Scenes from the Mall, Part 1: Sunday afternoon

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Over the last couple of decades, the National Mall in Washington has been carved up into a growing number of separate spheres of influence -- room set aside for the National Museum of the American Indian here, for the Eisenhower Memorial there -- undercutting the idea of its turf as a gathering ground for a broad cross-section of Americans. But the throngs expected to gather here this week may bring us back, at least temporarily, to that earlier conception of the Mall as a front lawn for the nation: a single (huge) space for a single (huge) crowd. At the very least, Tuesday’s inaugural festivities are likely to be the biggest since LBJ drew 1.2 million spectators in 1965 -- and quite possibly the biggest in American history.

Throughout the week I’ll be sending dispatches from Washington, looking at the crowds and how the city absorbs them against the backdrop of the rising interest in urban policy, public space and infrastructure spawned by the arrival of the Obama administration. In other words, I’ll be writing not only about all the people filling Washington this week, but what they might symbolize or portend for Americans’ attitudes about cities and how we build them going forward.


I arrived last night, having moved through three different airports (Los Angeles, Boston and finally Washington) packed with families, many of them African American, in matching Obama gear and then into the heart of a capital city whose streets seemed surprisingly quiet. This afternoon, a little after 1 p.m., I set out from the Los Angeles Times bureau on F Street and walked under solidly gray skies toward the Mall to gauge the size of the crowd gathered for the pre-inauguration concert and celebration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Before I’d even reached the Mall, it seemed possible that the throng had already grown past the first estimates of 300,000 or so attendees. Nearly every block was packed with pedestrians flowing in the same direction.

By 1:30 p.m., an hour before the concert was due to start, the area around the Washington Monument -- a good three-quarters of a mile from the stage at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial -- was already filling up with a mass of humanity. Some families sat on blankets, but mostly people stood, positioning themselves for a clear view of one of the many JumboTrons set up on the Mall to show the musical performances of U2, Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce and remarks from Obama himself (which proved to be brief and rather subdued, verging occasionally on downright bleak).

It was tough to see the whole expanse of the crowd from any one spot without getting up in the air a little; at several points I saw people handing their cameras up to firefighters standing atop their trucks. The firefighters then snapped a photograph or two from that vantage point before handing the cameras back down.

As I write this, at about 5 p.m. Washington time, early reports on the crowd size have ranged from ‘at least 300,000’ to 750,000. What does that fairly healthy turnout mean for the crowds for the inaugural itself? Does it suggest that the Tuesday number might exceed 2 million, as some have predicted -- or rather that people decided in the end to come to the Mall today instead of Tuesday, figuring this afternoon’s event would be more manageable?

We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, here are a handful of my snapshots from Sunday afternoon, showing (in order) the crowds around the Reflecting Pool and the base of the Washington Monument; a protest against the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; firefighters as photographers; the way portable toilets have become an impossible-to-miss part of the cityscape here; and some of the many portraits of Obama and his family available for sale on the sidewalks of Washington. Click on any of them for a larger version.

--Christopher Hawthorne