At the intersection of Seventh Street and the Mall, two distinct views of one of the country’s most visited parks are on display in the June sunshine.
Facing the Capitol, a carpet of lush grass stretches from sidewalk to sidewalk, the manicured green dotted with strolling tourists, Frisbee players and picnic blankets.
In the opposite direction, crowds of visitors meander between performance stages and artisan exhibits at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, its large white tents staked into the trampled, weed-ridden ground between Seventh and 14th streets.
Here is the Mall as an iconic symbol of American democracy and ideals, conveyed through meticulously preserved landscape. And here it is as a robustly used gathering place, a public showcase for creative expression and the exchange of ideas.
So, which is it? And can it be both?
The answer, so far, is that it’s complicated. The years-long, $40 million renovation of the Mall’s badly damaged turf led to new National Park Service regulations governing the use of the park’s vast grass panels. Pickup sports teams are adjusting to the revised protocol — red flags staked into the ground mean to take the game elsewhere, please — but large-scale public events such as the National Book Festival and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which annually draws about 1 million visitors, have found it far more challenging to adapt.
After months of uncertainty surrounding the future of the Folklife Festival’s presence on the Mall — anxiety fueled by the departure of the National Book Festival from the property, and the launch of a grass-roots advocacy group called Save the Smithsonian Folklife Festival — the Folklife Festival’s place on the Mall for the next five years was secured Wednesday with an agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service.
With that development, the biggest concern over a decades-long tradition was resolved. But the controversy revealed an underlying debate about the true purpose of the public space at the heart of the nation’s capital.
“The festival is just one of many ways that the Mall has become significant to the American public — it’s how it’s used, it’s not the grass that’s important to people,” says Kim Stryker, who created Save the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a campaign to rally awareness of and opposition to the new restrictions. “It’s the human interaction on the Mall that’s really made a difference in its history.”
A Feb. 24, 2012, letter written by Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts — a federal agency with review authority over the renovation of the Mall — describes the park’s top priority a bit differently.
“The Commission members emphasized that the integrity of the Mall as a continuous, green, designed landscape should not be compromised by substantial physical changes,” the letter says. It notes that “the pedestrian experience of the Mall” is the paramount concern — i.e., if an event damages the scenery, the event’s organizers will foot the bill to re-beautify the grounds.
But appearance vs. use is a “false choice,” says Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall. She says there are ways to accommodate both and notes that restoration of the grass panels was necessary after decades of neglect: “It was basically a pile of concrete,” she says.
The Mall, as its trustees like to say, has been “loved to death,” occasionally labeled as a disgrace and an embarrassment, even deemed a “failed” public space by a 2011 Atlantic Cities global ranking. Visitors often logged disappointed reviews on travel Web sites, Cunningham notes. When tourists take a photo here, they want a background that captures the grandeur of the city’s ceremonial core; instead, “weeds grow where dreams once flourished,” the trust’s site declares.
But ridding America’s front lawn of its weeds means some dreams get relocated. The cost of a continual effort of turf restoration can prove prohibitive; after more than a decade on the Mall, organizers of the National Book Festival announced in January that the festival would move to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this year. The turf renovation was also behind this year’s cancellation of the National Council of Negro Women’s annual Black Family Reunion. Those announcements were preceded by the 2011 departure of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, a popular student competition that was evicted from the Mall out of concern for the grass.
The dispute over access to the Mall has unfolded in true Washington form, with heated opinions carefully confined to closed-door meetings. Overt frustration could derail delicate negotiations between two agencies that both fall under the Interior Department — which is why Stryker says she decided to throw the public punches herself. She says the agreement signed this week is “far from a home run,” and her organization recently launched a Change.org petition to lobby for a permanent event space on the Mall.
“All through the history of the festival, there have been bumps in the road with the festival having a continued presence on the Mall,” Stryker says. “For 47 years, it’s been a fight, and the expectation that I have is that it will continue to be a fight.”
Carol Johnson, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, says it isn’t a fight so much as an overblown misunderstanding.
“The main thing that’s important to us is that the memorandum of agreement recognized the cultural importance of both the festival and the Mall,” Johnson says.
Next year, the festival will have to adhere to the new rules. For now, it’s stationed as usual in the center of the Mall, where the yet-to-be-restored landscape is pockmarked with dust and clover patches. It is the site of storied marches, protests and concerts, all of which have left their scars, creating a perfect reflection of an imperfect history.
“The Mall is a symbol and an icon of America and its ideals, and those ideals certainly include free expression and cultural exchange,” says Michael Atwood Mason, the director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which produces the festival. “The Folklife Festival at the beginning of the summer and the National Book Festival at the end of the summer are really important hallmarks of who we are as a nation. We are a diverse people. We are a creative people. And we believe deeply in honoring and celebrating that heritage.”
The celebration is now in full swing. On a recent afternoon, aromatic smoke rises from culinary tents where tilapia fillets and goat stews are cooking. Kenyan performers in sparkling red and purple robes are waiting to take the stage. At the center of the Mall, a family stops for a picture, posing before their chosen backdrop: a regal, 35-foot bamboo scaffolding draped in red and gold cloth and emblazoned with Chinese characters, the Folklife Festival’s crowning installation.