From H. Paul Douglass to Nancy Ammerman, sociologists have mapped the spiritual and religious ecology of American places.
In the 1990s, the Polis Center’s Project on Religion and Urban Culture at IUPUI painted a systematic portrait of religion in Indianapolis. Led by a team of sociologists and historians, it produced university press books, videos, photography exhibitions, newsletters, and a community-wide festival on “spirit and place” featuring Hoosiers Dan Wakefield and Kurt Vonnegut.
During the same period, sociologist Nancy Eiesland conducted an innovative study of exurban congregations in metropolitan Atlanta, while USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture started mapping the religious landscape of greater Los Angeles.
Two newer projects take a similar approach to the religious life of New York City and Philadelphia. Emerging out of the same research institute that produced New York Glory: Religions in the City, a new website offers a “journey through NYC religions,” complete with maps, videos, research diaries, and interpretive essays. An essay on “Postsecular NYC & Jacob Riis” reflects on the Danish immigrant’s Social Gospel photography, quoting SSRC President Craig Calhoun’s observations on religion and public reason. Its infectious embrace of the urban landscape is reminiscent of Judith Weisenfeld’s path-breaking course, “Gods of the City: Religion in New York.”
An equally engaging project tells the story of religion in America along Philadelphia’s Germantown Avenue, home to over 100 congregations and a wide range of demographic groups. Directed by Katie Day of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, it is profiled at Duke’s Faith & Leadership site.
Back in 2008, Day wrote about the Germantown project for CrossCurrents. In a fascinating slide show, she takes us on a tour of Philadelphia religion. After a narrating a parade of tall steeple churches, immigrant and African-American mosques, evangelical storefronts, and colonial-era meetinghouses, Day admits she “could spend the rest of my life on one street.” Having seen the rich tapestry that emerges from her research, it is easy to understand why.