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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Crossing the Talbot Avenue Bridge


On April 21, 2018, I visited the Talbot Avenue Bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland. The bridge, which spans the CSX Railroad tracks, has for the last century been the main connection between the largely African-American community of Lyttonsville and the more upscale white neighborhoods across the tracks, as well as the Georgia Avenue corridor into the District of Columbia.
The gathering on the bridge

The occasion for my visit was the installation of a “pop-up park” on the bridge by my colleague and friend, historian David Rotenstein, who has made it his business to remind us here in liberal Montgomery County – and coincidentally in my birthplace, Decatur, Georgia – of our Jim Crow traditions. Perhaps a hundred people attended. David and his colleagues had affixed interpretive placards to the bridge rails, and there was a “conversation corner” where people could share stories about the bridge and their communities. There were speeches, by David and by elders of the African-American community. The elders talked of the role the bridge had played in the life of their community, as essentially their only connection with the outside world and the larger society and economy.

Why was the event staged? Because the century-old bridge will soon be demolished to make way for the “Purple Line,” a largely federally funded rapid transit project. Katherine Shaver’s September 24, 2016 story in the Washington Post tells the tale: see https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/a-bridge-that-linked-black-and-white-neighborhoods-during-segregation-soon-will-be-lost-to-history/2016/09/24/59df40dc-7ab0-11e6-bd86-b7bbd53d2b5d_story.html?utm_term=.f88831912344.

Lyttonsville elder Charlotte Coffield (L) confers with 
David Rotenstein (R). The white taped line symbollically
represented the division between Black (B) and White (W) communities

A couple of the placards recounted the history of the Purple Line’s environmental impact assessment under Section 102(c) of the National Environmental Policy Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. In the course of this assessment, based on a consultant’s report, the bridge was found eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but only as a work of engineering. Its sociocultural significance seems to have been entirely ignored.

I take it that the existing Talbot Avenue Bridge will be replaced by a modern structure capable of spanning the widened railroad tracks, so the connective tissue it represents will be maintained. And history has moved on; Montgomery County is no longer the segregated set of communities it once was (though in these difficult times, even here segregationist attitudes occasionally resurface). So maybe losing the bridge is no big deal. But damn, people, is it really right for a property like the Talbot Avenue Bridge to be evaluated for the National Register, and hence considered under Section 106, purely as a piece of engineering? Should its traditional cultural value not have been considered, leading in this case – perhaps – to a more respectful outcome?
Among the "popup park's" markers


I know, there’s King flapping his lips again about traditional cultural places. And this time after the fact. No argument; I just think it’s sad that once again Section 106 review – and NEPA review – of impacts on a place of cultural significance to a community has been short-circuited by narrowminded application of the National Register criteria. I guess I should be used to it by now.