The True Meaning Of The National Mall

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 14, 2013 10:10 am

On the National Mall: Though monuments and museums along the greenway are closed due to the federal shutdown, veterans are planning to march on Sunday and activists gathered last week to draw attention to immigration reform. On Oct. 4, a man from New Jersey, tragically, set himself on fire. On Nov. 5, hacktivists – computer hackers with various political agendas – are being summoned to address a slew of different digital issues.

Whether it's a march, a festival, a protest or some miscellaneous – sometimes maniacal – moment, there is always something happening on the National Mall. Even when the rest of federal Washington is shuttered.

If the U.S. is the symbolic epicenter of human endeavor, and if Washington is the symbolic epicenter of the U.S. and if the National Mall is the symbolic epicenter of Washington, that puts the 1,004 acres of public space – stretching from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial – smack dab in the symbolic epicenter of the world.

"The National Mall is America's common ground," says Kristine Fitton of the Trust for the National Mall. "It is where people from all walks of life come to reflect upon — and shape — the story of America."

It is, according to the Trust, the country's Front Yard and the "truest reflection of what America is, what America has been, and what America can be."

Sketched out by urban planner Pierre L'Enfant in the late 18th century, the National Mall has been a magnet for movements since at least 1894 — when Jacob Coxey led a band of disgruntled Ohio workers to the nation's capital to seek federal support.

Subsequent large-scale gatherings include the March on Washington in 1963, the call for a Vietnam Moratorium in 1969, the Million Man March in 1995 and the March for Women's Lives in 2004. In 2010, Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton and Jon Stewart all staged rallies on the greenspace.

But there have also been lesser known events on the Mall that reflect oft-obscured aspects of "what America can be." Here are a few:

  • Naked Spokesmen, June 2007: Scantily clad bicyclers pedaled across the Mall as part of the World Naked Bike Ride to draw attention to the environmental advantages – and on-the-road vulnerabilities — of cycling.

  • Solar Decathlon, inaugural competition October 2002: Teams of college students have so far competed four times in a solar-powered building contest on the Mall, erecting small homes to see which ones were the most energy-efficient. (The competition has also been held twice elsewhere.)

  • Sod Busters, February 1979: Hundreds of farmers on tractors, representing the American Agriculture Movement, staged a massive protest on the National Mall. The Washington Post reported that the agrivists roughed up the public space to the tune of some $2 million — tearing up lots of sod, destroying wooden benches and garbage cans and knocking down trees, a couple of kiosks, a fire hydrant and "numerous traffic signs."

  • Making Nudes, July 1970: Pro-marijuana activists shed their inhibitions — and their clothes — on the Mall during the counter-cultural Honor America Day Smoke-In.

  • Shear Magic, July 1967: Banjo makers, ivory carvers and sheep shearers sprawled across the Mall during the first annual Folklife Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. The festival continues to this day.

Recent activity on the National Mall, Fitton says, has created some debate over who "owns" the park — the government or the people. "It is clearly a park of the people. Twenty-five million visit each year and half of Americans will visit in their lifetime," she says. "But it needs the National Park Service to protect, preserve and sustain it. The National Mall is such an important symbol of democracy, equality and freedom that it demands stewardship to ensure it endures for generations to come."

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