History denied is history that is stolen

I feel like it sort of takes away somewhat from the church and the lodge hall because it’s so much taller than they are and they are the historical properties, not the tower. — neighborhood resident, August 2002.

A historic church, fraternal lodge, and tower in the heart of a Southern African American neighborhood, 2002.

This evening the Montgomery County Planning Board is poised to approve a new site plan for a proposed self-storage facility in Bethesda. The property where the facility is proposed once was part of an African American cemetery used by a Washington, D.C., benevolent organization during the first half of the twentieth century.

Like its counterparts throughout the United States in the federal, state, and local governments, the Montgomery County Planning Board and its staff in the Montgomery County Planning Department have failed to adequately take into account impacts to a historic African American property and a living community associated with it: the Moses Cemetery. An ethnocentric bias towards the cemetery is evident in all aspects of the County’s planning efforts dating back to the agency’s first involvement with the site as it was preparing the Westbard Sector Plan. Continue reading

Death and displacement

Concrete grave marker in an abandoned African American cemetery, Montgomery County, Maryland.

My latest article for The Activist History Review explores more than a century of serial displacement in two Washington area neighborhoods with a common connection: Bethesda’a Moses Cemetery.

People who lived in communities destroyed by urban renewal and gentrification frequently frame their narratives about displacement as theft. Their homes, businesses, and churches, they believe are stolen by capitalism. Spaces for the dead are among those stolen and erased.

For the rest of the story, read The Moses Cemetery: Where Serial Displacement Meets History.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

Silver Spring’s history is racially biased. Let’s fix it.

Panel discusses “Silver Spring: Story of an American Suburb,” September 2017. Left to right, Jerry McCoy (Silver Spring Historical Society), Walter Gottlieb (filmmaker), and Todd Hitchcock (AFI Silver Program Director).

For the past six years I have taken a deep dive into how communities produce history and historic preservation. Silver Spring, Maryland, and Decatur, Georgia, are inner ring suburbs with similar development histories and comparable historiographies. In both places, like many others throughout North America, white (oftentimes male) histories and historic places are preserved and narrate while people of color are omitted or marginalized.

I have written about both places here and in history and planning publications. My community’s history is racist. How can I correct it? recently was published in the National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog.. The article recounts my community’s efforts to reframe how history and historic preservation are produced to create a more accurate and inclusive record. Continue reading

How I lost my White Card

Nearly six years ago I met with Lyn Menne, Decatur, Georgia’s assistant city manager. We spoke over coffee at Java Monkey, a hipster joint featuring high-end coffee and evening performances, in Decatur’s upscale downtown. I had lived in Decatur for about six months and my wife and I already were considering moving from the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where we had bought a historic bungalow in July of 2011.

Had I been more woke about race, gentrification, and the role neoliberal cities play in facilitating displacement and the conversion of space for wealthier and oftentimes whiter users, I probably could have had a better response to Menne when she said, “They’re just going to die” after I laid out my concerns about the rampant teardowns in our neighborhood and the social costs of gentrification to some of Decatur’s most vulnerable citizens. To Menne, there were no viable solutions to stem the displacement that her city’s municipal policies promoted.

Instead of citing examples of inclusionary zoning and affordable housing preservation programs in other cities as well as the affordable housing recommendations given to the City of Decatur several years before we moved there, I recall sitting there stunned and at a loss for words. That exchange is forever etched in my mind as an example of how cities and humanity fail.

How things have changed since then.

A pile of rubble is all that remained of Shirley Huff’s home 24 hours after demolition began in October 2011.

My meeting with Menne occurred after I watched a builder demolish the late Shirley Huff’s home and after I began an informal research project on our area’s history as an Urban Homesteading Demonstration Project neighborhood. I had begun mapping and documenting the 113 “dollar homes” that the city sold between 1975 and 1982 and I was interviewing residents about displacement.

In early 2012 I had a very rudimentary and unsophisticated understanding of gentrification and displacement. They were concepts I had encountered in the margins of my work in historic preservation regulatory compliance and as a consultant to a Washington community development corporation funding intermediary. Like many people alive today, gentrification was something I would know if I saw it but I doubt that I could have held my own in an academic debate with a geographer or sociologist or historian who had been working in and around gentrification for years. I also doubt that I could have successfully defended an academic article or thesis on the subject. Continue reading

“Black lives matter, alive or dead”

“Black lives matter, alive or dead” — poet Siki Dlanga

South African poet Siki Dlanga and rally organizer Laurel Hoa. Photo by David Rotenstein.

Several dozen people participated in a rally and march to support the recognition and preservation of the Moses Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. The cemetery initially was founded in the 1880s a nearby District of Columbia neighborhood. Continue reading

Ada Dupree and the Moses Cemetery: stories linked by race

Ada Dupree. Photo credit: Edisto Herald.

Ada Dupree (1887-1991) lived a long and consequential life. She moved to the small Florida town of Esto in 1902 at age 15. For the rest of her life, she and her family were among the few people of color in the rural panhandle community near the Alabama border. When she died in 1991 at the age of 104, her family began funeral arrangements in accordance with her wishes: Ada wanted to be buried in the town where she spent most of her life. But some residents in the mostly white community didn’t want her buried in the town’s “all-white” cemetery.

Ada’s story made national headlines and in 1998 former NBC legal correspondent Star Jones recounted the story to introduce her book, You Have to Stand for Something or You’ll Fall for Anything: “Sometimes it takes a story about death to teach you about life ….” Continue reading

Rally for the Moses Cemetery

RALLY TO SAVE BETHESDA AFRICAN CEMETERY – SUNDAY, NOV 12TH -1:30PM
When: Sunday, November 12, 2017, 1:30—3:30 PM
Where: Macedonia Baptist Church, 5119 River Road, Bethesda, Maryland

For more information, visit the Save Bethesda African Cemetery page on Facebook.

Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission, Nov. 1, 2017.

Continue reading

What’s next with Montgomery Preservation’s historic railroad station?

A moat? A Trumpian wall?

Montgomery Preservation Inc. building, Silver Spring, Maryland, as seen from the entrance to Progress Place.

Montgomery Preservation Inc. doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in the Washington region as a good neighbor. The suburban historic preservation organization has vigorously opposed the completion of a regional bike trail; not questioned the presence of a fence blocking access to its property from a historic railroad bridge; and, has increasingly developed an adversarial relationship with a new county homeless facility that opened next door to the organization’s headquarters: a historic former B&O railroad station. Continue reading

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