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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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