Now that Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Talbot Avenue Bridge has a new history can it also have a new future?
Last year Montgomery County officials and many county residents learned that the Talbot Avenue Bridge was more than just some old metal and wood assembled in 1918 by the B&O Railroad spanning the CSX Railroad tracks. They discovered its important ties to the county’s civil rights history. Once slated for demolition and replacement to make way for the proposed Purple Line light rail project and closed since April for safety reasons, the bridge’s fate is now undecided.
My research into Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb, a place where people of color were unable to live unless they were domestic servants for most of the 20th century, exposed the bridge’s history beyond the Lyttonsville residents I was interviewing for my work. Longtime Lyttonsville residents have deep attachments to the bridge. Residents in the adjacent North Woodside and Rosemary Hills neighborhoods have mixed feelings about the bridge but acknowledge that before last year they knew little about its history. Even County Executive Ike Leggett told me in a recent interview that my research had changed his understanding of Lyttonsville’s history and the bridge.
The bridge is contested space where competing interests now collide. There is the newfound interest in the bridge’s history that is shared by people well beyond the railroad tracks and the neighborhoods the bridge connects. And, there are the compelling arguments originating in those neighborhoods: some folks in North Woodside want the connection closed to reduce cut-through traffic and people on both sides of the tracks make a strong case for keeping the crossing open to vehicular traffic, including emergency vehicles.
The new awareness wrapped around the bridge’s history has opened up a space for reconsidering the structure’s fate. In its approval of the new Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, the Montgomery County Council instructed the Montgomery County Planning Department to explore ways to relocate the bridge as a mitigation measure. That move, if it materializes, would save the wood and metal but it would destroy the powerful visual symbolism the bridge offers as well the missed opportunity of integrating it into the Capital Crescent Trail in a highly visible location: mile marker zero.
The County Council’s directive to try and identify a new location for the bridge in a park lacks certainty. There’s nothing definitive in the council’s resolution [PDF] adopting the new sector plan: “The County Government should explore means for relocating the Talbot Avenue bridge to an appropriate site within the Lyttonsville Sector Plan Area.”
A more concrete and clear directive would have been for the Council to direct the Planning Department to initiate proceedings to designate the bridge historic under Montgomery County’s historic preservation law, Chapter 24A of the Montgomery County Code [PDF]. That designation would have guaranteed the historic bridge’s protection and preservation, whether in-situ or elsewhere in the county.
Preservation in Place is the Ideal Treatment
Preservation at the crossing is most consistent with historic preservation best practices and with the nature of the historic property. The greater opportunities for preserving the bridge in or near its current location were underscored for me last month when an author visiting from London contacted me via Facebook and asked if he could visit Lyttonsville while in Washington for a conference. I met Glyn Robbins at the Silver Spring Metro station and we drove to the bridge.
Afterwards, he described his experience to me in an email. “I found the bridge strangely moving. Visually, it’s emblematic of a nation,” he wrote. “That bridge, in terms of its design and location, could not have been in any other country than the US. In many other contexts, it would be preserved for that reason alone.”
I asked Robbins what he thought about the bridge’s impending demolition or its removal from the CSX crossing. “Metaphorically and symbolically, demolishing this bridge will sever a link between the present and the past, represented by the African-American community of Lyttonsville.”
Robbins later recounted his visit to Silver Spring in a blog post he titled, “The Bridges of Montgomery County.”
Glyn Robbins isn’t alone in that feeling. I interviewed a North Woodside resident who hadn’t known about the bridge’s complicated history before last year. She now thinks that the bridge should be preserved as a historic landmark and as a pedestrian and bicycle structure in the new trail system. She falls into the camp that’s worried about cut-through traffic in her neighborhood but now a concern for preserving what she sees as an important part of her community’s history factors heavily into her thoughts about the bridge.
The setting matters to the North Woodside woman. “I thought what a wonderful symbol, I mean I suddenly had this fantasy because it is a bridge, I mean right? It’s a metaphor,” she said last month in an interview at the bridge.
To her (she was uncomfortable with me quoting her by name), the bridge represents something that history books, museums, and other ways the past is mediated can’t offer: a sensory experience. “It would be really amazing to have it as a way of people remembering — I think it’s important to remember and I think these visual symbols of real things help us remember.”
A Call for Creativity and Imagination
Now that county officials are evaluating ways to reopen the vital railroad crossing as the Purple Line is stalled in the courts, there is an opportunity to reconsider the Talbot Avenue Bridge’s fate. Instead of viewing the bridge as an obstruction, Montgomery County leaders could reimagine the structure as a unique part of the county’s emerging cycling and walking infrastructure. Alternatives that include keeping the bridge at or near its current location and a new vehicular bridge should be evaluated.
Like Washington’s new 11th Street Bridge Park, the Talbot Avenue Bridge could serve as a bridge between Montgomery County’s past, present, and future. It could be a bridge to a better understanding of Silver Spring’s segregated past and a way to bring together two neighborhoods that historically were defined by that segregation.
Some Silver Spring residents see the bridge as an uncomfortable reminder of an ugly history. A former North Woodside neighborhood civic association president described the bridge simply as a “symbol of Silver Spring’s racist past” in a Facebook comment. In a subsequent interview I asked him if the bridge also symbolizes Lyttonsville’s resilience against a racist hegemony; he conceded that it could.
Montomgery County leaders should seize this opportunity to explore ways to construct a new vehicular bridge at the Talbot Avenue crossing and preserve the historic structure by rehabilitating its deteriorated elements, raising it to fit light rail catenaries, and re-engineering its approaches to accommodate a wider right of way for the proposed Purple Line.
There is no doubt that the Talbot Avenue Bridge is a powerful symbol now that its full history is becoming known beyond the Lyttonsville community. The North Woodside woman said it best in our interview: it’s “an actual bridge that symbolizes the two neighborhoods” and so much more.
© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein