Intervention – “The Other Side of The Tracks: Contested Space, Commemoration, and Erasure”

David S. Rotenstein, Ph.D. Historian/Folklorist david.rotenstein@earthlink.net

The Talbot Avenue Bridge is contested space. The metal girder bridge was built in 1918 to span the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks in Silver Spring, an unincorporated community in Montgomery County, Maryland. The bridge is a short distance from the suburban county’s border with Washington, D.C. Slated for demolition in the spring of 2019, the bridge connected two communities: one historically African American and the other historically white. The bridge is the last known surviving material trace of a past that rigidly segregated housing, recreation, education, and commerce. Though its associations to Jim Crow segregation have become easier to see since the bridge’s history became more widely known in 2016 after blog posts and newspaper articles were published, its connections to an equally racialized system of commemoration and historic preservation are less evident (Rotenstein 2016a, 2018a, 2019; Shaver 2016). The latter is part of a “diversity deficit” in historic preservation that privileges the memories and material culture of wealthier and whiter people over those of people of color. The result is a commemorative landscape that reproduces the separate-and-unequal principle enshrined in North America’s Jim Crow past (Kaufman 2004, 2009; Nieves 2007; Rutland 2018; Upton 2015).

Figure 1: Talbot Avenue Bridge, 2019. Photo by David Rotenstein.

This essay appears as America celebrates another Black History Month. It is the 28-day period in which the United States pulls its Black heritage off of shelves and out of closets for a token nod to such great national figures as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Harriet Tubman. In recent years Black History Month has included more calls for white America to confront contemporary structural racism evident in housing, criminal justice, healthcare, and education that has its roots in slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and real estate redlining (Banks 2016; Chettiar 2012; Johnson 2018). Omitted from these national moments are sites and spaces like the Talbot Avenue Bridge and the fading memories of the people who live in places like Lyttonsville, the African American community west of the bridge. In Montgomery County, Black history and its commemorative landscape tend to be tokenized and reduced to a few recognizable tropes and themes: the Underground Railroad, churches, and agricultural sites easily mapped and categorized for white consumption (Montgomery Parks 2016). All of this is occurring in a global decolonization context of cultural landscapes within which monuments to white supremacists, enslavers, and others are being contested and removed.[1]

The bridge and its place within Montgomery County’s commemorative landscape are powerful reminders of historic preservation’s diversity deficit. The community east of the bridge, Silver Spring, developed in the early 20th century as a sundown suburb: a place kept almost exclusively white by racial restrictive deed covenants and Jim Crow (Loewen 2005). Its histories and preserved spaces and buildings celebrate the white supremacists who founded and promoted the community while omitting those of African Americans (Johansen 2005; Rotenstein 2018b). Lyttonsville and the Talbot Avenue Bridge are among those omissions in books, newspaper articles, and historic preservation planning documents.

Lyttonsville and the bridge were invisible within Silver Spring’s commemorative landscape when historic preservationists working for the state agency planning to build a new light rail line that would impact the bridge did their environmental impact studies. The same was true when Montgomery County began updating its sector plan for the Greater Lyttonsville area. Both undertakings used information about the bridge first collected in the 1990s by an archaeologist. That earlier research reduced the bridge’s historical significance to its engineering attributes and its association with the historic railroad. There was no social history, no ethnographic research done to learn about the structure’s associations with the two communities it connected (Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission 2016; Maryland Transit Administration 2013). Only after the bridge’s fate was determined did social history become part of the dialogue among residents and government officials.

Planners for the light rail were required by federal law, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, to identify properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places potentially impacted by the project. The Talbot Avenue Bridge was determined eligible for listing under one criterion: its architecture and engineering. The law also requires project proponents to resolve adverse effects (e.g. mitigation) if historic properties are affected. The adverse effect to the Talbot Avenue Bridge was demolition and the mitigation that state officials settled on was documenting the bridge in a state historic properties inventory form, i.e. writing some additional history and taking some photographs. Montgomery County officials then offered to relocate the bridge’s disassembled girders to a nearby trail once the light rail line is completed (Shaver 2017). That proposal, however, deconstructs and decontextualizes the structure separating it from its setting.

Spatially, the Talbot Avenue Bridge connects the Silver Spring sundown suburb with its “other side of the tracks”, Lyttonsville. Communities comprising the other side of the tracks are historically significant in American vernacular architecture and cultural landscape studies and they are a powerful trope in national narratives on class and race (Little 1997, 2012). Yet, the Talbot Avenue Bridge and Lyttonsville until recently were invisible. There are a number of potential reasons why the bridge was written off and no steps were taken to consider its social history. Many of them may be related the formulaic and superficial nature of community planning and environmental impact studies (Hutchings 2018). After all, there are budgets and timetables to be met and there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for thinking outside the box. But the more likely reason for the erasure and invisibility is the diversity deficit and its bias towards preserving white buildings, spaces, and stories.

Lyttonsville had lost much of its landscape legibility by the time county planning and light rail studies were done. More than a century of anti-Black land use policies that included environmental racism and expulsive zoning, urban renewal, and gentrification had taken their toll. The only way to know about the bridge’s social history was to speak with Lyttonsville residents and be able to decode what they were saying about it. All of the experts involved – county planners and archaeologists and architectural history consultants working for the state – heard from Lyttonsville residents that the bridge was their lifeline, that it was an important transportation link; they were ill-equipped to understand that Lyttonsville residents were speaking about their community’s resilience and resistance to segregation and how the bridge was an important symbol of it.

Figure 2: Photograph showing 1996 community protest over proposed Talbot Avenue Bridge closure. Montgomery County Times, 15 September 2006. Clipping in the collection of Charlotte Coffield.

There is no doubt that the bridge is the last surviving material culture to which many Lyttonsville residents have a deep attachment. “The only thing that I can see in terms of historic is that bridge”, said Reverend Ella Redfield when I asked her in 2016 whether there was anything historic in the community where she grew up. “The oldest thing there is that bridge.” The interview was part of a long-term research project into gentrification, displacement, and erasure that began in suburban Atlanta and which continued in Washington and its suburbs. My research in Montgomery County began with the question, “Where can I find Black history sites?” (Rotenstein 2018b).

Though I live in Silver Spring, for many years I had accepted its histories and commemorative landscapes at face value. Only after starting research in Decatur, Georgia, where private- and public-sector development have erased virtually all material traces of the Black experience and African American history there did I revisit my understanding of Silver Spring’s history. In Georgia I had interviewed dozens of people between 2011 and 2014 who told me about life in a place where Black history is beyond reach and hidden in stories told in churches, kitchens and living rooms – narratives preserved as “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990). Decatur was a place where the city’s 2009 historic resources survey did not contain the words “Black” and “African American” let alone recommendations to preserve Black history sites. In my quest for comparative data to use in my book on Decatur, I discovered the same was true for Silver Spring and its 2002 historic resource survey (Rotenstein 2016b).

The bridge figures prominently in many residents’ narratives of life in Lyttonsville before urban renewal. Children reckoned time by the bridge: rattling boards in the evening meant parents were returning home from work. Adults relied on the bridge as a directional landmark and to carry them into and out of the community. “That was the bridge we used”, said Redfield. There were “only a few ways to get to the wider community, you know, to get to the stores, to get to transportation, was by the bridge”.

Figure 3: Reverend Ella Redfield speaks at the Talbot Avenue Bridge Centennial Celebration, 22 September 2018. Photo by David Rotenstein.

For years, Lyttonsville residents have resisted erasure. When local historians omitted Lyttonsville from the early stages of production of a documentary about Silver Spring history, Lyttonsville residents fought for inclusion. A 2005 University of Maryland doctoral dissertation recounts the efforts lifelong resident Charlotte Coffield made to convince the local historical society that African Americans were part of Silver Spring’s history (Johansen 2005). Another lifelong resident recalls the experience. “He said we didn’t exist”, explained the woman. “And then [we] went to some meeting … and they’re giving all their books or selling their books with the history and none of it had anything to do with us.” The words “Black” and “African American” are absent in the two books on Silver Spring history published by the Silver Spring Historical Society. “Had no Black folks in it”, the Lyttonsville resident added in the 2018 interview I conducted with her about Lyttonsville’s history and about the ways in which history and historic preservation are produced in Silver Spring.

The Silver Spring Historical Society was founded in 1998. Residents established the grassroots organization in response to redevelopment activities that they believed threatened historic buildings. Bruce Johansen, the historian who wrote the 2005 dissertation on nostalgia and how history is produced in Silver Spring, found multiple areas where the historical society was racially biased, from its omission of Black history to the racial composition of its members and leadership (Johansen 2005). Little has changed with the organization since Johansen’s work more than a decade ago (Rotenstein 2017).

Another resident underscores the erasures and their impacts. “I didn’t understand how he could say publicly that there were no African Americans in Silver Spring”, she said. When I asked her how she felt about being excluded from the histories and historic preservation, she replied, “Like non-existent. Felt non-existent”.[2]

There is a direct throughline connecting those erasures to the impending Talbot Avenue Bridge demolition. Planners and preservationists working for the county and the state only used the tools available to them in their planning and environmental impact studies: monochromatic and racially biased narratives. But even with these incomplete sources, the bridge’s history remained accessible in the Lyttonsville residents’ memories and in their most visible effort to resist historical erasure: a display of community history in the Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Center. Named for a lifelong community activist and Charlotte Coffield’s late sister, the community center is a hub for social and recreational activities in Lyttonsville.

Residents created the display in 2008 in response to the historical society’s erasures. It represents years of lobbying by Lyttonsville residents for recognition by official and grassroots historic preservation groups like the historical society. Those efforts are memorialized in the comments submitted to light rail planners by Lyttonsville residents. Patricia Tyson, whose father was an early civil rights leader in Montgomery County and who has lived in Lyttonsville most of her life, wrote to light rail planners on behalf of the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association asking to “preserve an historic portion of TalbotAve [sic] bridge for future use as part of the Lyttonsville community history”. And, the community requested that a historic (white-owned) store be preserved “for a permanent museum to house the Exhibit of the History of Lyttonsville and historicartifacts [sic]”.[3]

Thus far, Lyttonsville residents have had no luck securing a commitment from government officials to create a permanent museum. The light rail planners have offered historically-themed public art at a new station in the community. That mitigation for demolishing the Talbot Avenue Bridge is acceptable to some residents, explained Charlotte Coffield in a December 2018 email to me. “On the other hand we have run into problems with our efforts to put a permanent exhibit focused on Lyttonsville history into the Community Center”, she wrote.[4]

Lyttonsville’s residents resistance to the Purple Line light rail project occurred in a vacuum. Their concerns about cultural and social displacement were not among the issues articulated by social justice advocates seeking to prevent physical displacement elsewhere along the corridor (Shaver 2014; Transportation Nation 2011). Though project opponents vigorously litigated against the Purple Line in federal court, they only added deficiencies in the environmental impact statement’s treatment of the Talbot Avenue Bridge after the bridge’s deeper history was exposed in 2016. And even then, the activists working collectively as “Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail” didn’t consult with Lyttonsville residents before appending their lawsuit to include they bridge. In fact, the litigants didn’t even correctly identify the community’s name: the amended complaint calls it “Laytonsville”, a different Montgomery County community more than 20 miles away.[5]

As for historic preservation concerns and the Purple Line, a former store building constructed in the 19th century was relocated by a private developer redeveloping a site where the rail line was to have its terminal station. The Bethesda Community Paint and Hardware Building was designated and protected under Montgomery County’s historic preservation law, yet studies for the light rail line found that it was not eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Nonetheless, after vigorous appeals by Bethesda residents (most, if not all of them white), an agreement was reached where the building was relocated elsewhere in Bethesda where it will remain accessible to people like advocate Deborah Vollmer who wanted it preserved. “I wanted to see it stay because I think we’re losing our historic landmarks and this is an area that all these high rises going up”, Vollmer told me in a 2018 interview. She added, “It’s important to hold onto to our past”.[6]

Figure 4: Lyttonsville community history exhibit creator Charlotte Coffield points to the display case in the Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Center lobby. Photo by David Rotenstein.

The existing display inside the Coffield Center includes reproductions of the 1853 deed granting four acres to the community’s namesake, the free man of color Samuel Lytton (c. 1830-1893). It also includes reproductions of old maps and photographs. On the bottom shelf, sandwiched between a community award and a photo of African American men is a framed black and white print showing the Talbot Avenue Bridge with a train passing beneath. The caption reads, “Talbot Avenue Bridge 1918”.

Figure 5: Undated Talbot Avenue Bridge photo inside the Lyttonsville community history exhibit. Photo by David Rotenstein.

When the bridge is demolished later this year, the physical erasure of Lyttonsville begun in 1892 will be complete (1892 is the year that the railroad condemned a strip of land through Samuel Lytton’s property). There are a few aging residents who can remember Lyttonsville and Silver Spring before school desegregation and county laws passed in 1962 and 1968 outlawing discrimination in businesses and housing, respectively. Their children and grandchildren, however, will have no historic places to visit when returning to the community. All the old homes will be gone, along with the churches, school, the ballfield, and the Talbot Avenue Bridge. There will be no historic fabric left in the landscape that commemorates Lyttonsville and its history of resistance and resilience.

Endnotes

[1] Some notable examples include the Amiercan cities of New Orleans and Baltimore removing their Confederate monuments; the removal of a statue dedicated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, founder Edward Cornwallis; and, the movement in Capetown, South Africa, to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes.

[2] These individuals are not named to protect their privacy because of the sensitive nature of the interview material.

[3] Undated comments submitted to the Maryland Transit Administration.

[4] Charlotte Coffield, email to David Rotenstein, 9 December 2018.

[5] Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail, et al. v. Federal Transit Administration, et al., Amended Complaint for Injunctive and Declarative Relief. United States District Court for the District of Columbia, filed 26 December 2017.

[6] Deborah Vollmer, telephone interview with David Rotenstein, 31 December 2018.

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