Silver Spring Black History Tour: May 6, 2017

UPDATE: The May 6 tour is sold out. New dates will be added soon.

Tickets are now available for the next Silver Spring Black History Tour. Mark your calendars: Saturday, May 6, 2017. The event is free but registration is required: https://silverspringblackhistory.eventbrite.com.

There’s new connectivity in Silver Spring

Last September I published a post about a fence blocking access from a railroad bridge connecting the east side of Georgia Avenue with the historic B&O Railroad Station on the road’s west side. The fence had been described by novelist George Pelecanos in a 2001 book set in Silver Spring (and Northwest Washington) and it had blocked the pedestrian connection for almost 20 years.

The fence and blocked connection in September 2016.

Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) responded to the initial post with a promise to look into the situation: “This fence is an abomination,” Riemer wrote. He pursued opening the connection by contacting the railroad station’s owner, Montgomery Preservation, Inc., and staff in the County’s Silver Spring Regional Center.

On March 9, 2017, Councilmember Riemer commented on a February Facebook update about the fence’s continued presence:

Thanks for prodding us on this. We got it fixed. According to the urban district staffer I spoke with it was the county’s responsibility and therefore the county fixed it.

Thank you Coucilmember Riemer for being persistent and for opening up this historic connection to a historic building in downtown Silver Spring.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein

How to not develop a “historical walking tour”

In 2014, graduate students in the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies and Planning Program dipped their toes into the public engagement process associated with the development of a Montgomery County, Maryland, sector plan.

Lyttonsville is a historically African American hamlet in unincorporated Silver Spring. For much of the 20th century, Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s other side of the tracks. Silver Spring was developed in the first half of the 20th century as a sundown suburb: a place where African Americans could not live (because of racial restrictive covenants) or shop, worship, and play (because of Jim Crow segregation).

Sign for one of Lee’s “restricted” subdivisions in NW Washington. Credit: DC Public Library/National Archives and Records Administration.

E. Brooke Lee (1892-1984) was a Democratic political boss in Montgomery County and he was one of Silver Spring’s earliest boosters and founders. Though he held various elected and appointed state and county offices, his primary career was in real estate development. Lee, through his North Washington Realty Company, transformed former farms into sprawling residential subdivisions. Each of Lee’s subdivisions contained racial restrictive covenants prohibiting African Americans from living there as homeowners and renters.

The only African Americans who could live in Lee’s subdivisions were domestic servants.

Typical covenants from properties Lee sold in Silver Spring. This deed was executed in 1930 for a lot in one of Lee’s Four Corners subdivisions.

There’s abundant evidence that Lee never renounced his white supremacist views, even as a septuagenarian. In the late 1960s as Montgomery County was debating and enacting civil rights laws outlawing discrimination in public accommodations and housing, Lee was railing against these laws in local newspapers describing them as “Anti-White Laws.”

The worst blow to the continued existence of the great suburban Montgomery County that her people have built since 1920 will come from the Anti-White laws — E. Brooke Lee, March, 1967.

And yet, the University of Maryland students, proposed a “Lyttonsville Historical Walking Tour” with a wayfinding sign dedicated to Lee and his contributions to the community.

Perhaps these students should literally go back to the drawing board with this one.

Lyttonsville and the Proposed Purple Line Station, Appendix B, p. 82.

© 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

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

The three Silver Springs

There are three Silver Springs. There’s the mica-flecked spring where Francis Preston Blair established an antebellum farm in rural Maryland north of the District of Columbia.

The Silver Spring site. A reconstructed 19th-century acorn-shaped gazebo is in the background.

The Silver Spring site. A reconstructed 19th-century acorn-shaped gazebo is in the background.

Then there’s the early 20th century place created by real estate entrepreneurs and community boosters with visions of creating an all-white middle-class Washington suburb. Continue reading

Is the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan bad planning?

Residents who will be impacted by a new master plan proposed for a part of Montgomery County, Maryland, asked me to testify at a hearing before the Montgomery County Council. This post contains the testimony I submitted for the official record. A substantially abbreviated version was presented in the hearing session held September 29, 2016.

Montgomery County Council
Public Hearing on the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan
Testimony of Dr. David Rotenstein
September 29, 2016

Good Evening. My name is David Rotenstein. I am a professional historian, a Silver Spring resident, and a former chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. I am here to speak against the proposed Greater Lyttonsville Area Sector Plan because of fatal deficiencies in a key area of the plan before you: its treatment of lyttsonville-signhistory and historic resources.

Last Sunday the Washington Post published an article about the Talbot Avenue Bridge. Relying heavily on my work, the reporter interviewed several Lyttonsville residents, two of whom spoke here Tuesday evening, about the bridge’s history and its importance to the community. They told the reporter, and me two months earlier, that the bridge was an important artifact that conveys significant information about Lyttonsville’s past as an African American community segregated from Silver Spring, a community that excluded African Americans from buying property and living there for most of the twentieth century. Lyttonsville was Silver Spring’s other side of the tracks. The Talbot Avenue Bridge, as longtime Lyttonsville residents told me (and the Post), does much more than carry traffic over a railroad. It connects communities and it is a palpable reminder of the Jim Crow segregation that defined Montgomery County social and economic life for a significant period of time. Continue reading