The fate of a 100-year-old bridge that served as a lifeline for Washington-area African Americans during segregation remains in limbo a year after Montgomery County leaders asked that it be preserved when it’s removed for construction of the Purple Line.
State and county project officials say the historic Talbot Avenue bridge’s steel girders, which support it and form short walls on the sides, will be saved. However, they haven’t decided whether to incorporate them into artwork at a Purple Line station or place them along an adjacent recreational trail, as some residents have asked. Just as important, they haven’t determined who will pay to move and install them.
Longtime residents of Lyttonsville, a community northwest of downtown Silver Spring founded in 1853 by a free black laborer, have been fighting to save the decaying bridge for several years. It’s scheduled to be removed in mid-2019 to make way for a longer span across what will be a wider rail corridor once the Purple Line is built.
Residents say the one-lane wood bridge spanning the CSX freight rail tracks is central to the community’s history as an African American enclave during segregation. Some recall their grandmothers crossing it to reach nearby white neighborhoods where they were allowed to clean homes but not live. On rainy days, Lyttonsville residents hailed taxis at the bridge because drivers refused to use the muddy roads left unpaved long after those in surrounding white neighborhoods. Many used the bridge to reach buses that would take them to schools, jobs, restaurants and movie theaters in the District.
“It’s a symbol of unity and a symbol of courage and conviction,” said Patricia Tyson, 75, a nearly lifelong Lyttonsville resident whose grandparents moved there in 1920. “At one time, it was the only way into and out of the community. . . . It was a gateway to life. It helped us do what we wanted to do.”
Roger Paden, who lives in the nearby Rosemary Hills neighborhood, said he joined the fight to save the bridge because he’s worried about the area losing a critical piece of history. He said he has seen how Lyttonsville has long gotten short shrift from the government. He noted that the area is home to a county bus facility, industrial zoning, and a future Purple Line train storage yard.
“Fighting for the bridge has been part of the fight for Lyttonsville’s survival,” Paden said.
Construction on the 16-mile light-rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties started in August, but the design is still being finalized. The line is scheduled to open to passengers in spring 2022.
Officials at the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) say they tentatively approved, with community input, two artwork proposals for the Lyttonsville station as part of the Purple Line’s $6 million art budget. One of the designs, by Maryland artist David Hess, shows one of the girders cut into two pieces and attached to the sides of the elevator shaft. The other girder would lie on the ground as a short wall between the station and the adjacent Capital Crescent Trail. The girders would be decorated with photos of Lyttonsville residents and other historic images as part of a “sculptural photo album,” according to draft designs.
But some longtime residents say the design loses the feeling of a bridge. Instead, they suggested placing the girders along both sides of the trail so walkers and cyclists would still feel like they were going over a bridge.
“People would get a better idea of what the bridge was like,” said Charlotte Coffield, 84, a third-generation Lyttonsville resident. “This is what I’d like to see happen, given the fact the rest of the bridge is beyond repair.”
The bridge’s badly rotted wood timbers can’t be salvaged, state officials say. Montgomery County, which owns the bridge, closed it to vehicles in May after it failed a safety inspection.
The state has sent mixed messages about the bridge’s fate.
Michael Madden, the MTA’s deputy project director for the Purple Line, wrote to Paden and a county official in mid-December that the MTA had made a “final decision” that the station artwork would no longer include the girders, according to the email. The state’s Purple Line art budget covers artwork only in the state-owned stations, he wrote. The trail is owned by the county.
Madden wrote that the state would leave the girders to the county and the community to use as they wish to mark the bridge’s history.
Community activists said the letter missed that they had asked that the girders be placed along the trail at the east end of the Lyttonsville station.
“I was really disheartened by it because it seemed like the decision made very little sense given the nature of our proposal and the reason given for their decision,” Paden said.
In response to a reporter’s questions last week, state officials said they had not made a final decision.
Charles Lattuca, who oversees the Purple Line for the MTA, said the state is still considering residents’ request to put the girders along the trail. He said the Lyttonsville station’s artwork will include steel girders, whether replicas or the real thing.
“The state wants the community to be happy, and we want them to have the [bridge] materials they need for their project,” Lattuca said. “How that project is accomplished and paid for, we’ll have to work that out with the county.”
Tim Cupples, Montgomery’s coordinator on the state Purple Line project, said the county will explore the residents’ proposal to install the girders along the trail.
“To me, that’s reasonable and easy to resolve,” Cupples said. “The first step is to listen and understand what their concerns are. Then we’ll work with MTA to try to meet their concerns.”
Historian David Rotenstein, who lives in Silver Spring and has researched the bridge’s history, said he’s concerned that state and local officials didn’t sufficiently consider its significance to the surrounding community before the state initially planned to demolish it. He said the state review of the Purple Line’s potential effects relied on previous studies that had noted it only as an example of early 20th century bridge architecture and engineering.
“It was treated very poorly,” Rotenstein said. “By not taking into account its social history, the subsequent reviewers had tunnel vision and didn’t evaluate it for its historical significance to the communities it connected.”
Lyttonsville residents say that even after several years, they’ve been given little certainty about the bridge’s future.
“We think things are finalized and then it comes out different in the end,” Coffield said. “A lot of discussion goes on without the community.”
Asked whether she thinks the bridge will be saved, Tyson laughed lightly.
“I believe in prayer,” she said. “I’ll let you know. If it’s saved, it’ll be through prayer. I sincerely mean that. It has no other chance.”