National Mall Disrepair

CNN features, on the 4th of July no less, a piece entitled “National Mall in monumental disrepair, activists say.”

Trash cans overflow on National Mall This gathering place known as America’s “front yard” stretches from the Capitol to the Potomac River and is home to the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and Washington Monument, but it’s starting to look like “an old rundown, worn-out mall that looks like it was abandoned 30 years ago,” says Judy Feldman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.

People are part of the problem. The National Mall has more visitors each year than Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon parks combined, according to the National Park Service. “If you had 25 million people coming through your front yard, it might not look so nice either,” said Bill Line of the park service.

The mall has an annual budget of about $31 million. But its backlogged maintenance needs are estimated at more than eight times that amount — $258 million.

I drive past the Mall twice a day during the week and visit it quite often on foot.  The main aesthetic problems, it seems to me, are the ugly security barriers and the scourge of tour buses.

Whining about the grass being spotty or the proliferation of tents selling souvenirs and foodstuffs, though, strikes me as silly. This being the height of tourist season, there are hordes of people trampling over the grass.   It’s simply not going to look like a golf course. (John Denver set forth the relationship in song a quarter century ago:  “More people, more scars upon the land.”)  Moreover, even if it did, you wouldn’t be able to see it with with all those people. It’s a major tourist destination and people want to eat and buy crap like CIA t-shirts to prove that they visited the nation’s capitol and demonstrate their unique, ironic wit.

One would think it would be relatively easy to lay on additional staff during the peak months to ensure that the trash cans don’t overflow.  Beyond that, though, performing major repairs and preventative maintenance is not only expensive but it generally requires closing popular attractions or, at minimum, rendering them much less enjoyable for months, if not years, on end.  One doesn’t simply call out a repairman, write a check, and have it done between noon and 4 pm next Tuesday.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I would start by helping the homeless first. I drive by the mall twice a day also. I guess it doesn’t bother me as much. It doesn’t bother me as much as the rift-raf in the Chinatown/Penn Quarter area. It is littered with pan handlers. Tourist continue to support them. I have been working in that area for eight years. The same people are at the corners with their cups. They probably have more savings than I do.

    People are part of the problem

    …People are always part of the problem…The people who turn illegally during rush hour should be heavily punished also. Just had to get that in also !

  2. Kevin says:

    James, I think that photo captures the real problem I have with the mall. Call it the tragedy of the commons or whatever, but whenever I’m on the mall I am reminded of why I never go down there (I live in NW DC, and folks who live here rarely go down there I find).

    I don’t think it’s just the mall, either. On the weekends, DC infrastructure seems to go down the tubes, and you’ll often find trash cans overflowing in other spots downtown.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Notice how large a proportion of the overflowing trash is beverage containers.

  4. SeniorD says:

    Of COURSE the Mall is an eyesore! One of the reason tourists visit the Mall are the many Smithsonian Buildings, National Archives, Art Galleries, etc. that line the street. If one lives in D.C., one rarely visits the Mall (except for those who use it to play softball, ride bikes or run).

    A parsimonious Congress is responsible for the run down condition. $31 million is chump change considering the volume of traffic. Take a lead from Disney and see how to keep an attraction, bigger than all of D.C. clean and attractive.

  5. Eneils Bailey says:

    The mall has an annual budget of about $31 million.

    To do what? To the average American, 31 Million dollars to keep the mall clean, seems outrageous. I know, there are other things going on.

    258 Million dollars, to keep the mall clean and up to date. I would bend over and lick my own ass for that kind of money.

    Of course, in Washington parlance, a quarter of a billion dollars is just a mere start on any continuing federal program.

  6. Eneils Bailey says:

    Another thing…

    People who come to Washington every day and want to view the monuments, are not invaders on your personal turf.

    Good for you, you want to live in the Capitol of this Nation. US citizens have every right to visit, view what represents this nation, their personal patriotic beliefs, and most of them could give a cold cup of coffee and a small hole in donut as to how you are inconvenienced.

    And most them can’t understand why you can’t pick up the garbage from the mall at 31 million dollars a year.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Take a lead from Disney and see how to keep an attraction, bigger than all of D.C. clean and attractive.

    Charge lots of money and close several hours a day?

  8. “…activists say.”

    That’s become a journalistic red flag to discount the complaint du jour.

  9. Christopher says:

    “buy crap like CIA t-shirts to prove that they visited the nation’s capitol and demonstrate their unique, ironic wit.” Wow, James, feeling superior to everyone today, huh?

    I think it is sad that people that live in DC never go to the mall.

    Also, after a large event, of course the garbage cans will be full. I’ve been to the mall many times, except at the height of tourist season. Its always been nice.

  10. Eneils Bailey says:

    I have been to Disney World and Washington, DC a number of times.

    Found Disney Land very interesting and Washington the land of fantasy.

    I don’t think you have taken time to look at the numbers. 250 million dollars a year; where I live a total compensation package of $50,000 a year can keep a small family(3-5 people out of poverty). That’s the equivalent of 5,000 lower to medium income jobs.

    I think sometimes, numbers become irrelevant and people become insignificant to some of us.