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

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

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

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

“The Silver Spring Affair”

In early August 1925, 16-year-old Mary Elizabeth Price claimed that she had been attacked by an African American man. The assault, she told authorities, occurred in a residential street in Silver Spring, Maryland, near the Washington, D.C., line.

After police detained one African American and searched the homes of several others, Price retracted her allegation that she had been attacked by an African American. On August 14, 1925, the Washington Post published a letter to the editor about the episode. It bears revisiting following the events of last week in Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas.

Nearly a century later, we haven’t eradicated “the spirit of ill will” the author described.

The Washington Post, August 14, 1925.

The Washington Post, August 14, 1925.

 

Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood tackles gentrification using history

One of the greatest injustices in South of Market redevelopment has been the callous obliteration of its past. — Chester Hartman, Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco: Glide Publications, 1974).

Urban planner Chester Hartman’s observation about San Francisco’s Yerba Buena neighborhood looms large as one Washington, D.C., neighborhood is trying to prevent its past from being displaced and rewritten as the forces of gentrification sweep through. Residents of Bloomingdale, an early District of Columbia suburb that was absorbed in the late 19th century by Washington, have mobilized to undertake an innovative interdisciplinary effort to seize control of the neighborhood’s future by gaining a better understanding of its past.

My latest article for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work examines Bloomingdale’s project. In the H@W piece I touched on how Bloomingdale residents and the volunteer researchers and community planners struggle to define gentrification. It’s not an easy task.

Older businesses share street fronts with newer ones like this yoga studio in Washington's Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Older businesses like the DC Mini Market share street fronts with newer ones like yoga studios and restaurants with patio seating  in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood.

Continue reading