The National Mall: Inside America’s Front Yard

Home to monuments, memorials and marches, the National Mall is our most important public space. In her new book, Lisa Benton-Short looks at the Mall as a symbol of the American story.

Lisa Benton-Short
Lisa Benton-Short (Photo: Logan Werlinger)
October 13, 2016

By John DiConsiglio

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., has been called “America’s front yard” and “a stage for democracy.” By any name, the 146-acre park grounds, stretching more than two miles end-to-end from the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol, is our nation’s premier public space. Each year, more than 25 million people visit the Mall to take in its memorials and museums. It’s the place where we inaugurate presidents and commemorate people and events, and where demonstrations like those led by Martin Luther King challenge us to reaffirm our ideals of democracy.

“The Mall tells the story of America,” says Lisa Benton-Short, associate professor of geography and author of the new book The National Mall: No Ordinary Public Space (University of Toronto Press, 2016). “It’s where we celebrate, protest and play. It’s the most important public space in American civic life.”

In her book, Benton-Short traces the history of the Mall from L’Enfant’s original 1791 design to controversies like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial to the pressures of enhanced security following the 9-11 attacks. And with its most recent inclusions—like the National Museum of the American Indian and the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture—Benton-Short maintains that today’s Mall honors a more diverse and inclusive American history.

“The symbolism of the Mall makes an incredibly powerful statement about the American identity,” she said. “It’s a reflection of how we see ourselves as Americans—of who we are.”

Q: As a geography professor, why did you choose to write about the National Mall? Is your book really about geography or history?

A: The book is an exploration of the power of place, and for that reason it is very much geographical. “Place” is for geographers what “time” is for historians. We look at the layers of changes, the developments of physical artifacts and the meaning and symbolism of places as they shift over time.  When I joined the GW faculty, I realized I was working three blocks away from the most amazing urban national park on earth. I tend to think of places as having their own biography—and there’s certainly no more fascinating biography to write than the Mall’s.

Q: What is the real significance of the Mall? What does it actually represent in American life?

A: The Mall plays many different roles in our society. First, a walk on the Mall is like a tour of American democracy. You start in the east with the Capitol, where democracy is physically practiced every day. Then you move west through the Washington Monument, where the ideals of equality, freedom and justice are enshrined. Further west is the Lincoln Memorial, which signifies emancipation and equality.

But it’s also where we go when we are angry and we want to protest what our society looks like—from the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs led by Dr. King to the Million Man March, the first Earth Day and the display of the AIDS quilt. It’s a place where people come to redress their government, to say you need to expand citizenship or we don’t agree with this war or we want more attention paid to diseases. It’s where people come to force a dialogue about what it means to be an American.

And the most undervalued role of the Mall is as a recreational location. We tend to forget that it’s not just a commemorative space with memorials and museum. It’s an active space—a place for celebrating and playing. Obviously, the Fourth of July is a very big event on the mall. But even the everyday recreation—the jogging, the kickball games, the polo matches—are important parts of the Mall’s fabric.

Q: How have the most recent additions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture affected the landscape of the Mall?

A: I think many Americans—whether they are local Washingtonians or they are among the millions who make a civic pilgrimage to the Mall each year—didn’t necessarily see themselves on the Mall until very recently. I’m not sure to what degree they felt the Mall was a place for them. Between the 2014 MLK memorial and the dedication of the African American Museum, we have now made space on the Mall—figuratively and literally—for people who have been ignored or neglected in the past. It changes the entire symbolism of the Mall. It’s a more inclusive space now for African Americans and for everyone else.

Q: The mall is not without its controversies, however. What tends to spur controversy on the Mall?

Every single memorial has had its controversy. The original plan for the Washington Monument was an obelisk surrounded by a Greek circular temple with statues of all the Founding Fathers. Congress was completely uninterested in funding it. When they reluctantly agreed—after it sat unfinished for decades—they dropped the circular temple. There was controversy when the Lincoln Memorial was proposed.  Illinois Representative Joseph Cannon felt this area of the Mall was “remote” and “malarial” and he vigorously opposed the memorial.  He was said to have promised:  “I’ll never let a monument to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that…swamp.” Cannon had the political power to delay and prevent Congressional approval for more than a decade.

There are really two kinds of controversies around monuments. One is over the design. Does it speak to what people think it ought to say? The controversy over the Maya Lin design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was that the stark wall was all about loss and sorrow. People wondered if this was what we wanted to say about the war. The other controversy, as geographers know, is location, location, location. People protested the World War II memorial not because it wasn’t a good idea, but because of its location on the Mall. Opponents felt it intruded on the space in between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and argued it was “out of place” there.

Q: In the aftermath of 9-11, the challenges the Mall face today largely revolve around security. Can you talk about balancing security with public access?

A: Sadly, since 9-11 we have fortified our public spaces in the name of national security—and at the expense of public access. To me, there’s no more public space at odds with being fortified than the National Mall. It symbolizes freedom and democracy, but we surround it with barriers and cameras and chain link fences. That really contrasts with its symbolic role in our society.

There are many aspects of the Mall that we have lost—like the candlelight tours of the White House and the closing of the west steps of the Capitol. But we also lose civil liberties when people have only restricted or monitored access to public spaces. Do we inhibit First Amendment rights—do we inhibit protesting on the Mall—when there are cameras and security watching us? Honestly, I’m not sure if protests and demonstrations have been affected. But we should be having a discussion about the balance between openness and public access versus the need to secure the space. We have never had that debate. After 9-11, the trend toward hyper-security has largely gone uncontested in the U.S.

Q: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you: What’s your favorite part of the Mall?

A: It's too hard to narrow down! I find it so inspirational to bicycle passed the Washington Monument each morning on my way to campus. I think the Lincoln and FDR memorials are incredibly moving. The MLK memorial speaks to a society that is finally trying to do better on equality and justice. I guess I don’t have a single favorite. It depends on the time of day or the time of year. There’s nothing like the fireworks on the Mall to celebrate the Fourth of July or seeing the Korean War Veterans Memorial at night with snow falling on the ground. But I also love just watching people enjoying the Mall, whether they’re jogging or throwing a Frisbee. It really is a special place. And it belongs to all of us.