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Why we JOURNEY. No. 4

Discovering the spiritual maps of the city

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Manhattan churches spires in a detail from 1865 map by J. Bachman, published by Himmel and Forster.

Journeying means that we discover communities of faith, houses of compassion, and centers of religious innovation that are invisible to many New Yorkers. We discover that religious New Yorkers have their own maps of the city too. As I am writing this, a Christian prayer group of around eighty people are steaming around Manhattan on a cruise ship, pointing at and praying for places and their peoples that need spiritual or physical aid. I would imagine that the United Nations will come in for lots of praying.

New Yorkers like those on the prayer cruises re-imagine their city with prayer walks to locate God’s work and evil powers, invest features with divinity, and build and paint objects in the streets. A good example of matchmaking the geographical and the spiritual is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Bunyan’s imaginary map of a pilgrim’s progress toward the city of God is famed for its central role in shaping the English language and literature. However, its allegorical style strikes many modern readers as overly simplistic and a little sedate in its pacing as a piece of literature. A closer look at Bunyan’s classic work reveals an interesting vocabulary for mapping the social and religious life of city dwellers. There are obstacles, temptations, breakthroughs, turning points, narrow ways and broad ways. Bunyan was mapping the mental map of the Christian believers and non-believers of his day about how the progress of their life might be geographically itemized. When you read Pilgrim’s Progress, you will find it much more interesting if you don’t focus on the allegorical moral types of people but look at the geographical features and how they drive the actors’ responses.

Commentators on Bunyan’s book sometimes note that certain geographic items loosely correspond to the geography of Bunyan’s own life. Certainly, he intended that his readers would reflect on their own geographies as reminders of the twists and turns of their own spiritual lives.

19th Century map of John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress"

19th Century map of John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress"

Each person’s mental map of a city may at times loosely mesh with reflections upon one’s spiritual journey. We all recall the places that coincided with special events and turning points. Some areas of the city seem laden with danger, while others harbor hope.

Some congregations define the street as dangerous avenues of worldliness; others see the street as their front porch or their performance space; and some even invite people on the street to come in and out as if the religious site is an adjunct to street life. Some religious people have seen parts of the city as objects of pity, a viewpoint that gave rise in the 19th Century to say that one was going "slumming" when one was going to work for a charitable purpose in a slum. More healthily, New York's religious congregants have seen compassionate work in areas with many poor and downtrodden people as opportunities to build their own character and appreciation of people from all walks of life.

Detail from a map of Catholic parish boundaries in Brooklyn

Detail from a map of Catholic parish boundaries in Brooklyn

Religious organizations like the Catholic Church divide the city up into parishes. Religious Jews set up eruvs which are boundary lines that symbolically expand the front porch of Jewish homes so that small objects necessary for home life can be carried outside of the home on the Sabbath, a day in which each Jew should commune restfully with his or family and neighbors. The Manhattan eruv encompasses most of the island. Pious Muslims chart out their movements so that they can be near a prayer site for the five times a day that they are supposed to pray. The airports have outdoor places kept clean for the purpose, and some restaurants offer basement prayer rooms in areas without nearby mosques.

Manhattan eruv

Our Deputy Editor Melissa Kimiadi wrote about an attempt to align geography and the spiritual in her article on the activities of a Hindu temple in Greenwich Village.

“Walking in New York is a holy gait for New Yorkers who feel the city is sacred ground.

The Dutch Calvinists laid out the original New York according to their vision of the confluence of heaven and earth; Calvinist John Randel, Jr. imposed a rational order through his 1811 grid for Manhattan above Fourteenth Street; the evangelical reformers swept the streets for corruption; the Catholics mapped the streets with parish boundaries, pilgrimages and storefront shrines; and the Jews laid out boundary lines for their holy days.

Believers in some of the gods who have more recently arrived in New York City are also claiming the city for their imagination. They are building their Holy Cities right here around us. The sacred architecture starts with their worship centers and spills over into the public squares.

In Manhattan, Hindus are making a smaller, but profound city map through the Ganesha processions organized by the Broome Street Ganesha Temple.

Last year, the temple devotees went outward rather than inward to map out lower Manhattan with a holy pilgrimage in a loop for six blocks from Broome Street to Mercer Street, then to Spring Street, down to Broadway, and coming back to Broome Street. Then, they gathered to claim the Hudson River as a Hindu God like that of the River Ganges in India.”

Hinduism on the Hudson

Hinduism on the Hudson. Illustration

The city’s geographic features are somewhat obdurant, but humans and their minds and hearts are always at work to reshape the geography either physically or by redefining it according to certain worldviews. Most infamously, the Californian writer Joaquin Miller castigated New York City in his lurid 1886 novel  The Destruction of Gotham as the Sodom and Gomorrah of the modern world. He pinpointed the place of God’s judgment as the buildings that housed the yellow press, the newspapers that specialized in shocking headlines and titillating tales of sex, greed, and mayhem. He predicted that at the end times that there would be molten lead from the presses flowing down the streets of lower Manhattan.

The label of Sodom and Gomorrah stuck to New York City and influenced attitudes toward the city, politics and wrenched the claim of heavenly destination into the hands of Californians. Others have pinpointed various hells and heavens of the city. Frederic Law Olmstead created a taste of heaven in Central Park to bring spiritual healing to the city’s hardest pressed dwellers. The legendary reporter and photojournalist Jacob Riis gave evidence that Miller might be right about certain areas of the city being close to hell on earth, but his mapping was for a deeper purpose.

Postcard showing the heart of Central Park bearing the message of the angel at Bethesda Fountain: "For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." Gospel of John, 5:2-4

Postcard showing the heart of Central Park bearing the message of the angel at Bethesda Fountain: "For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." Gospel of John, 5:2-4

Riis made certain degrading spots in the city legends in the public mind in order to create a reformist attitude toward the geography of the city. When reformists installed Theodore Roosevelt as police commissioner, he called upon Riis to give him the lowdown on the problems with the police. Riis took Roosevelt on a journey: a foot tour of the Lower East side between 12 am and 6am in the morning. Riis showed where the cops went to sleep during their tours and where they wasted the way their time at certain bars. At that time beat cops had numbered posts that they were supposed to be at. Not too many were at their posts. Riis was teaching Roosevelt about two maps of the city: the street map; and the social-moral map. Politicians like Roosevelt meld those maps to a shrewd map of supporters, neutrals and political enemies in the city.

Just about everyone loves the rambunctious guide to the geography of politics in Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah. In the book O’Connor details the campaign travels of the Boston mayor in his search for votes. The political novel is thought to be a thinly veiled portrait of four-time mayor James Curley (active from World War I to the 1950s), who beat the Kennedy’s but won their enmity as well as a grudging respect). The politician’s detailed knowledge of the map of politics in the city is fascinating. However, we don’t have a map of the faiths of the city to overlay the geography of politics. We do have some striking generalizations, but not enough facts.


The lack of knowledge about the city’s religious geography is partly rooted in that fact that mappers of the city started to de-emphasize looking at faith-based culture and society as relevant to politics. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer dismissed the future of religion in city politics although their friend Edward Banfield couldn’t quite leave the overhanging religious past with his proclamation that New York was a not so bad The Unheavenly City.


Spiritual geography from Rev. Michael L. Lindvall, Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan

Spiritual geography from Rev. Michael L. Lindvall, Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan

Next! Why we JOURNEY No. 5. Journey as the best way to do hyperlocal reporting

Also see:

Why we JOURNEY No. 1. Who knows, maybe we can inspire a journey through religions in outer space?;

Why we JOURNEY No. 2. Journey  charts the geography of faith sites in New York City; and

Why we JOURNEY No. 3. Journeying through the peoples of New York City.

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