Ross Griffith: Don’t mess with the Mall

Consider for a second what the National Mall says about America. The Mall is a totally unique space that combines our most important public buildings, our history and some of our most cherished pieces of art, all arranged around a wide strip of grass that has played host to some our most meaningful social movements, not to mention its annual 25 million visitors.

For a tourist attraction that is more popular than the Grand Canyon, the Mall is looking pretty shabby. Our national front lawn looks a little like an abandoned housing development – the grass is frayed, sidewalks are cracked and many memorials need repair. According to the National Park Service Web site, there is $350 million worth of “deferred maintenance” due the area, but there are finally a number of high-profile construction projects slated for the area.

We must carefully consider what additions we make to the National Mall and what they say our nation and our values. Two of the biggest projects in the works are the future U.S. Institute for Peace headquarters – currently the big hole in the ground across the street from the State Department – and the planned Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center. Both of these seem to be superfluous additions to the National Mall.

The U.S. Institute of Peace is a nonpartisan think-tank founded and funded by Congress. They use buzzwords like “peace-building” and conduct a lot of studies and panel groups, but they appear to do very little else. For those of you who would object to objecting to the Institute of Peace, consider that just because it has a politically correct name does not mean that the institute is not a gigantic white elephant. After all, not supporting the Patriot Act does not make me unpatriotic. Call me a cynic, but this organization serves no real purpose except to allow members of Congress to say they support a bipartisan peace organization.

Congress has already provided $100 million toward the structure, and contributions from citizens will make up the rest. The building will look roughly like a series of geometric shapes partially covered by a paper airplane enthusiast’s impression of a seagull.

This building and the organization it will house should not be next-door neighbors with the Lincoln Memorial or the World War II Memorial. They shouldn’t even live in the same neighborhood.

The other project, the Memorial Center, is planned to be a high-tech underground bunker for remembrance of America’s fallen. Nice sentiments, but does it have to be on the Mall? The Mall is really a sacred space, and the memorials already there – the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, World War II Memorial – say everything that needs to be said in dignified solemnity.

This Memorial Center does not have a specific meaning substantial enough to belong on the Mall. The idea behind the Memorial Center is admirable, and perhaps one should be constructed – just not in a location that will detract from the gravity of the deeply meaningful memorials already on the Mall.

The National Mall may very well develop whiplash as it goes from monetary neglect to being cluttered with projects that serve no concrete purpose. Until all the needed maintenance and repairs are performed, there needs to be a freeze on construction plans. More care and thought must go into both how we maintain and how we improve the Mall, because it a tangible metaphor for our country and our values.

The writer is a senior majoring in history.

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