Creative mitigation Silver Spring style

Mitigation is the term of art used to describe how federal agencies prefer to resolve adverse effects to historic properties. More jargon, I know. Yet, mitigation is a fact of life for every American who lives in an old place. This post is about mitigation and the Talbot Avenue Bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Historic properties are buildings, structures, objects, and sites that are determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires agencies to identify properties eligible for listing in the National Register before a proposed action like a new road, bridge, railroad, pipeline, or power line is built. If eligible properties are identified in an area that will be impacted, agencies are required to evaluate what effects the action will have on the properties. Effects range from complete demolition to partial alteration to the introduction of visual impacts. It’s a complicated thing.

Pittsburgh Wool Company, before demolition(1998) and during demolition (2000). The Pittsburgh Wool Company was the last wool pullery in the United States. A historic business founded in the early 20th century, it occupied a former tannery building constructed in the 1880s.

If the proposed action is found to adversely affect historic properties, i.e., alter the characteristics that make them historic (important), then the agencies are required to resolve the adverse effects. The process, from the identification of historic properties to determining why they are historically significant to resolving adverse effects to them, is a legally-mandated consultation process. In other words, people living in and around the historic properties must be consulted at every step along the way.

Work inside the Pittsburgh Wool Company prior to demolition.

Oftentimes, this consultation never happens. Or, it happens in a perfunctory and highly limited way that is inconsistent with the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. As a result, mitigation all too often simply involves a transaction in which the federal agency or its state and local partner (or private sector entities like telecommunications firms) buys the right to demolish something old and historic.

Pittsburgh Wool Company mitigation products: Heinz History Center exhibition (left) and Historic American Engineering Record drawings (right).

This compensation (sometimes derided as bribery) involves more perfunctory actions: completing a community historic resource survey, funneling money to a local museum, writing reports that no one will ever read, etc. Once the mitigation is decided upon, the agency is free to demolish the old building or structure.

This is what happened with the Talbot Avenue Bridge. The bridge was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places and a mitigation plan was developed to resolve the adverse effects introduced by the construction of the Purple Line light rail line.

Purple Line Community Advisory Team, Talbot Avenue Bridge Design Meeting, August 30, 2018.

Purple Line Community Advisory Team, Talbot Avenue Bridge Design Meeting, August 30, 2018.

The bridge was determined historically significant for its associations with the railroad; the adverse effect is demolition; and, the mitigation was the completion of more documentation prior to demolition.

Talbot Avenue Bridge, September 22, 2018.

Two years ago, Silver Spring residents learned more about the bridge’s history and its ties to local African American and civil rights history. Since then, folks have taken things into their own hands by raising awareness of the bridge’s history and by appropriating the bridge for public programs. These programs have included community meetings, a pop-up museum, and a centennial celebration festival that attracted more than 200 people on a warm fall afternoon in 2018. And beyond the space, we can include the composition of a song to commemorate the bridge, the production of a documentary video, and the various visual artworks that have been created among grassroots mitigation created.

Converting abandoned infrastructure into festival space. Talbot Avenue Bridge, September 22, 2018.

As these events were unfolding, I was invited to participate in a “diamond session” panel on historic preservation at the 2018 American Folklore Society meeting in Buffalo, New York. Diamond sessions are like pechakucha for folklorists. Each presenter is limited to showing only 21 slides that are precisely timed to be visible for only 20 seconds. The objective in these sessions is to move the focus off of the speaker and to spur discussion.

My AFS presentation was titled, “More than Old Metal and Wood: The Talbot Avenue Bridge.” The abstract published in the meeting program book reads:

For 99 years, the Talbot Avenue Bridge carried cars, bikes, and pedestrians across railroad tracks in Silver Spring, Maryland. The bridge connected two very different neighborhoods: a historically Black hamlet and a Sundown suburb that developed around racially restricted residential subdivisions. Though eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as an engineering structure associated with the B&O Railroad, historians neglected to explore the bridge’s social history. This presentation demonstrates what happened when the bridge’s links to Jim Crow segregation were revealed to white residents, the press, and local government officials.

The video below is a rendering of the presentation.

© 2018 D.S. Rotenstein

Tastee Diner’s secret historic menu

Tastee Diner, Silver Spring, Maryland.

It’s well known that the most exclusive restaurants have special menus with items reserved for well-heeled and well-connected patrons. These special people dine on dishes carefully prepared by chefs not line cooks. During its earliest years in business, the Tastee Diner had its own special menu of sorts. Not only that, the Silver Spring, Maryland, eatery also had a special cover charge. Entry and seating were free for white folks; the admission price for people of color was astronomically high: it was the color of their skin.

The Silver Spring Historical Society celebrates the Tastee Diner in its books, blog posts, walking tours, and other public programs. The group talks about the community’s nostalgia for the diner and how Silver Spring mobilized to “save” and move the diner when downtown redevelopment threatened it nearly 20 years ago.

Earlier this week the Silver Spring Historical Society posted on its facebook page, “A local high school student will be utilizing SSHS’s collection of materials about Tastee Diner for a school project.”

Silver Spring Historical Society Facebook page screen capture, October 12, 2018.

I wonder if the historical society will tell the high school student about the diner’s special menu, the one with prices that people of color could never pay. I wonder if this exercise in nostalgia economics will include scholarship by historians who have explored Tastee Diner’s special menu, the one that historian Andrew Hurley wrote about in 2002:

Segregated service was by no means exclusive to diners located in the Deep South. Luncheonettes, coffee shops, and diners in the Middle Atlantic and midwestern states resorted to many of the same practices that prevailed in the old Confederacy. Eddie Warner, for instance, ran a chain of diners in suburban Maryland on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Warner instructed his employees to notify black patrons that they could not be served inside the diner, but that take-out service was available. Warner made no exception for the African-American cooks and dishwashers he hired periodically. Company policy dictated that they take their meals alone in the back kitchen. Hurley, Andrew. Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in the Postwar Consumer Culture. New York: Basic Books, 2002, pp. 88-89.

Today’s Tastee Diner clientele looks nothing like its Jim Crow-era predecessors. The restaurant is a popular eatery and meeting place for people of all races and cultural backgrounds — mostly. A decade ago, the Tastee Diner faced and overcame allegations that it discriminated against LGBTQ diners. The discriminatory practices leading to episodes between 2009 and 2011 appear to have been abandoned and mostly forgotten. Yet, when I did Black History tours in downtown Silver Spring, people who recalled them made sure that I mentioned them as we met across from the restaurant.

So who is making sure that Montgomery County students using the Silver Spring Historical Society as an educational resource are getting real history, not fake whitewashed history? How are parents and educators to know whether the history lessons about menus and economies at the historic eatery will include the hidden charges not published in the historic menus.

© 2018 D.S. Rotenstein

River Road Moses Cemetery report released

River Road Moses Cemetery site, Bethesda, Maryland.

The results of research into the history of Bethesda, Maryland’s River Road Moses Cemetery are presented in this report first released to the dispersed descendant community and government agencies in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Now that all of the known stakeholders have a copy of the report, I am releasing it to the general public.

Some key findings presented in the report and deriving from the research:

  • The cemetery was never affiliated with the Macedonia Baptist Church. Though the Bethesda congregation has taken the lead on advocating for the cemetery and it is demanding that Montgomery County “give it back” to the congregation, the cemetery had little in common with the church beyond spatial proximity. Furthermore, in my attempts to get historical information from the church’s former pastor, he repeatedly attempted to dissuade me from writing about the church by asserting that the church and cemetery were never related. Throughout its entire history, the River Road Moses Cemetery appears to have been closely affiliated with Rock Creek Baptist Church, a congregation founded in 1872 in Washington’s Tenleytown neighborhood and which was displaced in the early 20th century.
  • The cemetery appears to have been active for a much more limited time (c. 1912-1935) than initially believed (1912-1958).
  • There are likely substantially fewer burials that activists claim. The one-acre tract could have accommodated as many as 800 to 1,000 burials, yet because of the population served and the limited time that the cemetery was active, it is likely that the number of people buried there is substantially less than the 500 claimed by Bethesda activists.
  • The cemetery remained a fully owned and operated satellite of a Washington-based benevolent organization. Though there are significant historical ties linking the cemetery to the River Road community, they were mainly because of spatial proximity and not necessarily because it was a “community cemetery.” As a result, it is likely that more Washington residents were buried in the cemetery than Montgomery County residents.
  • The cemetery and community’s history expose a pattern of anti-Black land use policies that created serial displacement in Northwest Washington in the first decade of the 20th century and which continued as displaced DC residents moved to River Road and were displaced between c. 1935 and 1960. The serial displacement throughline continues today with gentrification in the District and Montgomery County and with Montgomery County’s efforts to “retrofit” its suburbs.
  • The research identified a Washington cemetery (in Chevy Chase) that had been forgotten for more than a century (homes were built on top of it in the 1940s). As a result of my research, the DC Historic Preservation Office was able to map the cemetery’s location.
  • The research identified a previously unknown African American community in what is now Chevy Chase that was founded by free persons of color in the 1810s.
  • The report treats the heavily disturbed cemetery as a traditional cultural property and it contextualizes it among other similar African American cemeteries sealed beneath roads and parking lots as a Blacktop Burial Ground: a vernacular type of historic property that combines an earlier, disturbed African American cemetery with a twentieth century parking lot covering its surface.

When I transmitted the report to the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, the agency that owns most of the site, I offered recommendations for pursuing historic preservation and for working with the descendant community.  Continue reading

Housing Opportunities Commission Statement

Today I delivered a copy of the River Road Moses Cemetery report to the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission and I entered this statement into the public record.


October 3, 2018

Good afternoon. My name is David Rotenstein. I am a professional historian and ethnographer. I have a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and I have served on the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and other bodies in my capacity as an expert in historic preservation. I also previously was certified as a Registered Professional Archaeologist.

I have transmitted to you today a copy of a report I prepared for the descendant community affiliated with the River Road Moses Cemetery. Copies of the report and a completed Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties form also were provided to members of the descendant community, the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Office, and the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office.

The report, which contains the results of nearly a year of documentary and oral history research, finds that the River Road Moses Cemetery meets four of nine criteria for designation in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The report also finds that the River Road Moses Cemetery site appears to meet three out of four criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property.

I am here today to urge the Housing Opportunities Commission to initiate designation proceedings under Chapter 24A of the Montgomery County Code. I also am recommending that the Commission, along with Mr. Harvey Matthews and other members of the dispersed descendant community in Montgomery County and Washington, as well as experts in African American history and folklife and other members of the community, form an advisory committee to determine the best stewardship for the site that also enables HOC to continue fulfilling its mission to provide affordable housing in Montgomery County.

Currently, advocacy for preservation of the cemetery site is vested with a small group of activists associated with Macedonia Baptist Church. That group does not reflect the breadth of the potential stakeholder population associated with a historic property located in Montgomery County, but which for all intents and purposes was a Washington, D.C., institution. Furthermore, based on the site’s history, it appears that whatever the number of actual interments in the cemetery, the majority likely were District of Columbia residents. This is an important site and an important issue and it deserves the utmost care and respect.

I am willing to meet with HOC staff to discuss this statement and the report and I am prepared to answer any questions the Commission may have.

Thank you.