It’s no secret that DC’s National Mall is home to dozens of priceless monuments and museums. But why, when it comes to planning, do we seem to treat the Mall itself like it’s an ancient artifact to be admired, but not used?
This year, I spent my Turkey Day in Istanbul. I stayed a little over a week, but I don’t think it took me more than a few hours of sightseeing to recognize how very different this metropolis is from Washington. One of the most notable differences I came across is how Turks conceive of and plan around their national monuments.
While DC fights to keep the National Mall a memorial unto itself, even Istanbul’s oldest neighborhoods (2,000+ years of use) integrate historical treasures and modern establishments with great success.
In the world of cities, Istanbul is nothing short of a heavyweight. With an estimated population of over 14 million residents (as high as 17 million by some counts) and about 2,500 years worth of history under its belt, the metropolis is one the most impressive and diverse in the world.
Today, the megacity calls Turkey its home and it is, at least in legal terms, a secular community. Since its humble beginnings around 600 BC, however, Istanbul has played host to a number of empires, religions and cultures.
With so much history and so much civilization to account for, I expected to find a city that kept is cultural treasures under lock-and-key. But one walk through Old Town—the most ancient part of the metropolis, and the home to vast majority of Istanbul’s sites, including the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace—proved my assumptions entirely wrong.
Instead, what I found was a bustling neighborhood that played host to a myriad of restaurants, shops, park areas, bike share stations, street vendors, locals, and tourists. And, it just happened to include one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a slew of other notable historical sites. No big deal.
As I snacked on a kebab at the edge of the 1,600 year old Hippodrome of Constantinople, I couldn’t help but wonder how different the area would be if the US National Park Service were in charge.
Here’s my best guess.
If we were to judge by the state of affairs on the Mall today, that would be it for the cafés and most of the street vendors. No more private art galleries and no more fruit stands. Few locals and fewer hotels. Bike share stations? Probably not. And, definitely no kebabs.
Last year, I volunteered regularly for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Visitor Services representative. It was a fantastic opportunity to interact with tourists visiting the museum, and often our capital, and sometimes a city of any kind, for the first time.
It was my job to answer their questions and point them in the right direction. Most of the time, I really enjoyed the work. There were only two questions I dreaded: 1) “Can you recommend a few good restaurants nearby?” and 2) “Where can I buy some sunscreen (or band aids or a calling card or a pair of socks or a pack of cigarettes)?”
These are reasonable questions with no reasonable answers. I hated being the bearer of bad news, especially when visitors with a laudable moral consciousness were concerned. Unfortunately, the reality is—and was—that aside from the USHMM café, there are no restaurants near the museum, and the closest convenience store is a hike, as well.
Instead of leaving the look-but-don’t-touch policing to the multitude of museums that flank the Mall, the National Park Service enforces a set of policies that turn the entire space into an immaculately preserved dead zone.
Of course, to be fair, the locked-down, mile-long strip of federal buildings surrounding the area doesn’t help matters any when it comes to creating a friendly, mixed-use space. But, at the very least, these structures are inaccessible to the public for reasons of security, and they are places of work. The Mall, on the other hand, is a place of recreation, and I pick on it, because there are no legitimate obstacles to opening it up for classy, organic, well-planned commercial development.
If the National Park Service ever considers the idea, Istanbul’s Old Town is a perfect case study for how things may go right. While every monument, mosque, obelisk, and museum has its own space, the areas in between are filled with modern conveniences, such as restaurants, shops, and street vendors.
Istanbul has gone through many transformations, but the most beloved and impressive structures remain respected and intact, even after all these years. Indeed, perhaps it is because of its age, rather than in spite of it, that the city has done such a great job of integrating the old with the new. If nothing has undone the Hagia Sophia yet, it’s unlikely that a hookah bar and a couple of carpet stores will suddenly get the job done.
Our Mall and the monuments on it are much, much younger, but we can learn from older cities and use their experience to our advantage. We ought to be confident in the fact that our national treasures are impressive, inspiring and important. And we shouldn’t tiptoe around them just to make sure no one forgets it.
It’s nice to think that we can preserve every last square inch of our capital for our grandchildren’s grandchildren just as it exists today, but it’s neither smart nor sustainable.
Plus, if my grandchildren’s grandchildren are anything like me, I’m sure they’ll be much more interested in enjoying a beer at a Mall-side café with a clear view of Mr. Lincoln than running back and forth across a pristine, treeless lawn in search of Advil and SPF 6,000 sunscreen. Maybe they’ll dig kebabs, too.