The Bridges of Montgomery County

[What follows is thanks to David Rotenstein, a historian in Silver Spring, Maryland who uses his skill and knowledge to challenge establishment orthodoxies that seek to present versions of the past that render certain experiences, people  and places invisible. See more of David’s work here.]

The selective preservation and erasure of memory is universal and timeless. It’s the essence of history. But nowhere is it more true than the USA. I sometimes think the foundation myth of European ‘America’ spread across the virtual genocide of Native Indians is the biggest cover-up in history.  But like other societies, America continues to tell itself sanitised stories that foreground ‘official’ histories without acknowledging that they’re contested.

This issue is very current in the context of attitudes to relics of the civil war. A debate is raging in the US about whether statues celebrating the Confederate South should stay or go. The mayor of Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy during the civil war) recently said of monuments like the one in his city to Jefferson Davis (who was president of the Confederacy):

“Equal part myth and deception, they were the ‘alternative facts’ of their time – a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago – not only to lionise the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy.” (Mayor Levar Stoney, DC Express, 23rd June 2017)

But there are many mundane distortions of the past that are perhaps more ideologically powerful and pernicious than statues. David Rotenstein showed me some of them during a “dirty tour” of his home town, Silver Spring in Maryland, just north of Washington DC.

The strange social geography of DC makes any definition of place contentious. This city-state imposes itself on the local landscape with a rigidity under-written by Federal law. By most standards, Silver Spring would be just another suburb. But its history makes it more than that and presents a microcosm of the American experience.

The first thing David showed me was this mural, decorating the side of a multi-storey (no pun intended) car park.

We’ve all become used to anodyne municipal and corporate art deployed to dress-up reinventions of place. I still get infuriated by the artifacts (cranes, winding gear, random chain links) littering London’s ‘Docklands’ in a fake gesture to historic preservation. But this mural is more provocative. The clear message is the equality of the two sides in the civil war.

Post-conflict expressions of peace and reconciliation are natural, particularly after civil war and all wars are messy and complex. But in this mural there’s no way of knowing that one side was fighting for the preservation of legal human slavery.

David showed me several other examples of Silver Spring’s attempts to depict its past in a way that conceals some facts and concocts others. In an adjoining mural, black people are shown catching commuter trains in the 1950s at a time when, David says, they would not have been allowed to use the station unless they were working there. Silver Spring remained segregated by custom and practice until the early 1960s, significantly later than DC. More African-Americans moved to the area around this time when a government office opened there, but they not only found it hard to buy a home due to racist restrictions, they couldn’t even buy lunch. David took me to the site of a diner that refused blacks service until they organised the type of sit-in protests more commonly associated with the Deep South. The diner’s demolished now, but the Silver Spring authorities chose not to mark its significant place in local civil rights struggles. What it does commemorate is the figure of Francis Preston Blair, a former slave owner who ‘discovered’ (like Columbus discovered America) the silver spring from which the city takes its name (see photo below).

African-Americans, both free and enslaved, had been living in the Silver Spring area for generations, particularly in the settlement of Lyttonsville.  As my book describes, the history of US housing is entwined with racism, so it’s no surprise to learn that Lyttonsville didn’t get running water and paved streets until the late 1960s – and only after a fight.

Today, Lyttonsville has been absorbed into the wider Silver Spring conurbation, but the difficulties for US society in reconciling its present with its past don’t end there.  The Talbot Avenue Bridge links Lyttonsville to downtown Silver Spring.  It’s an elegant structure that’s typically American.

Now the authorities want to demolish it (allegedly to make way for a new train line).  The contrived arguments being used to justify this – poor maintenance, structurally unsound, beyond economic repair – are precisely those used to justify the destruction of US public housing and UK council housing.  They all illustrate an enduring disrespect for the homes, histories and lives of working class communities, with ethnicity a potent additional factor.

In the Age of Trump, demolishing bridges and building walls (actual or metaphoric) assume ever greater significance.

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10 Responses to The Bridges of Montgomery County

  1. Woody or Amy says:

    From Woody Brosnan, a nearby resident. Your article is completely misinformed about the Talbot Avenue Bridge, which is not surprising since your only source is Mr. Rotenstein. The Talbot Avenue Bridge is closed to cars because a county engineer has deemed it unsafe. Apparently during your tour you missed the rusted out iron supports. The proposed train line is the Purple Line, which will connect communities in Prince George’s County, which is predominantly minority, to communities in Montgomery County and benefit many neighborhoods, including Lyttonsville. The railroad culvert has to be widened to make room for the Purple Line track. The Lyttonsville community has supported replacing the Talbot Avenue Bridge with a two-lane bridge. Recently, the county assured residents on both sides of the bridge that they would build a replacement bridge even if the Purple Line is not funded. There is broad community support to move the existing Talbot Avenue Bridge to a park or other community space where the history of Lyttonsville and Silver Spring’s racist past can be explained. Mr. Rotestein has performed a valuable service in exposing the weaknesses in Silver Spring’s historical records and specifically about the bridge. But that does not excuse the misstatements in this article or the implication that current county efforts to replace the bridge are motivated by prejudice.

    • Glyn Robbins says:

      Thank you Woody or Amy. I look forward to re-visiting Silver Spring in years to come to see if those reassurances are fulfilled. Sadly, I’ve seen too many examples of promises broken to share your optimism, even from a distance. The history of urban ‘regeneration’ projects is littered with betrayal. Whether they’re motivated by prejudice is a moot point, but it’s the results, not the intentions, that matter.

  2. PGUrbanist Bradley Heard (a development and transit blogger who happens to be an African American civil rights lawyer) has filed a formal petition with the Federal Transit Administration citing County and WMATA (transit agency) studies showing that the Purple Line would dilute the planned economic development around existing transit stations in PG County, and do more harm than good, and saying this requires a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to adequately assess alternatives. Those might also avoid the harm to historic sites, low income housing, and minority owned businesses that the Purple Line would bring, and do so at lower cost. Planning for the Purple Line has already helped to cause moderate income housing at Connecticut Avenue to be razed, by the way.

    • Glyn Robbins says:

      Thanks John, i feel like I’ve walked in to a very local storm! The points I was trying to make in the original post were bigger, but clearly related, as some of the reaction confirms. I’m neither a local or a transport specialist, but what I do know is that there’s a thin line between civil engineering and social engineering. I think the key words you use are ‘adequately assess alternatives’. In my own field (housing) and urban policy more generally, this is the thing that doesn’t happen because once the powers that be and ‘experts’ are set on a particular course, they’re on train tracks (no pun intended).

  3. “David took me to the site of a diner that refused blacks service until they organised the type of sit-in protests more commonly associated with the Deep South. The diner’s demolished now, but the Silver Spring authorities chose not to mark its significant place in local civil rights struggles.”

    This is not true. The Silver Spring Heritage Trail sign that recognizes the history of the Little Tavern Hamburger Shop (the “diner”), explains the segregation practices of this and other Montgomery County businesses.

    Thank you.

    • Glyn Robbins says:

      Thanks Jerry. I think what upsets David is that the actual site isn’t marked.

      • Glyn, the restaurant was Crivella’s (near the murals). About the “diner” & marker Mr. McCoy refrerenced, the language minimizes the extent of segregation in Silver Spring and by the hamburger stand’s owner, for example, by suggesting the discrimination was not so bad because the hamburger stand only offered take-out. Mr. McCoy is the author of the books, etc. that have been widely criticized for rendering invisible Silver Spring’s people of color.

  4. Roger Paden says:

    Glyn,

    As you indicated, the bridge is part of a wider story concerning race relations in Montgomery County. Importantly, while its current leaders think of the county as a very progressive place, they continue to take actions that fail to acknowledge the county’s racist history and in doing this they unintentionally continue it.

    As David points out, our history can only be transcended if it is remembered, and even then it must be remembered in effective ways. It is not enough to accurately record our history if the record is stored only in books or on-line; instead, our history needs to be made present to the community through public memorials and through publicly adopted policies that acknowledge it.

    The Lyttonsville community has had to fight for its existence ever since it was founded. Often that fight was against the county government which for over a century made a series of decisions that benefited the county as a whole, while harming and diminishing this small Black community. I mean this literally as, through zoning and the siting of various unwanted facilities, the county acted to shrink the area dedicated to the single-family housing in which the members of the community lived. Even more egregiously the county sited a waste dump in the community, thereby requiring the destruction of a number of houses, at a time when the community was drawing water from nearby wells.

    Even as recently as last year, the county adopted a planning document that called for a massive and unwanted increase in the population surrounding the community. This was justified by the claim that the new Purple Line would have a station in the community and therefore the community must help pay for this infrastructure by accepting a fourfold increase in housing. Once again the community pays for a county-wide project.

    It is obvious that this increase will overwhelm the existing community and that, as a result, the current progressive county council will have unintentionally realized the goal that was explicitly pursued by earlier racist councils, the destruction of Lyttonsville as a self-consciously African-American community. This is a common story: progressive neo-liberalism cannot value communities of identity and therefore, it treat them no better than old-line conservatives who also didn’t value them.

    Neo-liberalism should be opposed and one way of doing this is to try to preserve the histories that it necessarily overlooks. David is thus fighting the good fight.

    Nevertheless, as Woody points out, the bridge has been closed and is no longer safe. A new bridge is needed by the community. The problem here is that these two values are in conflict, the need to preserve the community’s history and the need to provided for the community’s transportation needs. It is difficult to do both.

    I am not an engineer, but I suspect that at this point the only way to do both is to move the historic bridge and build a new one in its place. I would be happy to be proven wrong, but I suspect that economic, structural, and topographic realities will require this course of action.

    If so, then the important question becomes where to move the bridge. Surely it should not be moved far from its present location. I have suggested that it (or some of its most identifiable parts) be incorporated into the Capital Crescent Trail which will run over the new bridge and through Lyttonsville. The bridge could span a wetland area that will be used to store excess runoff. This trail will be used by many people from throughout the county and with appropriate staging, placing the bridge at this point would effectively confront citizens with our (recent) history. Hikers and bikers would cross this low (and inexpensive) bridge and perhaps, attracted to the wetland, they would pause long enough to become aware of the structure on which they stand and the history it represents. A few blocks down the trail, they would cross the tracks at the place where the bridge once stood with a raised historical consciousness.

    • Glyn Robbins says:

      Thanks a lot Roger, that’s great. I’m very familiar with the way relatively ‘small’ issues can assume perhaps disproportionate significance because of what they represent to the history and culure of a local community. Near me at the moment there’s a battle over a single Mulberry tree that’s hundreds of years old, which developers want to move (i.e kill) in order to progress their plans to build homes that few local people will be able to afford, on the site of a former – and publicly owned – hospital. Mulberry trees were grown in this part of east London because they fed the silk worms that supplied the raw material for a vital local industry (weaving) in the 17th/18th century. In the end, I wouldn’t lie down in front of a bulldozer for a tree. But as in your case, if we sacrifice our past wholesale to some super-imposed, commercially-driven version of ‘progress’ then we’re all poorer.

      (But like your idea of a New York City-style ‘High Line’ for Silver Spring.)

  5. Pingback: The Bridge | Housing Matters

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