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Thursday, September 01, 2016

A Traditional Cultural Place for All U.S. Citizens?


Traditional cultural places (TCPs – see https://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb38/) are ordinarily found eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because of their association with the traditional cultural values and believed histories of local communities, Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian groups, and other relatively localized groups. But the other day, someone asked me, more or less out of the clear blue sky, if I could imagine a place that would be a TCP for all citizens of these United States. I was frankly flummoxed. In a nation as diverse, even fragmented, as the U.S., could there be such a place?

Then I was privileged to attend a meeting of the National Mall Coalition (See www.nationalmallcoalition.org and https://www.facebook.com/NationalMallCoalition/?fref=ts) – a group that’s struggling to keep the National Mall in Washington DC as a place for use and enjoyment by all people, and to address its many management problems. And of course, I realized, with a smack to the head, that the National Mall is, precisely, a national TCP. Stretching from Capitol Hill past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, and from the White House to the Jefferson, studded with monuments and memorials to great and not-so-great people and events in the nation’s shared history, home to multiple museums, including the National Museum of the American Indian (http://www.nmai.si.edu/) and now the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (https://nmaahc.si.edu/), the National Mall is, precisely – to paraphrase National Register Bulletin 38 – a place whose “significance (is) derived from the role the property plays in (the national) community's historically rooted beliefs, customs, and practices.” In all their chaotic, creative diversity.

And I learned, too, that the National Mall suffers from many of the same sorts of conflicts that – sometimes inevitably, sometimes outlandishly – trouble other TCPs, especially largish landscapes. Just as at, say, the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado in the (National Register-eligible TCP) Grand Canyon (c.f. http://savetheconfluence.com/), there are conflicts between public use and quiet contemplation. Just as at innumerable TCPs administered by federal agencies across the country, the Mall is managed by an agency that can’t seem to get its arms around the fact that the public in all its diversity ought to have anything to say about its administration. The Mall’s open space is administered mostly by the National Park Service (NPS), which has apparently decided that keeping its grass green is the highest priority. This justifies NPS in giving the boot to events like the Library of Congress’s annual Book Festival (http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/), which used to attract (horrors!) shoe-clad readers to tromp on the tender shoots. Will the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (http://www.festival.si.edu/) be next? Only time and NPS will tell.

It also turns out that the National Mall, like other TCPs, suffers from being the subject of a National Register nomination whose documentation doesn’t attend to its traditional cultural significance. Indeed, the nomination apparently doesn't even give much consideration to the Mall’s organization as the “significant concentration, linkage, or continuity” that in theory makes it qualify as a historic district. (See https://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb15/). Allegedly, NPS doesn't even regard the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans that defined the Mall’s development in the 19th and early 20th centuries (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/lenfant.htm) as crucial contributing elements to its current Register significance, and hence worthy of consideration in decision making.

And as usual with TCPs – and historic places generally – management of the National Mall seems to have little patience for real consultation with those who ascribe cultural value to it. Meetings, yes, letters full of nice words, sure, but actually sit down and hammer out compromises between, say, active public use and keeping the grass green? No. This was obviously a source of considerable frustration for Coalition members, whose expressions echoed those I’ve heard from Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and citizens’ groups across the nation and around the world with reference to their own TCPs.

Finally, the National Mall – like other TCPs and despite lying right under the noses of Congress and the President – has serious unaddressed management problems, notably tour bus parking, vehicular congestion, and the danger of flooding -- not only by the Potomac River but, even more devastating, as was seen in 2006, by stormwater runoff from higher elevations into low-lying Constitution Avenue museums and public buildings. The Coalition has an intriguing plan for dealing with all three problems (http://www.nationalmallcoalition.org/innovation/resilience-to-ensure-the-future/); we can hope that someone in authority will give this plan the attention it deserves, but I’m told that only the Corps of Engineers – rightfully alert to such issues but powerless to do anything without a local request or congressional direction – has shown any leadership. At least it’s nice to be able to say something nice about the Corps for a change.

I’m told that NPS is considering a revised National Register nomination for the National Mall. Although I’m always dubious of the utility of such nominations, in this case it might be an opportunity to get serious attention to the Mall’s traditional cultural qualities, as a basis for its more rational management.


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