A City of Contradictions: Part 4, The National Mall

You can’t visit DC without going to the National Mall.

I feel obligated to clarify, to those who have never visited the city and know nothing about the city, that the National Mall, is not a shopping mall. In fact, there are no stores. The Mall is a stretch of land, about 2 miles in length, stretching from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial. It includes most of the Smithsonian Institutions,  the Washington Monument, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the newest addition, the World War II Memorial, as well as, a few hidden gems.

On any given day, during any time of the year the Mall is teeming with tourists. With school groups and children running around. With tour groups in matching T-shirts. With people speaking languages I’m sure I’ve never heard of. More tourists trek the paths of the Mall than DC locals.

For most people when they think of DC, they think of the Mall. It defines the city for those that don’t live here. I may not think that politics defines the culture of DC, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it defines the perception and function of the city. DC is here to be political. It’s here for the lobbyist, it’s here for the elected officials, it’s here for the media. All vying for votes and information.  Tourists feel the most tied to the system and the country’s history when they’re walking the Mall. Standing next to Lincoln or in front of the Capitol Building makes you feel important.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Mall. I love the beauty of it. The buildings that line the lush green grass are exquisite. The memorials evoke a sense of power, meaning, and history. So much history has happened in this city. It’s marked by buildings and monuments and old hidden relics, much of which can be appreciated in this 2 mile stretch. I hate the clutter. Too many tourists make it hard to appreciate the architecture and the significance of everything that lies in front of you. The last thing I want on a summer afternoon is to be crammed next to 5 sweating people while trying to look at the elephant in the Natural History Museum foyer. Not to mention the havoc tourists cause during peak seasons.

By far the most beautiful part of the Mall, only comes once a year: Cherry Blossoms. The popping buds on these trees are beyond words. Pretty fails to capture how precious they are.  Needless to say I love the Mall in the Springtime when the Cherry Blossoms start to emerge. It signifies an end to what can be a frigid winter along the Potomac. I could do without the tourists then too. They crowd the metro trains, fail to follow the rules for riding public transportation, get lost, shove and push. They ruin the Mall with litter. But, I put up with them, because the Cherry Blossoms are just too amazing to get mad.

Despite all its history and significance the Mall detracts from the reality of DC. Tourists flock here thinking they’re getting a sense of what “real” DC is. The fast paced political environment. Glimpses of our nation’s history. What they don’t always walk away knowing, is they’re only getting a small portion of what DC is like. They miss the city division. They miss the real culture.

When I go to the mall I wander. At this point I’ve been so many times it can get boring, but I try taking a different path each time. I turn right instead of left. I go to the empty side of the memorial. It makes each experience new and unique. On one of my first trips to DC, before I moved here, my parents and I wandered the Mall like typical tourists. Somehow we ended up on a different path heading down from Lincoln toward the World War II Memorial. A stop for a breather on a hot humid summer day led us to discover my favorite memorial on the Mall. So hidden you’d probably miss it if you blinked, the District of Columbia War Memorial honors those from the District who fought in World War I. The memorial is falling down, covered by trees and grass. Its barely maintained. And yet, its completely poetic. A relic of a forgotten time. Each time I visit, its hidden nature makes it feel like it belongs to me alone.

In 2009 it was announced that the memorial would be re-landscaped and restored. It will be brought out of the woods and back into the minds of both tourists and locals. I’m a bit torn about the decision. I’ll lose my hidden memorial to the flow of tourists. I’m concerned it will lose the beauty and poetry it has gained over the years by being left untouched. And yet, it makes me happy to know that it will begin to remind people of what was lost. It will remind people that there are hidden treasures beyond the major tourist attractions.

In many ways the memorial acts as a metaphor for parts of the city. Forgotten, completely lost except by those who care to look for it. Only those who step out beyond the tourism, experience the real culture of the city. Just like those who step beyond the main paths of the Mall find the hidden beauty that exists in the lesser known memorials and monuments.


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