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

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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

Six acres, two schools, a park and suburban continuity in Silver Spring

1958-bulletinjpgSuburbia has many critics and defenders. The former excoriate the space as wasteful sprawl and the latter defend its place in architectural and social history. Somewhere between the two extremes lie stories originating in suburbia’s mythically sterile origins and which celebrate the adaptations residents and entrepreneurs made to newly created residential spaces.

Silver Spring’s Alexander School and camp — the place where Bird Legs dwelled in underground caves — is one of those stories.

When developers finished platting residential subdivisions and building physical infrastructure and houses, they turned the spaces over to new residents: homeowners. These residents needed stores, schools, and other services to complete their new communities. Sometimes the builders provided these; other times it was up to the public sector and entrepreneurs. Continue reading

That infamous villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant, comes to Silver Spring

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New York political boss William Tweed blasts Carolan O’Brien Bryant in the New York Times, July 20, 1877.

Four Corners was a sleepy Montgomery County, Maryland, crossroads hamlet in the late 1880s when Carolan O’Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant’s Gilded Age effort to build a large estate marks a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs. Though nothing remains of Bryant’s sprawling estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.

“That Infamous Villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant”

"Boss Tweed in Court." Credit: New York Pulbic Libbrary.

“Boss Tweed in Court.” Credit: New York Public Library.

Born Carl Bryant sometime in the 1830s, his entire family changed their names in 1859 adding the O’Brien middle name. Bryant first appears in the historical record in the 1860s working as a journalist in New York City. He became part of the Democratic political machine, serving in municipal office and the state legislature before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1864. During the 1870s Bryant found himself on the edges of Tammany’s Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William “Boss” Tweed.

Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people wondered whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Even his appearance was a topic ripe for gossip. “He possessed an uncommon personality, and for a long period affected an oddity of attire and manner that accentuated his otherwise unique appearance,” wrote the New York Times in Bryant’s obituary. “He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders.” A witness in a lawsuit against Bryant once told the court, “He is a peculiar looking man, and any one who had seen him once would know him again.”

Though Bryant had friends and relatives among New York’s elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest and untrustworthy cad. In Bryant’s obituary, the New York Times did concede,

Although some men said harsh and unpleasant things about him, the relations between father and daughters always appeared to be of the most tender nature. Continue reading

Bird Legs Park

Camp-BulletinSometime after World War II a creature moved into tunnels beneath a nursery school and summer camp in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The children who attended the Alexander Camp called it “Bird Legs.”

“There was a legend about a monster called Bird Legs,” said Kaye Giuliani. “Scared the hell out of everybody.” Giuliani is Ernest Kendall’s granddaughter. He founded the camp and nursery school in 1947 after nearly 20 years as the principal of the Capitol Page School in neighboring Washington. I was interviewing Giuliani in her Maryland home about the school and camp’s history when she mentioned Bird Legs.

The Alexander Camp occupied a six-acre tract in Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Four Corners neighborhood. For much of the last half of the 20th century, the site had been used as a private school and camp. In 1997 its last private owner sold the property to the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission which had plans to redevelop it by expanding the neighboring North Four Corners Park.

Like much of the property’s storied past, the Bird Legs legend quickly faded once Montgomery County razed the school buildings and allowed the grounds to lie fallow for 20 years before completing the park expansion. But to former campers and students, the story lives on in personal narratives and in posts to social media sites.

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Former Alexander School and Camp site. The entrance to North Four Corners Park is where the school building originally was located.

“[My] memories are packed with stories about the summer overnight jambories [sic.] and the counselors story telling (birdlegs) around the night firepit,” wrote one alum in 2011. Continue reading