The Talbot Avenue Bridge

The Talbot Avenue Bridge has probably taken on a life of its own — Charlotte A. Coffield, July 19, 2017

It has been a year since I first wrote about Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Talbot Avenue Bridge. In that time, many Silver Spring residents have learned that the bridge is much more than some old metal and wood. Most Silver Spring residents only thought about it as: A) a way to cross the CSX Railroad tracks; or, B) a nuisance (or “junk” as one graffiti tagger recently wrote).

Talbot Avenue Bridge, September 2017. Photo by David Rotenstein.

Recently lifelong Lyttonsville neighborhood resident Charlotte Coffield has taken to saying that the bridge now has “a life of its own.” Since I first wrote about it last September, the bridge been featured in the Washington Post, in broadcast/local access news stories, a documentary video, a Facebook page, a UK social justice activist’s blog (twice), and now an acoustic guitar tune.

Jay Elvove on the Talbot Avenue Bridge as a CSX train passes beneath, September 24, 2017. Photo by David Rotenstein.

Elvove’s performance capped off a program held Sunday afternoon, September 24, 2017 that was sponsored by the Presidents’ Council of Silver Spring Civic Associations (Prezco). I was invited to speak about the history of Silver Spring as a sundown suburb and the African American hamlet of Lyttonsville. About 50 people attended the program in unseasonably hot 92-degree weather.

Public historian dressed for the occasion. Photo by Jay Mallin.

“Standing here in the center of the Talbot Avenue Bridge, there is no other side of the tracks, ” I began my 30-minute talk. “From the center of this bridge, everywhere is the other side of the tracks.”

Charlotte Coffield talks about Lyttonsville and the Talbot Avenue Bridge, September 24, 2017. Photo by David Rotenstein.

The Talbot Avenue Bridge is an endangered site of conscience where the people gathered there last Sunday could hear about its history, take in its visual and aural environments, and touch an artifact that once connected two communities divided by race and the railroad tracks. The newfound social connections to the bridge and attachments add new urgency to the community’s efforts to ensure some sort of preservation, whether it’s in place at the crossing or elsewhere in the community.

Photo of Prezco program participants taken by a passing cyclist. Courtesy of Alan Bowser.

A resident who lives in the formerly all-white community, North Woodside, and who attended the program wrote to me afterwards that she now has, “a great affection for Talbot bridge (that has deepened further upon learning more about its history).” Her comments are typical of what people now tell me when I speak about the bridge and Silver Spring history.

This research and subsequent public interest in the Talbot Avenue Bridge is what I call true public history.

Postscript: I would like to thank Alan Bowser for organizing the program and for inviting me to speak. Alan and Prezco leader Valarie Barr plus nearby residents Charlotte Coffield and Patricia Tyson did most of the heavy lifting to make the program a success.

Talbot Avenue Bridge approach. Photo by David Rotenstein.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

The uses and abuses of diversity in Decatur, Georgia

Earlier this year, the National League of Cities named Decatur, Georgia, a 2017 winner in its City Cultural Diversity Awards program. The membership organization then gave Decatur a platform on its website to describe the municipal program for which the award was given. The June 2017 CitiesSpeak blog article written was by Linda Harris, an employee in the city’s economic development department and one of the Atlanta suburb’s chief spokespersons. It detailed initiatives that the suburban Atlanta city began after a confluence of events spotlighting race-related tensions forced municipal leaders to confront diversity and inclusion. The CitiesSpeak article described Decatur’s “Better Together”

Decatur Square, 2016.

initiative and its objectives to increase community engagement and to introduce more diversity to spaces where civic issues, from affordable housing to police racial profiling, are discussed and decided.

Gentrification is one word missing from the Decatur article. And, perhaps more importantly, the city’s key role in creating an environment that promotes gentrification, displacement, and inequity is conspicuously absent from the CitiesSpeak essay and other city-produced and promoted narratives about the Better Together initiative. Continue reading

The Bridge: a documentary video by Jay Mallin

In the spring of 2017 Silver Spring videographer Jay Mallin asked if he could interview me for a documentary video he was producing. The subject was Lyttonsville’s Talbot Avenue Bridge. I agreed and we met near the eastern approach to the bridge on a comfortable morning in late June.

Jay Mallin sets up to interview me at the Talbot Avenue Bridge, June 27, 2017.

Screen capture from “The Bridge.”

Jay completed the video in August. He invited me along with Lyttonsville residents Charlotte Coffield and Patricia Tyson to view the rough cut and we met in Charlotte’s dining room where Jay had set up an iMac on Charlotte’s dinner table.

Jay Mallin, Patricia Tyson, and Charlotte Coffield discuss Jay’s new video, “The Bridge,” August 30, 2017.

I invited Jay to write a brief introduction to his video and he graciously complied:

When I first moved to Silver Spring a few years ago one of the most charming things about my new neighborhood was a small bridge over the nearby railroad tracks. It was surfaced with wooden planks, and the structure itself appeared to be made of cast iron and been manufactured in the heyday of steam locomotives. Because it’s only one lane wide, cars patiently took turns to cross it, but the steady stream of pedestrians and cyclists didn’t wait for the cars.

But over the next few years, through mentions on the neighborhood listserv and conversations with neighbors, I gradually learned there was a lot more to the story of the Talbot Street Bridge. It connected a historically black and a historically white neighborhood across the tracks. To one community the bridge had served as a lifeline; to the other, it was a disagreeable nuisance they fought to shut down. Then David Rotenstein, though this blog, researched and gave a much fuller account, which was picked up in the press. Seeing a great story in my own neighborhood I put on my filmmaker hat and went to work. Today the bridge is closed to cars and scheduled for removal because of the Purple Line. I wanted to tell and preserve the story while the bridge, and the people who experienced and remember its history, are still available, and to have that in turn bring forward some of the buried history of segregation in Montgomery County.

 

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein, Charlotte Coffield, Patricia Tyson, and Jay Mallin

A modernist Four Corners home

10016 Renfrew Road, Silver Spring. February 2016.


Last year a longtime South Four Corners resident took me on a brief walking tour of his Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood. I had reached out to him because I was researching the history of a temporary defense housing development that had been located there. One of his favorite houses in the neighborhood is a small one-story International Style home.

As we were standing outside the home, the woman who was renting it at the time arrived home. She told us the affectionate name she had for it: the art deco bunker.

I took a few pictures and filed the memory away for later use. Recently, the home’s owner posted a picture of the house in a Facebook group. I struck up a conversation with him that began online and ended in the basement of his home in rural Brinklow where he showed me family pictures taken in front of the house and he told me what he remembered growing up there. This post captures some of the home’s history and the atypical suburban environment where it was built. Continue reading

The hidden costs of relocating Confederate statues

Montgomery County’s Confederate statue, July 2015.

Earlier this year The Washington Post published my op-ed on Montgomery County’s decision to transfer a Confederate statue that had stood in Rockville since 1913 to a new owner in the private sector. The day after the Post article ran I began writing the follow-up article on the missed opportunities in that decision and the questionable logic of giving an artifact with strong neo-Confederate symbolism to an organization that celebrates the Confederacy.

I did additional background research on the statue and on the politics and semiotics of artifacts that celebrate white supremacy. For the follow-up article I interviewed Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker and County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett in anticipation of the statue’s eventual move, which occurred July 22, 2017).

And then Charlottesville happened August 11-12, 2017. All of a sudden the entire nation was awash in analytical and opinion articles about Confederate iconography, race, erasure, and the production of history.

By last weekend I had revised most of my initial ideas for how that follow-up article would look and I made the trip out to the Montgomery County statue’s new home at White’s Ferry on the Potomac River. I crossed the river to Virginia and took in the statue’s new setting and I took more than 100 photos.

From the moment I first conceived of the follow-up article I knew that it would focus on two things: the tensions inherent in deciding how to deal with neo-Confederate artifacts that Montgomery County leaders and their counterparts around the nation grapple with and the consequences of re-contextualizing the statue in a space that celebrates the Confederacy.

Relocated Confederate statue in its new home at White’s Ferry, August 2017.

By giving the statue to White’s Ferry, Montgomery County officials relinquished control over the artifact and any messages it conveys. The statue now occupies a prominent position overlooking the ferry ramp and it is one of the first things passengers see as they leave the ferry and enter Maryland from Virginia.

View from the Gen. Jubal A. Early at the ramp to White’s Ferry, August 2017.

It’s private property yet public space. And, instead of being hidden among trees next to the county’s old courthouse, the statue now occupies a more visible space at a historic Montgomery County gateway.

The Activist History Review has published my analysis of the statue’s move and its implications in the wake of Charleston 2015 and Charlottesville 2017: No Country for Johnny Reb or Bobby Lee.

Welcome to Montgomery County, Maryland. River Road and White’s Ferry Road near the entrance to White’s Ferry, August 2017.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

An early history of Lyttonsville, Maryland

INTRODUCTION

Just about the only thing Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Montgomery County Planning Department (M-NCPPC) architectural historians got right in the agency’s history of Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Lyttonsville community was that Samuel Lytton bought some property in 1853. Were it not for a sharp rebuke from longtime residents of the historic African American hamlet, the official history memorialized in a new sector plan would have read that Lytton was a “freed slave.”[1] That early draft historic context contained many factual errors, some of which were corrected before the Montgomery County Planning Board in late 2016 recommended approving the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, which the Montgomery County Council approved in early 2017.

The final Lyttonsville historic context that is now part of Montgomery County’s background materials for formulating everything from development plans in the community to public art for proposed light rail line stations to place making efforts to historic preservation planning is an incomplete and error-filled narrative. Whether it’s the false assertion that Lyttonsville was a “pre-Civil War free black settlement” or the lazy conclusion that agency staff couldn’t find out what happened to Lytton’s property after his death, “It is unclear who owned the property when it was platted as twelve lots,”[2] there are significant issues with the M-NCPPC’s research.

This post explores some of Lyttonsville’s early history up to the turn of the twentieth century and fills in some of the many gaps left by the M-NCPPC staff research that is now Montgomery County’s official historic context for the community.

Samuel Lytton

There are no known images depicting Samuel Lytton.

Samuel Lytton is a historical mystery. He spent about four decades in Montgomery County and left only ephemeral evidence about who he was, how he made a living, and what motivated him to establish a basis for the development of the community that now bears his name.

Government documents give us a glimpse into Lytton’s basic biography. He was a Maryland native who was born c. 1830. In 1849 he married Phyllis Cosbery in Washington, D.C. Phyllis, born in Kentucky, was 20 years Samuel’s senior. It is possible that she was an enslaved member of Francis Preston Blair’s household who came to Washington from Kentucky with the Blair family. The following year a census enumerator documented him as a “laborer” living in Blair’s household in what is now Silver Spring. By the 1860 census, Lytton had established his own household in the five acre tract he had paid white farmer Leonard Johnson $96 to buy in January 1853.[3] Three years later, during the Civil War, Lytton registered for the newly enacted federal draft. The entry identified Lytton as a “colored” farmer who was married. Continue reading

A lifeline for the Talbot Avenue Bridge

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.

Talbot Avenue Bridge, closed approach from the North Woodside neighborhood, June 2017.

Continue reading

One president’s message

Some of you may know that I’m a historian. I don’t study and write about wars or presidents or the economy. I started out as an archaeologist and slowly moved my interests and work to people and events closer in space and time to the present. Now, much of my work involves oral history and documenting events in real time long before they become memories. Most of my work is done in communities undergoing change through gentrification where race, class, and past events collide in the present.

Back in 2011 my wife and I moved to an Atlanta suburb that in many respects is a lot like Silver Spring. These similarities were both good and bad. While there my attention quickly became focused on the bad things destroying the community. Some of them may be familiar to some of you, especially the ones involving lots of development changing established neighborhoods. Others included elected and appointed officials who appeared to make decisions that favored developers and real estate interests over the public good. Continue reading