Nation's historic promenade reflects magnificence and neglect

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WASHINGTON -- Millions will cram shoulder to shoulder to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office this month as the nation's 44th president, another indelible snapshot of American democracy in full display on the National Mall.

But beyond the reach of the camera's lens, the historic promenade that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol -- the place often called "America's Front Yard" -- is itself a monument to neglect.

Patches of the once-lush lawn are trampled to dust. Half of the underground sprinkler system doesn't work. The sea wall around the Jefferson Memorial is sinking, and lately, wildlife is dying in the unfiltered waterways.

Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service that maintains the mall, likes to say it has been "loved to death," an American treasure battered by 25 million visitors a year -- more than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks and the Grand Canyon combined. While the crowds have grown, the budget has shrunk, and with $350 million in overdue care, the park service cannot maintain a standard that befits what many consider a national jewel.

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