- what we've tried to do is actually take the desires of the federal government, the D.C. government and the public and try to put them into one project. That is the federal and D.C. governments both would like to get the tour buses off the streets. They're clogging our streets, polluting and so on -- blocking views and so on. Second thing is visitors to the Mall, to the Smithsonian museums, the Newseum, the Holocaust museum, can't find a place to park when they bring their families from Baltimore, Annapolis or from the suburbs.
FELDMANSo what if we take those two desires, bus parking and car parking, and assimilate or merge them with also the need for irrigation water cisterns and for flood protection and make a large under-the-ground, under-the-Mall parking garage that has a visitor center, it has toilets, it has parking for tour buses and cars and it doesn't impose itself on the beautiful open space but is underground.
FELDMANSo like so many cities throughout the world, we would be inviting and welcoming our visitors to the National Mall, to the museums, to our sacred spaces there, but at the same time, hiding the buses, the pollution and so on underground. We believe it's possible in part because the government agencies want tour bus parking and in part because the government agencies want irrigation cisterns and flood control.
FELDMANAnd we believe with a public-private partnership, and we've been developing this concept for a over a year now, that such a project could be done between the Smithsonian Castle and the National Gallery, the National Museum of Natural History, it would be under the central panel. It would provide access, protection, add visitors amenities, and it would allow the Mall actually to be alive after the museums and before the museums open and close.
FELDMANSo the Mall could become a more lively part of the city connecting downtown with the Southwest Waterfront. And we've been -- we find a lot of support throughout the city and throughout the public entities for this. So we're working hard on this project, and we think it's gonna happen.
NNAMDIRoger, parking for cars, parking for tour buses and, for some people, most important, underground restrooms. What do you think?
LEWISWell, no, I agree. I mean, I think Judy is absolutely right. I've seen -- this is -- there are places -- a number of places I've seen this done in Europe. They -- there are many public parks where the public parking is under the park. And, in fact, I rarely have parked under a private office building or structure in European cities when I've foolishly driven a car into the middle of the night, but I have often gone down these ramps that lead underneath the parks.
LEWISNo, I think it's, you know, it's a lot of work. It's very expensive to do it. But in the long haul, that's the solution. I just don't see any other way to solve the problem. And I do think it's -- I think Judy has articulated it very well, I mean, it's -- both what the problem is and how to solve the problem.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're gonna go to the phones. To Hannah in Silver Spring, Md. Hannah, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
HANNAHHi. How are you doing today?
NNAMDII'm doing well.
HANNAHGood. I'm glad to hear it. I'm from Silver Spring, Md., and we used to have a place in -- where the civic center used to be and there's a big temporary ice skating rink there in the winter.
HANNAHBut there used to be turf. And that turf was awesome. Everyone loves it, plays sports, everything. My question is, is turf being considered for the National Mall, AstroTurf something like that? Is that a viable option?
NNAMDIWell, it's a bigger problem than that. Roger, one of the bigger challenges for the National Park Service which maintains the Mall is to keep the grass looking nice even with more than 20 million people walking all over it every year. What are the landscaping challenges, as you answer Hannah's question, for the grass and the soil beneath it?
LEWISWell, again, that's a -- she's identified a problem that is exacerbated by the fact that they often -- the panels -- the grass panels on the Mall are occupied by buildings and large numbers of people and vehicles, et cetera. I mean, I think, that if we can do what was suggested, if we can move some of this -- these activities, these events to places where we have actually dealt with a ground plane a little differently so that it can accommodate these uses without getting -- without destroying the landscape, I think that solves the problem. I -- there's no question they've just redone the panel -- correct me Judy if I'm wrong, I think it's the -- I think from Sixth Street...
FELDMANThird to Seventh, I think.
LEWISI'm sorry, third to seventh, yeah. They've just redone that whole thing. I mean, they've -- and I'm not an expert on lawns. I grew up in Houston, Texas where all I wanted to do was get rid of the grass. We had to mow it every six minutes.
LEWISBut the, you know, I think that grass -- a proper -- grass panel, which I think they've done -- they tried to do a good job with that between third and seventh.
LEWISNo problem with people walking across it occasionally and throwing Frisbees and flying kites. You know, that, I think, is not a problem. But, again, when you start erecting structures on it, it becomes a problem. And then -- she mentioned artificial turf. There are also ways to build a somewhat, a drivable surface which still has vegetation in it that still...
LEWIS...is porous, pervious, rainwater can get through them. There are some sustainability issues that we can talk about. There are solutions to this that don't involve just sod on dirt. And that's what's gonna be necessary, I think, again, to solve the problem.
FELDMANYeah. What we've learned in the 13 years the coalition has been around is that defining what the Mall is is crucial to how we think about these questions. The Mall was conceived as a symbol of American democracy. And so the monuments are very prominent. And that's what makes it such a powerful place to be. The question of public use, we've seen over the years an incredible amount of tension between the different needs.
FELDMANFor instance, the Smithsonian would like to use the open space more often. The Park Service would like to limit that because they're trying to protect the natural resources. So really, again, it's hard to answer the questions that the callers are making because we don't have a unified long-range visionary plan that actually defines what the balance should be and can be. And that's why it's difficult. The grass is crucially important.
FELDMANAnd I wanted to point out that this notion of the underground parking really came from a local philanthropist and businessman Albert Small. And his whole purpose was that he wants Americans to come learn their heritage and history on the Mall, and we're pushing people away by not providing them with access and with the amenities that they need. And designing it, Arthur Cotton Moore, the local prominent architect, has been working with engineers and traffic experts.
FELDMANAnd these questions come up over and over again which is, what is the Mall? What is its future? How do we want people to use it? And isn't Frisbee throwing actually part of the freedom of American democracy that we want to encourage while not encouraging the trucks and the tents that might damage? So again, it requires a -- we believe, a visionary plan on the order of L'Enfant in 1791 and McMillan's in 1901 but a plan for 2013 that actually acknowledge that the Mall is no longer simply a landscape. It's truly an active part of American civic life.
NNAMDIOn to Joanne in Washington, D.C. Joanne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANNEOh, thank you. Hi. I'm a tour guide in Washington, D.C. Usually -- my group is usually the eighth graders, about 50 people per group, and they usually have an agenda which includes seeing all the memorials in the morning and then afternoon, you know, in some three or four-hour period. And to do this, we've encountered -- the problems that we encounter are, first, water fountains. If they -- where they are, very few of them, and when you find one, it's usually warm water and kind of a trip.
JOANNESo the kids go and they buy water in bottles, which uses up their money and, of course, creates more trash. Bathrooms are a problem. I like this underground idea because you can put the water fountains and the bathrooms in there. The -- but you have -- if anybody has used the bathroom at the Lincoln Memorial while there are 20 groups of eighth graders there, (laugh) you might have a feeling for this need.
JOANNEParking for buses. I like the -- I think the underground idea is just about the only way to go. But I think it needs to be closer to the Lincoln Memorial or another one by the Lincoln Memorial because there are people who cannot walk from...
NNAMDIOne end to the other.
JOANNE...from one to the other. It's more than a mile.
JOANNEThe kids are tired, and the adults are not always in good shape.
NNAMDIJoanne, let me see what Roger Lewis and Judy Scott Feldman think about that, all of the issues.
LEWISYeah. Well, I think, again it's -- I'm glad to hear Joanne supporting the notion of solving this problem through a below-grade improvements. I think -- I've biked around this area. I walk them, and I know it very well, probably not as well as Judy, but these are serious problems. I mean, I -- this notion of just getting a drink of water or having a -- even having -- finding a place to sit down, I mean, I'm not sure that they couldn't use a little more streetscape furniture in certain places.
LEWISI think the buses are a major -- I've written about that a couple times. I drew a cartoon once in which a couple is standing there and they can't see any monument because they're standing there, (laugh) the buses are completely obscuring the view. And I think what we're facing is a lack of will along with the conflict with the different agendas that Judy has addressed.
LEWISI think the -- I agree with her that the master plan that right now the National Park Service is implementing is primarily focused on trying to expedite and facilitate the maintenance of what exist with some tweaking here and there. It's not really a masterful plan.
NNAMDIWell, here is Diana in Greenbelt, Md., who will express a sentiment that has been expressed so far in at least one email and one caller who couldn't stay on the line. Diana, you are on the line. Go ahead, please.
DIANAYes, hello. I'm -- the underground parking idea is interesting. I like it in terms of the buses. I am very concerned about any plan that could increase, even more, the number of cars that come in to D.C. And while it'll accommodate them on the Mall, those cars will be going in to D.C. and making the city itself even -- making it less -- really compromising the fabric and enjoyment of the city.
DIANASo I would like -- I think every emphasis regarding transportation should be placed on increasing access to public transportation, bicycling, safety for pedestrians and increasing public accommodation for those who are handicapped who will also need to access the public transportation. So that's my concern. Anything -- I understand the need for parking. So...
NNAMDIBut, Diana, in addition to you, we got a caller who couldn't stay on the line who was upset at the idea of more -- encouraging more cars and drivers coming into this city. An email from Ted who said, "Rather than bringing the buses into the city to park, which still doesn't solve the noise, traffic and pollution issues, why not restrict the buses to a certain distance away from the Mall and require tourists to use Metro? There's clearly a certain public -- there's clearly a certain sentiment here for increased use of public transportation." Judy Scott Feldman.
FELDMANWell, we're well aware that both federal and D.C. policies are to try to discourage more car traffic and so on. And we're actually addressing that directly. For one thing, it's commuter traffic that has been shown to be truly the problem because I know when I drive in from outside of town that as soon as 9:30 comes, I can get anywhere I want quickly and before four o'clock. But we understand that need.
FELDMANBut right now, the question is, how does a family from Annapolis or from Damascus bring grandma and the children and the strollers to the Mall? Essentially, what we are learning from over 50 meetings with different people and organizations is that people have decided not to come. We don't believe that that's actually a proper response to the National Mall, which we want people to visit, like at the Vatican, where they have underground parking for buses, at Chartres Cathedral, where they have underground parking for cars, at the National Cathedral here.
FELDMANSo it's definitely a question, but until we have that wonderful Metro and public system, we believe that this is a solution that really is aimed at the cultural attractions of Washington. And we believe also, and we've learned from looking at other examples around the world, that once people come, they wanna come to the Mall. They put their car down there. They leave it there. They eat in our local restaurants. They visit and stay the night and have dinner, and it may, in fact, actually help enliven the tourism industry.
FELDMANWe've also heard from bus -- the Metro and WMATA that allowing buses to stay put under the Mall could actually reduce the heavy toll on Metro from the suburbs during heavy tourist season. So every time we think that there is one problem, we find that, in fact, we're actually seemed to solving another one. So we understand the complexity, but we have also found that there is a great need that is not being addressed, and that we're gonna continue to develop this in a public way to make it the, you know, the best facility possible.
NNAMDIDiana, thank you very much for your call. We do have to take another short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. What do you think makes a public space work well for a big protest? What was the most memorable protest or event you have attended on the Mall? 800-433-8850. You can send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the National Mall with Judy Scott Feldman, founder and chair of National Coalition to Save Our Mall, and Roger Lewis, he's an architect and the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, a $34 million renovation of the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial is done now, making the iconic pool a little shallower but able to circulate water rather than allowing it to stagnate.
LEWISWell, it was overdue for remediation and -- except for the algae. They have a little bit of an algae problem. When was that?
FELDMANPast 30 years?
LEWISYeah. No -- I mean, I think it again illustrates the fact that with these kinds of spaces, there is a lot of energy and funding that has to go into simply maintaining things. So I think the -- I'm not -- again, I'm not expert on exactly what they did and whether it was all necessary or they did enough, but it certainly appears to have been the moment to do it. And, you know, we're gonna face some other things. They're talking about redoing the Sylvan Theater next to the Washington Monument, Union Square. I guess...
FELDMANNo. That's now Architect of the Capitol, but they're talking about Constitution Gardens.
LEWISYeah. There's -- I mean, my impression having lived here over 40 years is there always seems -- there's always something under construction or being remediated. We, of course, everybody sees the scaffolding and fabric covering the Washington Monument damage during the earthquake. So that is -- I understand the challenge faced by the stewards of the Mall and the public spaces. But we have to do more than that. We have to do more than just, you know, keep changing filter on the furnace duct work.
NNAMDIHere's one for your, Judy. We got an email from Ron, who asks, "I'd like to know what the purpose of the D.C. Canal lockhouse on the Mall. I've seen it there ever since I was a kid and always wondered what it was. It just looks so out of place."
FELDMANThe lockhouse is the remnant of what use to be the confluence of Tiber Creek in the Potomac River, and so it's a historic marker in many ways. The -- in 1791 when the L'Enfant Plan was devised for the city of Washington and the Mall, the Washington Monument marked the western most section of the Mall. Just to north of it, what we now call Constitution Avenue was the Tiber Creek.
FELDMANAnd you may or may not be aware that in 2006, we had a huge rainstorm -- this is not Potomac River -- rainstorm that inundated Constitution Avenue and, in fact, may have been not only storm water but potentially Tiber Creek rising in its bed. So what you're seeing is we have a long-range issue that actually our underground visitor center is supposed to help address as well, that is, flooding is a serious problem in Washington because we got so much landfill, west and south of the Washington Monument, not only Potomac River but also this storm water.
FELDMANAnd, in fact, in response to that flood in 2011, 14 federal in District of Columbia agencies came together and said, we've got to stop this kind of flooding on Constitution Avenue because it takes out the IRS, Commerce, National Archives, and they proposed a cistern under the Mall. So we've actually taken what they all agree on, which is an underground cistern to hold storm water, combined it, dual purpose with a parking garage.
FELDMANAnd that's why we believe our idea may work because we're trying to address what he's seeing, which is historic roots of what is a ongoing and serious flooding issue in Washington.
NNAMDIYou wanted to say, Roger?
LEWISWell, I had lunch the week before last with George Hawkins, who is the director of DC Water. And he basically talked to a group of us over the Cosmos Club about what they're doing to deal with storm water. And it was very impressive to hear the scope of this effort. I mean, the cost of it is -- we were talking about billions of dollars ultimately.
LEWISThey're digging -- for those who don't know this -- they're digging some immense tunnels right now, which no one can see, with machines that are extraordinary. I mean, talk about excavation at a scale that is really remarkable to, in fact, allow during heavy rainfall storm water to get into these tunnels to be stored temporarily. So that it's not sent down to the Blue Plains treatment plants, so we don't get them dumping both sanitary and storm water together into the -- I mean, there are all kind of reasons to do this.
LEWISWhat this points out -- let me go back. This points out something about the Mall and the master plan. You know, the Mall is really also part of a city. And I think that any intelligent master plan and masterful master plan really has to be part of a plan that is a city plan. This relates to the issue of transportation, transit, et cetera.
LEWISSo one of the things you find out when you practice architecture and planning is that no matter where you draw the line as to the limits of the project, you discover that that line really isn't -- is really porous and that you really have to keep going farther because there are interactions, there are effects, there are things going on because of what you're doing inside that line that affect what's outside the line.
LEWISSo that's, again, I think, reinforcing what Judy was pointing out at the very beginning of the show, which is that our definition, our concepts of the Mall really needs to be changed. The vocabulary is a little bit in the way here.
NNAMDIOn to Mike in Silver Spring, Md. Mike, your turn.
MIKEHi. I have been in D.C. or the D.C. area for about 13 years, and the Mall is one of the -- one my favorite places. And I think that it's reflection of America in a sense that it's not a pristine place, it's a kind of a messy place. It's just like us. It's got potholes and little bit of turf missing and out of its bounds. It's not all clipped and pretty because that's not who we are. We are -- we're Republicans and Democrats and we're fighting and we have divorces, and it's -- that's just us.
MIKEAnd in such I think -- I see people that, you know, we had kickball in the Mall and we play on the Mall, we run on the Mall. And all those things brings all of us together. You know, one of my favorite things to see is when I see visitors coming up out of the subway or Metro, and kids carrying balls and gloves because one of the things they wanna do is go and, you know, hit a couple of balls on the Mall.
MIKEAnd so I see the museums and other buildings and the monuments there as being straight edit, great buildings that reflect a grandiose idea. They're nothing without the people. They're nothing without the people who visit them. They're nothing without the people that come here. And so anything that says, well, you know, a few people playing Frisbee on the Mall. But it's not the few people playing Frisbee on the Mall, it's a mass of people that sit and play and enjoy. And if that means that the grass isn't green and it isn't weed free, then so be it because that's not who we are.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because we got an email from James, who says, "The obsession with grass on the Mall is astounding. It seems to have gone out the deep end and taking precedents over people actually using the area. Recreational (unintelligible) have always been on a continual state of being replanted, but the grass in varying stages of (word?) that's the most reasonable tradeoff."
NNAMDI"These huge areas of grass are not feature of L'Enfant's time, but a suburban invasion of civil life. Focus on cleaning up the Mall should not be on the grass but on removing the real eyesores of giant buses and the highway atmosphere (laugh) surrounding the Mall," which is the point you seem to be making earlier, Roger Lewis. OK.
FELDMANWell, I would just add to that. I mean, this notion that we need a vision that is not the 1901 vision is what we're promoting. We put out a little Mall map, a little green map that you can get at various airports and so on called the National Mall: Stage For Our Democracy. And what we've done with the map is we show how the Mall is -- has become in the late 19th and 20th century, truly in 21st century, truly the place where the American people have given the Mall new meaning.
FELDMANAnd so we have to be able to accommodate and enjoy kite flying and Frisbee throwing, and marching and First Amendment. It's a very difficult balance. But we believe -- and that's why we call it the stage -- that what the Mall has now that it didn't have 100 years ago is it's very important role as the civic stage where we share our common values, the founding values of the Constitution and where we continually come here to remind ourselves and to make our government recognize those common values and to uphold them.
NNAMDIWe've talked about all of the things that people do on the Mall with one significant exception, Roger, eating. Talk about the food options on the Mall. The museums have cafes and there are some food kiosk, but bringing your own picnic is sometimes the safest bet. What impact does that have?
LEWISWell, I'm not an expert at that. I haven't met a study on the eating side of things. It seems to me that, again, if we could get the food trucks and -- which right now I think they've started showing up on Constitution -- I think they've finally -- I think they're allowing them in a few places in the city.
NNAMDICertainly a lot of them on 15th Street for sure.
FELDMANI think the Smithsonian. Well, Smithsonian has allowed a few up near the Castle building, I think.
LEWISBut, I mean, this is another thing that, again, could be accommodated in addition to the museum facilities, which can, by the way, get really crowded. I mean, there are times when you can't, you know, getting something to eat is a challenge. I feel the same way about a lot of the food trucks that I do about the buses. I mean, they, you know, that they -- what -- if we did some of this work underground to accommodate these various functions we've talked about, that could also include more food service.
LEWISI think the -- I think that one of the things that we haven't talked about that I thought you were gonna get to, which I must mention, is, in fact, there are a lot of places other than the grass panels running along the east-west access between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, which are hardscaped and which are very spacious and where people can gather for various things, including First Amendment expression. You know, on the east side of the Capitol now, there's, you know, they've redone that.
LEWISThere's an immense amount of paved area there, you know, the closed Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, 'cause people wanna be near where the decision-makers are. The -- at the Lincoln Memorial, there's a huge amount -- there are places, in fact, to assemble to do First Amendment expression other than on the grass panels down the middle of the Mall.
NNAMDIWhere you can go speak truth to power. Before we go, Judy, you are founder and chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. It's a non-profit, all-volunteer group. With what you've been expressing here today, its own vision of how the Mall should be use and expanded. What prompted you to establish the group?
FELDMANWe were struck by the fact that all the different government agencies make their plans -- the Park Service, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Architect of the Capitol -- but there was no comprehensive vision that allows all the needs of all the entities together, but above all, the needs of American public to be represented in a plan. And so we just keep pushing along and plugging along.
FELDMANLet me just put in one little plug for the Park Service because, in fact, they are trying to restore the Constitution Gardens and in the process to put in food services, what would be a very welcoming and much needed food down at that end.
FELDMANBut the idea is we need the nation to come together on the Mall and the Congress so that we have a common vision that, you know, alleviates some of the tensions but allows us to give it a future. Congress has declared the Mall a completed work of civic art. We think that cannot be. The Mall is a continually evolving symbol of American democracy, and we have future.
NNAMDIChris, you may have the last word in Washington, D.C. You only have about 30 seconds though, Chris. Go ahead, please.
CHRISI'll be quick. First of all, west end of the Mall, very dangerous to navigate by first floor by -- even by bikes. Getting to the Kennedy Center is so crazy. Another thing I would love to see, small pocket parks with some fun stuff like -- something like the Einstein statue as a focal point instead of everything so austere so kids can feel that it's a fun place to be. And with more food service available, get rid of those ugly food trucks. My dream would be to have some very light rail going around to connect everything so people don't need to go around by bus.
NNAMDIAnd, Judy, is obviously in agreement with that.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have, Chris. Judy Scott Feldman is founder and chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. Judy, thank you so much for joining us.
FELDMANThank you so much.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis is an architect. He is the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, thank you for joining us.
LEWISAlways a pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores what's next for Chinatown residents fighting against a developer who wants to demolish their building.
Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
Fairfax County residents will vote on whether to adopt a four percent meal tax ballot measure on November's ballot. We explore why the ballot question has become such a hot-button issue in the county.