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 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.

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