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Scenes from the Mall, Part 3: Jay-Z, Pierre L'Enfant and the value of long-term (urban) planning

January 20, 2009 |  4:37 pm

Crowds_wait_at_a_closed_security_ch

There were plenty of snafus down on the National Mall this morning, more than a few ways in which the carefully planned management of inaugural crowds went awry.

I walked to the southeastern edge of the Capitol this morning with my sister and a friend. They held blue tickets for the swearing-in ceremony; mine was green. We parted at the corner of Independence Avenue and South Capitol Street. And while I progressed rather quickly through a battery of security checkpoints and found my seat around 9 a.m. -- well before a parade of celebrities including Jay-Z (wearing a gigantic, Yeltsin-esque fur hat), Beyonce and Maria Shriver swept past me toward their seats nearby -- they stood motionless in a massive block of people that went nowhere. They ultimately gave up after standing in line for four hours.

Times staffers told me similar stories, as did others holding tickets that proved worthless. But those problems, in nearly every case, had more to do with security -- with metal detectors on the blink or overzealous guards -- than with the readiness of the Mall itself, as a piece of urban design, to handle a crowd estimated at well above 1 million.

This morning, ...

Crowds_fill_the_mall_on_inaugurat_3 the public heart of the nation’s capital absorbed a mass of humanity bigger than it had ever been asked to absorb, a throng that stretched from the base of the Capitol to the Washington Monument and then well past it. And its frozen turf stood patiently ready for more: At the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, as Robin Abcarian reports, there was plenty of elbow room if absolutely no hope of glimpsing the new president with the naked eye.

The ability of the Mall to take on essentially whatever kind of crowds we throw at it year after year is foremost a tribute, of course, to its planners: First to Pierre L’Enfant, the tempestuous Frenchman personally hired by George Washington in 1791 to sketch the initial plan for the new capital city, and in equal measure to the four men -– architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim, landscape architect Frederick Olmsted Jr. and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens –- who in 1902 advised Sen. James McMillan in updating the original scheme.

The Mall’s eternal adaptability is also, it seems to me, a tribute to long-term, and even super-long-term, urban planning as an ideal. We'd be wise to consider that lesson far more often in Los Angeles, where so much plannning has been done in a rushed, ad hoc or baldly expedient form.

L’Enfant’s initial scheme for the capital city was ambitious to a grand and rather ludicrous degree. The Frenchman looked out at a muddy, forested village with a mere handful of residents and imagined a radial series of wide boulevards lined at some vague future date with neoclassical government buildings. (He was fired the next year, but the graceful skeleton of his plan remained in place.) A little more than 100 years later, Burnham and his colleagues sketched the long east-west axis and its north-south counterpart and the dimensions of the Mall essentially as we know them today.

As the space filled with a record crowd this morning, the vision of those men was not so much vindicated as fully drawn for the first time. It took more than two centuries, but today it became clear exactly what L’Enfant anticipated for the capital from the start, and in particular for its almost absurdly roomy public spaces.

The conclusion to be drawn from that history -- that urban planning can take many decades and even centuries to bear fully ripe fruit -- is a recurring one in the life of cities. When Millennium Park opened in Chicago in 2004, many visitors marveled that it seemed to fit so perfectly into its site on the edge of Lake Michigan -- forgetting that the parcel was in fact the last piece in an ambitious urban plan drawn up for the city by Burnham himself almost exactly a century earlier. Millennium Park was the final domino in a row that Burnham painstakingly arranged.

In Los Angeles, we have trouble thinking 10 years out, let alone a hundred. When the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced this month that it was pegging completion of the Wilshire Boulevard subway line for 2038, pundits howled -- in part because the MTA is known for serial construction delays, but also because truly long-term city planning remains in our city something of a contradiction in terms. “I’ll be dead by then!” certain critics cried. Well, yes -- but other Angelenos will have arrived or grown up to take your place, and they will need a real subway far more than you do. If we can plan for them as well as L’Enfant and Burnham planned for us, we’ll have done well.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Top photo: Crowds wait at a closed security checkpoint as Barack Obama is sworn in as president. Credit: Chris Gardner / EPA.  Bottom photo: Crowds stretched from the base of the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond. Credit: Mark Wilson / EPA

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