At Home on the Mall

At Home on the Mall

My eyes scan over the 200-plus white trash bags arranged neatly along the paths.  Sunlight reflects off their knotted tops and the orange leaves glow bright from inside the bags.  Men in women in their company t-shirts bend to retrieve dropped rakes and chat animatedly with each other. The air is cool but the sunshine warms my cheeks and the high spirits of my teammates makes me smile. Another intern comes my way, she too is smiling; her work jeans have a few splatters of black paint that weren’t there this morning at 8:15 a.m. She pulls a leaf from my hair and I look down to notice that my jacket is covered in them. The tips of my gloves have turned brown and smell of soil and wet leaves. I need a shower. But it’s nice to be dirty for a moment, nice to feel like I’ve done some work today.

 

 

Lunch is on a stone wall within Constitution Gardens. I sit cross-legged on the wall with the Trust for the National Mall staff and pick dirt from underneath my fingernails. The Washington Monument stands pale against the white-blue sky and the fall breeze makes ripples on the jelly bean shaped pond.  Trust staff and a few of their corporate partners’ employees dedicated this morning to doing some touch ups on the National Mall before Veteran’s Day. Spending a typical Friday morning in an office in a suit, you could sense the joy of the volunteers to be outside on such a perfect fall day.  Volunteers raked and bagged leaves or repainted fences along walkways.  In honor of Veteran’s Day, a stage and podium are set in front of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, the vast, black wall serving as a solemn backdrop. A man gravely reads out through a microphone every name carved into the cold, dark stone. He’ll be at it all weekend.  Although this is one of many of the Trust for the National Mall’s organized Corporate Days of Service, volunteers are reminded of how significant this work is today as each name is stated, a soundtrack of commemoration.

 


The National Mall, in a severe state of overuse and deterioration, has patchy grass, cracked sidewalks, and windblown litter.  The National Park Service simply doesn’t have enough funding to give this national park all of the attention that it needs.  Even with support of the Trust for the National Mall and from dedicated and passionate park rangers, the reality of the National Mall is not so beautiful.  But when you conjure up images of the National Mall, whether you’ve been there an hour ago or a decade ago, you don’t see chipped paint on benches or weeds growing from concrete cracks.  When you picture the National Mall you see the Washington Monument lit up in the twilight, the sunset behind the Lincoln Memorial, light pink cherry blossoms floating delicately in the Tidal Basin, or the haunting emotion of hearing names read off the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.  What we remember about the Mall is different than what we have on the Mall.  That’s the beauty of this space; it’s so meaningful, so indicative of our culture that we focus on its importance, not its flaws.

 


With the Trust for the National Mall, I’ve had the chance to be a part of plans to close that gap. This journey that I’ve joined in on for this short semester has taken me from the Trust’s office, to the National Archives, to picking leaves gingerly out of my tangled hair. Along with bringing the National Mall’s appearance up to higher standards, the Trust is also dedicated to the visitor experience and connection to the national park.  They have recently introduced National Mall Docents, or educated volunteers, who walk the Mall and connect visitors to the National Mall’s history, symbolism, and sometimes to the closest restroom. National Mall Docents are required to complete a 4 day training with staff from the Trust for the National Mall and several National Park Service rangers. In these 4 Saturday sessions, volunteers learn about interpretation, what to do in emergencies, and the historical, current events, and imagery on the National Mall.

 

 

Who knew that the Washington Monument sways about .125th of an inch in winds of 30 miles per hour?!  Call me a nerd but I loved walking the Mall with ranger Ed and learning random facts. I’d volunteer my time as a National Mall Docent if I was staying in D.C. longer. But with less than a month left (what?!), I’ll have to continue doing my part on the National Mall in a different way.  My semester with the Trust has connected me more deeply with this iconic national park than I expected it might. Almost every American is able to recognize the National Mall, whether they’ve visited or not. A few months spent amongst its open acres, tranquil fountains, remarkable memorials, fanny-packed tourists, and the distinct smell of sunscreen, I have found myself at home in America’s Front Yard.

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