As a foreign visitor from a very distant planet, one thing struck me on the National Mall: the place was sacred. It was not like London, Paris or other Western capitals where official power resides in buildings that are beautiful and nothing more. Here, the spiritual and the temporal were deeply intertwined. The National Mall looked like the Angkor Wat of the American Civil Religion.
The National Mall in Washington D.C. hosts on its borders the American political institutions: the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, and in its heart memorials to the most important American presidents. The Mall is also surrounded by cultural landmarks: the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, and others.
The memorials are built in such a way as to give you spiritual feelings. Washington Monument is a gigantic Egyptian obelisk. The Lincoln Memorial architecture imitates Greek temples. The Jefferson Memorial looks like the Pantheon in Rome. The source of inspiration for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial could have been Stonehenge or some other primitive sanctuary. The memorials want the visitor to be impressed (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln) or to meditate (Roosevelt). In all of them you can read the President's sayings in letters as large as "Tu es Petrus" in San Peter's Vatican City basilica. These words, once controversial, are now almost as sacred as the Bible.
The relative position of the memorials is also very significant. In the middle stands the obelisk of Washington, who lead the nation to independence, founded the Union and became the first President. From there, you can see at a glance the Capitol and the White House, which are the most important political decision centers in the world, in the same way as you can see the decision centers of the world's economy from the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Behind Washington stands Lincoln, who saved the Union by turning a free association of States into a united nation. On Washington's side, there's Jefferson, his ally, his successor as President, but also a philosopher; hence his retired and quiet position away from the center of the Mall. Then, in the middle of the trees, the Memorial of Roosevelt portrays him as a sapient man. Here is a simplified map:
White House | | Supreme Court Lincoln----------Washington----------------------Capitol / \ | Roosevelt---Jefferson
The visitor is supposed to walk from one place to another. Long distances lead him to spend a whole day on the site and give him plenty of time to think about what he has just seen and what the next building on his route means. Perspectives have been carefully studied, in the spirit of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French engineer who planned Washington D.C.: the Capitol and the Washington obelisk stand on small hills above ponds that reflect their image. No skyscraper from the outside can divert the visitor's attention from the memorials or the institutions.
Furthermore, very few touristic shops or hot dog stands spoil the Mall. Ouroboros tells me that T-shirt vendors are allowed if they purport to a political issue, so most shirts (in small lettering) note: Statehood for D.C. Nothing trivial is allowed here. Streets are rare, long distances suppress noise and crowds. More importantly, money is absent from the site. Entrance to most of the monuments is free. While museums are very expensive in New York, here you pay nothing to visit the National Gallery, one of the best museums in the country.
It seems that Washington D.C is what America is about. But New York (and the rest of the country) is what America really is.