A second reason that we journey is to emphasize that we are gathering first-hand information about the lay of the land, the humans and their religious faiths upon it. We are doing a cartography of faith and its visible presence on our city streets. A Journey’s methods and interests overlap with those of landscape geographers and mental mappers.
The landscape geographer Clarence Glacken noted in his classic Traces on the Rhodian Shore that “in the history of Western thought, men have persistently asked three questions concerning the habitable earth and their relationships to it. Is the earth, which is obviously a fit environment for man and other organic life, a purposefully made creation? Have its climates, its relief, the configuration of its continents influenced the moral and social nature of individuals, and have they had an influence in molding the character and nature of human culture? In his long tenure of the earth, in what manner has man changed it from its hypothetical pristine condition?”
A Journey started with the inspiration from four maps of the city that address Glacken’s questions directly or indirectly: a map of the physical lay of the land, the streets, and the physical structures; a geographical imagery of the spiritual path of a spiritual pilgrim as outlined by John Bunyan in his The Pilgrim’s Progress; Jacob Riis’ vivid mapping of the worst spots for the poor in the Lower East Side; and our sense that we really didn’t know the city and its religions at the same level of the knowledge of the political map possessed by our legendary mayors. First, we have to transverse the physical geography of the land on which everything else lies.
We are constantly struck by the geographical peculiarities of New York City. Very often, those singular structures mark in our minds the religious sites around them. On 114th Street off Broadway there is a gigantic boulder, probably a type of granite found in north Manhattan that was thrown up by a volcano long ago, that takes up a whole lot. Next to it used to reside one of the religious dorms for Columbia students, the Protestant-orientated Student Christian House. The granite mound reminds one of the big “Split Rock” in the Bronx upon which religious dissident Anne Hutchinson was allegedly murdered by a Native American war party. Across the street sits Broadway Presbyterian Church which was infamous for its closure by a war party of Presbyterians because it was too evangelical. It has opened back up under new, politically-correct management.
A few doors down is the Catholic dorm called Ford Hall. At the end of the block where 114th Street meets Riverside Drive, a Christian community called ”2G” hosted the first New York City branch of the Presbyterian denomination that eventually founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Around the corner to the left on 113th Street was a Jewish student community called Bayit Sheni and on 112th Street is Beit Ephriaim, the nation's oldest communal housing run by Jewish students. Going east on Manhattan, the geography takes a sudden drop.
When Lexington Avenue turns sharply upward at the southern edge of East Harlem on 103rd Street, one is reminded of San Francisco’s steep inclines. At the foot, which used to be in the little valley that contained a creek cutting northwest across Manhattan, is St. George and St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. Across the street the unique Soluna Holistic Spa has its roots in African-based Puerto Rican religion. Next door, Azul Bookstore provides alternative religion books. Going further north to the South Bronx, we run into several little fishing village-like communities.
Harding Park is similar to some of the other shore communities in Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. It features bungalows set amidst narrow streets, dead-ends, quaint curves. A small Catholic shrine sits off the road on the shore side across from Queens with a vivid glimpse of the skyline of Manhattan in the distance. A few blocks away sits an unexpected outpost of a Swiss Protestant denomination. There are many hideaways like this in the Bronx and elsewhere in the city. We distinctly remember the boggy area of west South Ozone Park in which the FBI searched for an organized crime victim while we were journeying through. The neighborhood lays in a depression from which you can’t see the rest of the city.
On every hill, vale, dale, stream, most streets and many niches, space becomes place which becomes a place for grace to the peoples of New York City.