The Privatization of the National Mall: America's Front Yard for Sale

On Earth Day, Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, wrote a HuffPost blog calling for "all of us to come together to preserve it for each other, and future generations." A noble cause to be sure, and yet these renovations come at a cost that many Americans may not be aware of.

Ms. Cunningham was stepping into a rapidly growing controversy over who can use the Mall, a site of some of the most important civil rights and First Amendment protests of the 20th century, as well as numerous other events of public benefit that are now, one by one, being forced off the Mall.

Cunningham claimed that the National Park Service, in undertaking a multimillion-dollar renovation plan, was striving for "a more sustainable and visitor-friendly urban park." A review of National Park Service documents reveals a tangle of onerous restrictions that will have a chilling effect on who will be able to pursue hosting an event on the National Mall. The effort, imposes draconian rules and permit requirements that, if not overturned, will leave the National Mall little more than a virtually fenced off playground for those wealthy enough to sponsor events there.

Under the latest requirements of the Park Service, intended to protect newly installed "high-tech turf," most of the memorable events of recent history on the Mall would not be possible. Think of all the historic moments we've witnessed on the Mall; the procession of Native Peoples at the Grand Opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, the public celebration of the dedication of the World War II Memorial, the annual Black Family Reunion, the Library of Congress National Book Festival and the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, all gone, in the name of green grass.

Of all the events mentioned, only the Smithsonian Folklife Festival maintains a foothold on the National Mall. The other annual events have all moved, or discontinued, largely because of these new regulations and their associated costs. Unless the National Park Service agrees to a compromise, this may be the last Folklife Festival on the National Mall, ending a wonderful 47-year tradition that brings people together for free cultural exchange through music, food, dance, and skilled craft, open to all.

There are exceptions to the new rules. On May 1st, this Thursday, the Trust for the National Mall will gather for its annual benefit luncheon -- in a large tent on the Mall, cordoned off by security. Unlike the Folklife Festival, this event is not open to the public, but is a luxuriously catered affair with valet parking as described the Trust for the National Mall website:

"The Benefit Luncheon is held on the National Mall and is one of Washington, D.C.'s premier philanthropic events, bringing together more than 1,000 philanthropists, business leaders of national and regional companies, government officials, and diplomats from around the world in support of the Campaign for the National Mall."

Tickets start at $500; attendees paying $2,500 to $25,000 are promised "exclusive access and invitations to Campaign for the National Mall events throughout the year." The Trust offers "exclusive access" to the National Mall while at the same time these new NPS regulations effectively deny access to many popular events. There's no doubt that the National Mall could use a facelift, but at what cost?

When we think of the National Mall, we think of the March on Washington, the Fourth of July, the Cherry Blossom Festival, the display of the AIDS quilt, the WWII Reunion, we don't think of the grass. But why can't we have both? This is the United States of America, and we have the resources and talent to figure out a way to have green grass and landmark events open to all.

So while those VIP donors are enjoying their benefit luncheon on the Nation's Front Yard, we should all ask ourselves: should the National Mall be a manicured lawn with access limited to events with wealthy backers? Or should it remain the central stage to showcase our greatest achievements as a nation: free assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and free events that celebrate culture, diversity, innovation, history, and our shared heritage?

Kim Stryker, a longtime volunteer with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, is the organizer of a grassroots campaign, Save the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.