The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Travel

October 9, 2013

As D.C. trash piles up amid shutdown, dispirited tourists seek relief

WASHINGTON — The five visiting Australians had been shut out of the Smithsonian museums in Washington. They had been shut out of the memorials on the National Mall. And when 4-year-old Ava had to use the restroom Friday, they were shut out of that, too.

They wondered whether she could just go in the bushes.

As they stood on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, they said their long-planned trip to Washington had gotten them snapshots of one striking sight: trash cans overflowing with refuse.

"This is what we actually got to see," said Kymberley Brooks, 28, laughing.

Day four of the government shutdown saw federal Washington slipping a notch further into neglect.

The buildup of uncollected trash got to the point where Mayor Vincent Gray ordered the District of Columbia to step in and collect refuse around the Mall and federal sites elsewhere to prevent the rise of vermin.

The president of the private, nonprofit Trust for the National Mall worried about all the money and work that had been put into the Mall in recent years. "Like your own house," said Caroline Cunningham, "any time you're not taking care of it on a regular basis, it goes into further decline."

And a young tourist from Rochester, N.Y., said she was in tears over all the locked restrooms on the Mall.

"I think it [stinks] that . . . the everyday functions of government in society have to suffer, and we have to walk past that," she said, indicating four overflowing trash cans on 17th Street near the World War II Memorial.

"And not have bathrooms," she said. "I was just crying because I couldn't go to the bathroom for probably over 45 minutes."

In addition to extensive memorial closures, all restrooms on the Mall are closed, and those in the shuttered Smithsonian Institution museums are inaccessible.

Pity the unsuspecting tourist who sets out for the Mall in the morning after several cups of coffee.

"A lot of people think, 'Oh, everyday life won't be affected' " by the shutdown, the tourist said as she stood with friends across the street from the memorial. "But if your everyday life included a trip to Washington, D.C. . . . "

Cunningham noted that millions of dollars have been spent in recent years to spruce up the beleaguered Mall.

The most recent work has been a seven-acre turf restoration and irrigation project at the Mall's east end.

Asked whether she thought the shutdown would hurt such progress, Cunningham said, "Honestly, I think it's the opposite.

"It reinforces the fact that [government] funding is really questionable," she said. "And private dollars are the major driver of the infrastructure that's needed in these parks."

The effect of the shutdown rippled outward in many ways.

In a statement announcing his trash initiative, Gray said, "It is imperative that someone remove the trash. . . [before] . . . rodents and other vermin are attracted.

"Because the federal government cannot step up to provide this basic service to District residents and visitors, I have authorized [the D.C. public works department] to service the litter cans for the duration of the federal shutdown."

Officials said later that District of Columbia crews would not collect inside Rock Creek Park or inside the Mall, but along the perimeters of these sites.

The District of Columbia government has remained open during the federal shutdown, drawing on a special reserve fund while the city budget remains in limbo alongside spending for federal agencies. The reserve fund is expected to last until about Oct. 13.

At the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the delivery of the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex, scheduled for this month, has been postponed until next spring because the museum is shuttered.

At the National Institutes of Health, one researcher worried about the fate of untended experiments.

The head of a biomedical research laboratory said he was upset by the enforcement of a federal law that prohibits federal employees from volunteering to work.

"Really, my main beef is that I'd like to work," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of causing trouble for supervisors.

"We're in the middle of a huge experiment," he said. "It's biological material, so it's very time-sensitive. A lot of us would like to work, even if we're not paid. But we're worried that there could be criminal consequences if we do — which seems odd."

"We're dedicated to what we do," he said. "Even if we're shut down, we want to work."

Other federal employees who couldn't do their jobs found charitable occupation.

Cylia Lowe usually spends her weekdays processing legal cases at the Office of Personnel Management.

On Friday, the furloughed lawyer was cutting up carrots and celery at Martha's Kitchen, a nonprofit program in Washington that provides free hot dinners for poor and homeless residents.

"It's a way to stay in a positive frame of mind and make a contribution to the community," said Lowe, 38, a resident of Reisterstown, Md., as she chopped vegetables in the brightly lighted kitchen. "It's fun and it helps you keep your mind off things."

At the next table, Dolly Garcia, a geographer for the Census Bureau, and Cindy Steele, a staff trainer at NASA, tackled a mountain of bell peppers for pots of stew to be served to more than 1,000 people across the District of Columbia.

"It's a productive use of my free time and it makes me feel better," said Garcia, 39, a Washington resident. "I know this will end up feeding someone tonight."

On the National Mall, the Australians, all from Adelaide — Brooks, her sister, Dannielle Little, 32, and Little's children, Ava Mausolf, 4, Mariah Mausolf, 15, and Harrison Mausolf, 10 — lamented their plight.

"We're just really disappointed because we booked this in January," Brooks said. "We were really excited, the kids in particular. We were so keen to see the Smithsonian."

Dannielle Little said: "We're visiting here every day, thinking, 'Maybe they'll vote, and it will open tomorrow.' . . . We've traveled from such a long way. It's not something we can come back and do again. It's not like, 'Next summer holidays we'll go to D.C.' It'll be years and years and years, if ever."

They leave for Orlando and Dallas on Saturday.

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