An Old Bridge Speaks About Race and History

By David Rotenstein posted 12-26-2018 11:44


Patricia Tyson has lived in her Silver Spring, Maryland, neighborhood for most of her life. She believes that the nearby Talbot Avenue Bridge, which is slated for demolition in early 2019 to make way for the construction of the new Purple Line light rail, has a voice. When Tyson was a child growing up in the African American hamlet of Lyttonsville, the bridge’s rattling wood deck announced her parents arriving home from a long day’s work. Today Tyson says that the bridge speaks to people about history and reconciliation. On a warm fall day in September 2018, Tyson introduced more than 200 people to the bridge’s voice during a festival celebrating its centennial. 

Lyttonsville resident Patricia Tyson speaking during the centennial celebration of the Talbot Avenue Bridge on September 22, 2018. | Credit:  David Rotenstein

“When I was growing up here, the bridge had a voice. It still has a voice,” Tyson said. “It bridged the gap between two or three neighborhoods. By having this celebration and by the many events that have been happening, it has brought these communities closer together.” 

One Bridge, Multiple Stories 

The Talbot Avenue Bridge was completed in 1918 to carry cars and pedestrians over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Nearly a century later, as plans for the new light rail line moved forward, Montgomery County officials determined that the bridge was unsafe, and they closed it to vehicular traffic in spring 2017. When architectural historians evaluated the bridge for the National Register of Historic Places, they determined it eligible for listing as an engineering resource and recommended that it be documented prior to demolition on that basis. 

The Talbot Avenue Bridge in June 2017. | Credit: David Rotenstein

But Lyttonsville residents like Tyson have a different understanding about the bridge’s historical significance. For most of the 20th century, Lyttonsville was the “other side of the tracks” from Silver Spring, a sundown suburb where racially restrictive deed covenants prevented African Americans from buying and renting homes—and where Jim Crow rigidly segregated public spaces and businesses. The only African Americans who lived in unincorporated Silver Spring were domestic servants. As late as 1967, people who lived there touted its appeal to whites moving from neighboring Washington, D.C. “It’s nice; there’s no colored here,” one resident told magazine writer Judith Viorst.

To the African American residents of Lyttonsville, the bridge was an essential lifeline connecting them to jobs in Silver Spring and Washington. It also enabled them to access busses to movie theaters and stores in Washington, where their presence and money were welcome. But these facets of Lyttonsville’s history had been rendered invisible. Published histories and historic preservation documents had omitted Lyttonsville and elided the roles that segregation and Jim Crow played in Silver Spring’s history. 

Lyttonsville’s remaining African American residents—many who lived there before urban renewal have moved or passed away—repeatedly told planners working for the Maryland Transit Authority and the Montgomery County Planning Department about the bridge’s importance and their attachment to it. The planners, however, didn’t seem to understand what they were hearing; to them, the bridge was infrastructure—simply old metal and wood. 

Uplifting Black History

In 2016 I began interviewing Lyttonsville residents about the community’s history and its erasure. Their narratives prominently featured the bridge and their attachment to it. As a folklorist and historian, I was sensitive to the importance of space and the significant role that the “other side of the tracks” plays in racialized land-use regimes. 

My first blog post about the bridge inspired The Washington Post to cover the story. Within a year, a local songwriter had composed an instrumental tune about the bridge; more news stories had been published; a community meeting had been held; an  affordable housing and social justice activist based in the United Kingdom had written about the bridge; and a local filmmaker had produced a short documentary about it. By the end of 2017, lifelong Lyttonsville resident Charlotte Coffield was telling people, “The Talbot Avenue Bridge has taken on a life of its own.” 

Former resident of River Road in Bethesda, Maryland, Harvey Matthews reads a pop-up museum panel on April 21, 2018.| Credit: David Rotenstein

In April 2018 I curated a Talbot Avenue Bridge pop-up museum. At the same time, Lyttonsville residents were forming a committee to plan the centennial celebration. They invited residents from Rosemary Hills, an adjacent neighborhood first developed in the 1940s, as well as people who lived across the bridge in the North Woodside neighborhood.

Since the 1980s, North Woodside and Lyttonsville residents had found themselves in pitched battles over the bridge: North Woodside wanted it closed, while Lyttonsville wanted it to remain open. Some Lyttonsville residents believed that the North Woodside positions regarding the bridge were racially motivated. The 2017 documentary sparked heated conversations and laid the foundation for confronting the difficult history and finding reconciliation. 

Anne White, right, and Charlotte Coffied listen to speakers during the bridge’s centennial celebration on September 22, 2018. | Credit: David Rotenstein

Anna White moved to North Woodside a decade ago. Until 2016 she knew little about the bridge’s history or about Lyttonsville. For White, the bridge was a scenic amenity where her children enjoyed watching trains pass below. After reading about the bridge in the The Washington Post, White sought more information. “When I heard the history of the bridge, it made me, you know, feel the bridge was all the more important and important to save, as well,” White said in a 2018 interview. “I feel that the bridge is an important civil rights location in this community.” 

The Talbot Avenue Bridge began speaking to White. “I think there’s … the literal sound of the bridge, which we aren’t hearing now,” she said. “And then there’s the figurative voice of the bridge which you can’t put in words, but … when you walk over it, and you think of the past hundred years of history that this bridge has seen and been part of, it does have a voice and a story to tell if we can listen to it.” 

White reached out to her neighbors to understand their feelings about the bridge, and she began forming friendships with Lyttonsville residents. She interviewed them to learn their stories and became sensitized to the social impacts of erasure. 

A Birthday Party for the Bridge 

As one of the centennial planners, Anna White worked collaboratively to design a festival that would celebrate the bridge’s history and lay the groundwork for building future bonds between North Woodside and Lyttonsville. 

  1. Drummer and member of the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices David Fakunle walking across the Talbot Avenue Bridge to perform at the centennial celebration on September 22, 2018. | Credit: David Rotenstein

White met with North Woodside neighborhood leaders, providing them with examples of the racially restrictive covenants that had kept her neighborhood segregated for most of the 20th century. As a result of her efforts, the North Woodside-Montgomery Hills Civic Association’s board of directors unanimously approved a proclamation renouncing the neighborhood’s racism and the covenants that had been written to uphold it. David Cox, the organization’s president, read the proclamation in an emotional statement during the centennial celebration. 

The centennial planning committee met in Lyttonsville’s Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Recreation Center and in members’ homes on both sides of the bridge. Early on, members agreed that all decisions would be made by consensus. They selected speakers; hired musicians; invited local officials; and raised more than $2,000 to fund performers, supplies, and a professional sound service. North Woodside got a block party permit to close nearby streets, and local officials helped with traffic control. 

Featured performers included The Washington Revels’ Jubilee Voices and folk singer Lea Morris. Jay Elvove also performed his song, “Talbot Avenue Bridge.” Speakers besides Cox included current and former residents of the Lyttonsville, Rosemary Hills, and North Woodside neighborhoods and then–Montgomery County executive, Isiah Leggett. 

Though the Talbot Avenue Bridge will be demolished, it will continue to connect space and people through conversations about race and history. Its voice, amplified by old and new residents, tells people why old places really matter. 

David Rotenstein is a public historian and folklorist based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has worked in public history historic preservation for 35 years and he writes about gentrification, erasure, and industrial history.