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 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

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

An erasure primer

Two maps of Silver Spring, Maryland, published 80 years apart provide a palpable and accessible example of erasure.

Top: 1933 North Washington Realty Company map of “North Washington”; Bottom: Historic Neighborhoods of Downtown Silver Spring. The dotted line shows the approximate location of the historic African American hamlet, Lyttonsville.

The first map was published in 1933 by the North Washington Realty Company. It shows all of the area the company and community boosters were branding as “Maryland North of Washington.” The promotional map showed the existing street network, community institutions (schools, churches, commercial buildings), and neighborhood names, including areas shaded where the company had investments and plans for new residential subdivisions. Continue reading

Confronting racism

I was honored to participate in IMPACT Silver Spring’s program last night, Courage Lives Here: Confronting Racism that Divides Us.

IMPACT Now 2017 panel. FB photo.

Dr. Yanique Redwood (with microphone) gave the keynote address and then moderated a panel that included Rev. Ronnie Galvin, MD Delegate Maricé Morales, and myself. This is the start of a very important community dialogue in Silver Spring and my work in documenting Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb plays a key role in addressing structural racism here.

 

Breaking through biased history in Silver Spring, Maryland

“Montgomery Modern” exhibit panel on display in the Silver Spring Library.

Three quarters of the buildings shown in this panel on display in the Silver Spring Library have important civil rights history stories. Unfortunately, Montgomery County residents won’t read about them in anything produced by the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office.

For the stories related to the community’s civil rights struggles and Silver Spring’s history as a sundown suburb folks need to take one of my Silver Spring Black History tours. The May 6, 2017, tour is booked solid. New dates are coming the week of May 8.

“Montgomery Modern” by the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office.