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
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
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.
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
In 1998, the historic preservation group, Montgomery Preservation, Inc. (MPI), bought the old and abandoned B&O Railroad station in Silver Spring, Maryland. A fence continues to separate the property from a popular and historic pedestrian bridge. Shortly after MPI acquired the property, novelist and Silver Spring native George Pelecanos introduced the pedestrian bridge and the railroad station to readers around the world in his 2001 novel, Right as Rain:
[Terry Quinn] crossed the street to the pedestrian bridge that spanned Georgia Avenue. He went to the middle of the bridge and looked down at the cars emerging northbound from the tunnel and the southbound cars disappearing into the same tunnel. He focused on the broken yellow lines painted on the street and the cars moving in rows between the lines. He looked north on Georgia at the street lamps haloed in the cold and watched his breath blow out into the night. He had grown up in this city, it was his, and to him it was beautiful. Sometime later he crossed the remainder of the bridge and went to the chain-link fence that had been erected in the past year. The fence prevented pedestrians from walking into the area of the train station via the bridge. He glanced around idly and climbed the fence, dropping down over its other side. Then he was in near the small commuter train station, a squat brick structure — George Pelecanos, Right as Rain (Grand Central Publishing, 2001).
Pedestrian bridge over Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring, looking south from the edge of MPI’s property. Photographed September 2016.
Former Perpetual Building Association building, 8700 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.
… But not necessarily for the reasons preservationists suggest.
In 2007 Montgomery County, Maryland, historic preservation advocates asked county leaders to add the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring to the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The designation would have ensured the 1958 building’s presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.
The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II. The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington’s rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.