Gored by a steer

The news earlier this week that a cow had escaped from a slaughterhouse in New York City went viral. After all, it’s the 21st century. What are cattle doing in the middle of big cities?

Yet, the headlines and the obligatory humor that followed would have been familiar to urban dwellers in any North American city since the turn of the 19th century. As cities expanded and drove yards on their hinterlands were absorbed by expansion. Later on, after 1850, railroads carried large numbers of cattle, sheep, and hogs to urban abattoirs,

Inevitably, some animals escaped while being offloaded from train cars (and later trucks) or they broke free from pens in stockyards while awaiting auction or slaughter. In the 1880s, a generation after the nation’s first union stockyards opened in a farm field outside of Pittsburgh, the local East End News ran several articles recounting wayward food on the hoof:

GORED BY A STEER (Saturday, September 4, 1886)

On Wednesday a steer broke out of the East End Stock Yards and for a time had things his own way. Mrs. Andrews was on the pavement in front of her house on Station Street, but before she could get out of the way the animal had gored her seriously. On her head were several scalp wounds and her body was considerably bruised. Medical aid was summoned and it was found that none of the wounds were dangerous. The bull was recaptured and taken back to the yards.

NEWS ITEMS (August 25, 1888)

A wild steer created a panic Wednesday afternoon … Mr. O’Neal, a butcher in Lawrenceville, was taking a drove of cattle home from the stockyards when one broke away and started back.

***

Some things never change. Cities with lots of people still need to feed those people. As long as we have cities and we consume fresh meat, stories like the one out of New York will keep coming. How would Twitter have treated the East Liberty beast that gored Mrs. Anderson, I wonder?

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Lyttonsville Black History Month program

I would like to thank the staff of the Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Center for hosting me Saturday February 18. And, a big acknowledgement to the Silver Spring residents who gave up a sunny and warm Saturday midday to learn about African American and civil rights history in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The walking tour returns this spring, along with a new local non-profit partner with plans to integrate my history work into its Silver Spring racial equity program. Stay tuned for dates and details.

Charlotte Coffield, the center’s namesake sister, was instrumental in arranging the program. I am fortunate to have met Charlotte and the other Lyttonsville residents with whom I have spoken the past year. I am looking forward to learning more about the community’s history and the role its people played in Silver Spring’s history. Their stories have enriched my understanding of how people of color and their histories are erased from suburbs.

Charlotte Coffield stands in front of a case inside the Coffield center’s lobby where her family and community’s history are on display.

Silver Spring Black History Tour program. Photo by Alan Bowser.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Silver Spring’s monument to white supremacy

Silver Spring Armory. Historic American Buildings Survey photo by Bill Lebovich.

In 1998, crews demolished the Silver Spring Armory. Located in the heart of the suburban Washington suburb’s central business district (CBD), the Armory occupied prime real estate earmarked to provide parking for a new urban renewal project.

Built in 1927, the Armory quickly became unincorporated Silver Spring’s de facto city hall and civic center. In 1984, the State of Maryland declared the property surplus and it was transferred to the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. After rehabilitation work, the building opened as a community center and in 1984 it was listed in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation. Continue reading

This is America

The mind-boggling thing about Trumpworld is all the people insisting that “this is not America.” People are chanting it in the streets and pleading with the world to believe it.

But, this is America. Though he lost the popular election by nearly 3 million votes, Donald Trump did get millions of votes — enough to tip the Electoral College. The Russians hacked and partisans parsed. Important facts, but not nearly as important as we live in a nation where a Donald Trump presidency was possible let alone realized.

There’s no amount of erasers or whitewash that will eradicate 400+ years of oppression based on race and religion. This is an America that our society cycles back to every so often. This time, though, the world has left America behind and more Americans are self-aware of our inherent ethnocentrism. The difference now is it’s harder to hide behind an increasingly tattered flag that reveals a naked emperor desperate to cling to a national origin story that doesn’t square with historical facts.

Donald Trump, as horrendous and repugnant as it may seem, didn’t make American Great Again. He simply restored America to a version of its past that we haven’t found a way to confront, fess up to, and move on from.

Donald Trump isn’t Adolph Hitler. Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon. Donald Trump isn’t Andrew Jackson. Donald Trump is Donald Trump.

In some respects, the world has never before had a Trump and if we all survive this, I hope humanity learns from it and never repeats this monumental mistake. Trump arrived at the right time and in the right place to exploit people (and be exploited [by Russia, by white nationalists, by the Republican party desperate for a win at any cost]) to be elected President of the United States of America. It is the perfect political storm for which we don’t have a scale to measure its strength and predict its damage.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Grandpa Joe was an immigrant

Joseph Steinhart in his orphanage uniform. Undated photo.

My grandfather, Joseph Steinhart, arrived at Ellis Island October 6, 1920. He was 16 years old. He loved the Unites States despite the anti-semitic discrimination that he faced throughout his entire life. Unable to attend the college of his choice. Unable to be an engineer in the Navy. And, witness to many acts of enthocentlrism towards others during his life before dying in April 1994.

 
Were it not for my grandfather’s stay at a Warsaw orphanage before coming to the United States, the world might never know parts of the amazing story of the institution’s founder, Dr. Janusz Korczak. Survivor accounts describe Korczak leading a column of orphans from the Warsaw ghetto to the death camp at Treblinka. My grandfather’s memories and drawings have informed generations of historians writing about the Holocaust and Korczak biographers.

Orphanage. Undated sketch by Joseph Steinhart.

I would like to think of my grandfather as a hero for what he gave me — a thirst for knowledge and a drive to fight for what’s right — but that would be insufficient. My grandfather is a hero for bearing witness to the worst and best of humanity. If he were alive today, he would be sitting at his desk with a stack of white typing paper composing by hand in his distinctive engineer’s block script letters to the editor and letters to government officials decrying the inhumane and un-American actions by the new American president. I desperately wish he were here today to share his wisdom, his courage, and to be a witness yet again to the best and worst humanity has to offer.

1978 St. Petersburg Times photo of my grandparents showing some of his memorabilia related to Janysz Korczak.

Joseph Steinhart’s clipping binder.

Historic preservation shines a light on a dark past

In October 2016, the National Council on Public History published an e-book titled Preserving Places: Reflections on the National Historic Preservation Act at Fifty From The Public Historian. The volume is a collection of invited essays that discuss various aspects of public history published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.

My essay, “Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past,” appears on pp. 18-19.

Historic Preservation Shines a Light on a Dark Past by David Rotenstein on Scribd

Silver Spring’s newest visual junkyard

This … is not written in anger. It is written in fury … it is a deliberate attack upon all those who have already befouled a large portion of this country for private gain, and are engaged in befouling the rest. — Peter Blake, Preface to God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (1964)

Ellsworth Place Mall, Colesville Road and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Ellsworth Place Mall, Colesville Road and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

After more than a decade of false starts involving redevelopment plans and rebranding campaigns, an urban mall in Silver Spring, Maryland, has a new name, new look, and new stores. Ellsworth Place, née City Place, was completed in 1992 in an effort to jumpstart redevelopment in Silver Spring’s central business district. The mall was built as an addition to a historic Hecht’s department store, which was completed in 1947 and which left Silver Spring 40 years later for a new regional mall in nearby Wheaton.

Rebranding City Place involved converting its worn and bland suburban commercial spaces and “re-tenanting,” a process the owner described as attracting more upscale merchants to attract millennials and other new middle class residents moving to Silver Spring.

Montgomery County’s historic preservation law was one hurdle owners had to clear. The former Hecht’s building is a protected county landmark and the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission has regulatory jurisdiction over changes to the building’s exterior. Changes like new entrances, windows, and signage.

Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht's, Ellsworth Ave. and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht’s, Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Continue reading

The arc of the covenants

arc-of-covenants

Silver Spring began its existence in the early twentieth century as a sundown suburb, a place where race and class were rigidly controlled by traditions and legal enforcement. Jews and African Americans in Montgomery County navigated a world where Jim Crow laws and practices dictated where people could live, eat, and play. These segregationist policies were most evident in the racially restrictive deed covenants attached to residential subdivisions developed throughout the county between 1900 and 1948. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive deed covenants were unenforceable, established communities used redlining and other discriminatory tactics to prevent Jews and African Americans from joining them as homeowners and renters.

1933 racial restrictions attached to a Montgomery County residential subdivision.

1933 racial restrictions excluding Jews, African Americans, and others, attached to a Montgomery County residential subdivision.

Changes in local and federal laws, combined with federal and state court decisions, brought down many barriers to Montgomery County communities. Jews joined other religious and ethnic groups in moving to older established communities. And, they built their own. This program explores the history of Jews in and around Silver Spring after 1948.  The Arc of the Covenants, this program’s title, takes its name from a line in a 1955 poem about the movement of Jews to the suburbs throughout America. This program follows that arc from the restrictive covenants that excluded Jews to the religious covenants that bind Jewish communities together in and around Silver Spring. 

A double-duty boundary: DC-MD state line and the eruv boundaries marking two Jewish communities.

A double-duty boundary: DC-MD state line and the eruv boundaries marking two Jewish communities.

Invisible by design? Silver Spring’s black history sites

Since last spring I’ve been asking public officials, neighborhood leaders, longtime residents, and strangers in the street where to find sites associated with African American history in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. The answers I received were pretty much the same: there aren’t any.

The closest I came to getting an answer that didn’t include suggestions for nearby Lyttonsville or Sandy Spring came from Montgomery County Planning Department director Gwen Wright. She suggested a site near the D.C. line where a historical marker commemorates the arrest of William Chaplin who in 1850 was accused of spiriting slaves out of Washington to freedom. “Not many others that are popping into my mind,” Wright, who led the county’s historic preservation office for 20 years between 1987 and 2007 [PDF], wrote in an August email.

Historical marker, Jesup Blair Park, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Historical marker, Jesup Blair Park, Silver Spring, Maryland. County planning director Gwen Wright said that this marker commemorating an 1850 event was the only site within downtown Silver Spring that she knew was associated with African American history.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Silver Spring developed as a sundown suburb — a place where African Americans could not buy property or rent apartments and homes — for most of the 20th century. Contrary to the comments I got during my informal queries about where to find African American heritage sites in downtown Silver Spring, I have identified

Silver Spring Heritage Trail Marker, Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

Silver Spring Heritage Trail Marker, Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

about 20 sites — buildings, spaces, and objects — that tell a cohesive story about African Americans in Silver Spring during the 20th century. I will be discussing those sites in my walking tour October 22.

The tour and these articles are the first steps in what I hope will be a community conversation about how history and historic preservation are produced in our community. It’s an important conversation because for too long, Silver Spring’s historical narratives — with a few notable exceptions — have ignored African Americans altogether or minimized and marginalized these members of our community. These omissions have spilled over into public policy decisions that range from urban planning initiatives to the designation and protection of historic places in our community.

My latest article, Silver Spring, Maryland, Has Whitewashed its Past, has just been published by the History News Network. I hope that my neighbors and community leaders don’t read it as an indictment of how we have failed to recognize and include the African Americans who helped build our community and make it successful; my wish is that we use the article and the tour as an opportunity to move forward by producing history and historic preservation that celebrates our entire community, not just the wealthy white men who currently dominate the narratives and landscape.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein