Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood / Edition 1

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Long considered the lifeblood of urban African American neighborhoods, churches are held up as institutions dedicated to serving their surrounding communities. Omar McRoberts's work in Four Corners, however, reveals a very different picture. One of the toughest neighborhoods in Boston, Four Corners also contains twenty-nine churches, mostly storefront congregations, within its square half-mile radius. In McRoberts's hands, this area teaches a startling lesson about the relationship between congregations and neighborhoods that will be of interest to everyone concerned with the revitalization of the inner city.

McRoberts finds, for example, that most of the churches in Four Corners are attended and run by people who do not live in the neighborhood but who worship there because of the low overhead. These churches, McRoberts argues, are communities in and of themselves, with little or no attachment to the surrounding area. This disconnect makes the churches less inclined to cooperate with neighborhood revitalization campaigns and less likely to respond to the immediate needs of neighborhood residents. Thus, the faith invested in inner-city churches as beacons of local renewal might be misplaced, and the decision to count on them to administer welfare definitely should be revisited.

As the federal government increasingly moves toward delivering social services through faith-based organizations, Streets of Glory must be read for its trenchant revisionist view of how churches actually work in depressed urban areas.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
With an eye toward evaluating churches as potential administers of social programs in needy communities, this ethnographic study takes a close look at a particular community's churches and their relationship to local residents. This carefully structured study examines the nature of 29 largely storefront churches in the crime-ridden, economically depressed Four Corners area of Dorcester, MA. Considering the degree to which these churches relate to and interact with the area's resident population, McRoberts (sociology, Univ. of Chicago) notes that many of them are simply attracted by low-rent, available storefront spaces and coexist because they are "niche churches, competing not for neighborhood residents but for certain kinds of people who might or might not be nearby." Pastors' beliefs are important in determining how involved locally a church will be, but most remain dedicated solely to the concerns of their commuter congregations. McRoberts's findings are not encouraging for the use of such churches as bases for local community revitalization projects. This situation has implications for public policies that may naively advocate steering improvement monies for individuals or neighborhoods toward faith-based institutions in general. For the academic and professional public.-Suzanne W. Wood, SUNY Coll. of Technology, Alfred Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226562162
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2003
  • Series: Morality and Society Series Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 186
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Omar M. McRoberts is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

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Streets of Glory: Church and Community in A Black Urban Neighborhood

By Omar M. McRoberts

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Omar M. McRoberts
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226562166

ONE - Introduction

Most observers will agree that religious institutions are woven deeply into the physical and social fabric of the city. In nearly every neighborhood and downtown we find temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues. Places of worship house what is perhaps the oldest and most ubiquitous form of urban community--the religious congregation. Yet, these places of worship and the communities that gather within them are not always entirely at home in the city. Sometimes religious minds perceive the city--with its stark juxtaposition of rich and poor, its dazzling mosaic of lifestyles and moral cultures, and the seemingly inevitable violations that occur in its streets and halls of power--as the sign and symbol of humanity's spiritual waywardness.

At the same time, developers, public officials, and city dwellers themselves do not always act as if religious functions were as vital to urban life as residential, commercial, industrial, or recreational ones. Indeed, people sometimes view places of worship as social and economic malignancies. Congregations, whether housed or searching for homes, may therefore encounter the same degree of local resentment as homeless shelters, institutions for mentallyill persons, public and low-income housing, smoke-belching factories, and toxic dumps. In numerous instances, urbanites have even attempted to zone places of worship out of residential and commercial areas.

In 1997, the Boston Redevelopment Authority announced plans to rezone Dorchester. The rezoning effort would incorporate residential input through a series of Planning and Zoning Advisory Committee meetings. At one meeting, convened on a crisp October evening, the committee would discuss properties along the segment of Washington Street that cuts through Four Corners: a 0.6-square-mile, economically depressed, predominantly African American neighborhood.

Fourteen people, including myself, attended the meeting. Among the attendants were Four Corners residents and representatives of community development groups in Codman Square and Mt. Bowdoin. A Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) representative served as guide and scribe. He distributed a packet of parcel maps covering several segments of Washington Street. Each parcel, represented by a little polygon, had an identification number and street address printed inside it. The facilitator also distributed a lengthy table describing the use for which each parcel had been zoned. Tonight, committee members would comb through the materials, checking the BRA records against their own mental maps. Participants made sure each parcel had the right address, noted when a property zoned for one purpose was being used for another, and debated the "highest and best use" of particular properties.

During one of these debates, a Four Corners resident raised the issue of parasitic churches. She was disappointed that a particular church met, quite legitimately, in a space zoned for "public assembly." If the parcel had been zoned for some other use, perhaps the church could be ousted from the space. After all, church members take up a good deal of parking space on Washington Street. Shouldn't these parking spaces be available for patrons of the few businesses in Four Corners?

Sandra, a member of another congregation in Four Corners, frowned when she heard these remarks. Without revealing her affiliation, she mentioned, dryly, that her church was listed erroneously as a residential property. "I would say it should be listed as 'CS': a community space." An awkward silence followed. Sandra's point of correction implied that not every church could be dismissed as a mere "public assembly" leeching away the neigh-borhood's last precious drops of economic lifeblood in the name of God. This church--her church--was a community space. The man sitting next to Sandra resisted her subtle attempt to give the church issue a positive spin. The church in question, he impugned, might deliberately be ignoring the property's use designation or operating with a conditional usage permit. The committee should find out which was the case and make sure that the space reverted to residential use when the church inevitably died.

With that remark, the negative spin on churches gained considerable torque; it lost inertia only as the meeting itself wound to a close. At one point, someone lumped churches and auto body shops (reputed as "chop shops," where thieves strip stolen cars) into the same "nuisance" category. "Well, I wouldn't put them all in the same category," replied a man representing the Codman Square Community Development Corporation. "I think of churches as being somewhat different." Other attendants nodded reluctantly, as if in deference to some particularly petty point of political correctness. Another man complained that the second floor of the triple-decker next to his home was being used as a church, "so every Sunday I have to put up with their singing!" Then came the retort: "At least they were inside!"

Finally, a representative from Mt. Bowdoin asked if there might be a more effective way to highlight religious institutions operating in places zoned for other purposes. The BRA facilitator responded, helplessly:

The problem is, churches can be anywhere. We ran into this problem when we zoned Blue Hill Avenue. We counted about twenty-one churches on Blue Hill Ave. alone. We put in a recommendation that churches with one hundred seats or more must have at least ten parking spaces. But they said we could not target churches. So we decided to go after all public assemblies.
Some readers will find it odd, if not alarming, that a public discussion about urban land use should "target" churches in this way. One might not expect churches to be discussed in such decisively negative terms. The crux, however, was that churches, like auto body shops, appeared as obstacles to planned economic revitalization. Religious institutions might somehow be useful for members, but they were not useful for the neighborhood. Churches may function as communities, but what do they do for the community?

Debate over the role, the usefulness, of religion and religious institutions in urban life is hardly confined to local zoning processes. Such debate has become a prominent feature of the national public discourse on urban poverty. For instance, since 1996 people have debated the merits of the Charitable Choice clause, the portion of the 1996 Wefare Reform Act that makes local churches eligible to receive federal money to provide welfare services to poor people. Feature articles on the role of churches in addressing "inner-city" problems keep appearing in popular magazines. One Newsweek cover story even proclaimed "A New Holy War" of churches against the urban ills of violence and drugs (Woodward 1998). Another cover story, appearing in the American Prospect, asked, "Can the Churches Save the Cities?" (Kramnick 1997).

From a sociological standpoint, the actual and potential roles of churches in "inner-city" neighborhoods like Four Corners are far from obvious. In fact, sociological studies of life in depressed urban neighborhoods often take for granted the absence of voluntary associations, churches included. According to some of these studies, such institutions historically helped to socialize "ghetto" residents, thus buffering poor people against the negative social consequences of their poverty (Wilson 1987; Wacquant and Wilson 1990). Middle-class out-migration, however, is thought to have drained inner-city Black neighborhoods of such associations. Other studies acknowledge the continuing presence of churches and other associations but focus on individual rather than institutional behaviors (Anderson 1990, 1999). In short, despite the ascendancy of church-talk in the world of social welfare policy, not to mention the many local conflicts over the literal place of religion in the urban landscape, the sociological literature has yet to pay sufficient attention to the countless religious congregations that literally line the streets of even the poorest urban areas.

The pressing need for such attention became evident to me in the summer of 1995, when I began visiting Four Corners. I ventured into the neighborhood as a part of a small team of Harvard graduate students evaluating a summer youth program at the Azusa Christian Community. Prior to my first visit, I possessed a statistical understanding of what the neighborhood was like. I knew, for example, that this neighborhood was composed mostly of Black, working poor people. I knew that the neighborhood had high violent crime rates. But there was something else about Four Corners that would reveal itself only after repeated visits. Each time I returned to the neighborhood I noticed more churches, mostly in commercial storefronts. The cliche about depressed neighborhoods containing little other than churches and liquor stores came to mind. I wondered what it could mean for so many churches to be concentrated in such a compact area. These concerns evolved into a four-year, primarily ethnographic study of religion and community revitalization in Four Corners.

The thriving religious presence in countless poor urban neighborhoods and the ambiguous status of these churches in the public imagination raise some crucial questions: 1) Why do some poor neighborhoods contain so many congregations, and how do these neighborhoods sustain so much religious activity? 2) Assuming these churches are not identical to each other (despite the currency of sweeping euphemisms like "storefront churches"), how do they vary meaningfully as social institutions? and 3) What roles do churches play or fail to play in collective efforts to address neighborhood problems? This book will begin to answer these questions by presenting an ethnographic study of Four Corners, which in 1999 hosted twenty-nine congregations.


In the mid-1980s, Four Corners began to gain a national reputation as a "rough" neighborhood. A thriving, gang-driven drug market and rising violent and property crime rates kept residents in perpetual fear. A spate of drive-by shootings drew wide media attention to the neighborhood and its problems and put the name "Four Corners" on the proverbial map, albeit under less than flattering circumstances. On the literal map, Four Corners is a 0.6-square-mile community area straddling the neighborhood districts (also called city planning districts) of Roxbury and Dorchester (map 1). In 1990, it had a population of 14,519. The median family income in Four Corners was $21,250, a full $13,250 below the city median. With a poverty rate of 29 percent, Four Corners could be located just below the threshold of high poverty. The neighborhood unemployment rate of 14 percent well exceeded the city rate of 8 percent. During the period of study (1995-99) Four Corners was also the least economically developed neighborhood on Washington Street, the major thoroughfare that cuts through most of Dorchester. Vacancy rates soared. Businesses were relatively rare and lacked diversity--the most numerous commercial establishments were corner quick shops, auto repair garages, and hair salons.

Although Four Corners was 81 percent African American, there was some ethnic diversity in the neighborhood. Most of the non-African American residents were immigrants from Latin America. Immigrants from Haiti and the Caribbean islands were a smaller, but visible, presence. Altogether, immigrants made up roughly thirteen percent of the population. There was also a small White population, making up about 6 percent of Four Corners residents. Most of these were older persons who got "left behind" (Cummings 1998) when the neighborhood tipped from White and Jewish to Black. A few, however, were young gentrifiers. On rare occasions, they could be seen moving new furniture into rickety Victorian houses or jogging down Washington Street.

Four Corners also contained myriad organizations. These were not community development corporations (CDCs) and community health centers, the kinds of institutions that spearheaded revitalization in adjacent neighborhoods. They were churches. In fact, Four Corners teemed with lush religious life. The religious presence was most conspicuous on Sunday mornings, when the storefronts, dark and deserted most of the week, came alive with the movements and sounds that accompany vigorous worship and warm fellowship. Religion, however, was not invisible during the workweek, either. There were a few "community churches"; these were conspicuous because their doors were perpetually open, their lights were always on, and there were always people going in and out and milling around outside. In the meantime, a variety of evangelists, some based in other neighborhoods, roved the streets and occasionally held worship in outdoor common spaces. A half dozen white-robed members of a nearby Spiritual Baptist church regularly convened on Washington Street at the edge of a small park; for hours they would sing hymns, beat tambourines, dance, and sing praises. Their pastor, a tall man with a Caribbean accent, loosely orchestrated the public ritual while shouting shrill exhortations into a bullhorn. Young White men-- Mormons, in fact--in freshly pressed white shirts, dark pants, and neckties strolled the streets in pairs, greeting each and every passerby with boy-scout courtesy. Modestly dressed middle-aged women distributed copies of the Watchtower and other Jehovah's Witnesses publications.

At last count (May 1999), there were twenty-nine active congregations (this estimate, of course, did not include the notoriously uncountable religious gatherings that occur in living rooms and spaces rented on a nightly basis) in the neighborhood. All but five of these were housed in commercial storefronts. Two of these met in converted houses, and the remaining three worshiped in freestanding church edifices. Although the neighborhood was predominantly African American, nearly half of the congregations were composed of immigrants. There were six Caribbean, five Latina/o, and three Haitian congregations. Most of the congregations were composed of working-class and working poor individuals and families. Even so, contrary to conventional "wisdom" regarding dense religious ecologies in poor neighborhoods, five congregations were composed of middle-class professionals. Finally, there were four "mainline" congregations: one Baptist, two Roman Catholic (which worshiped at the same church), and one United Methodist. In addition, there was one Jehovah's Witnesses hall containing six congregations and one Seventh-day Adventist congregation. These eleven congregations were conspicuous minorities in an overwhelmingly Holiness-Pentecostal-Apostolic organizational field--although the term "organizational field" never quite captured the nature of religious activity in this neighborhood. Four Corners was a religious district, where the most commonplace and the most unusual faith communities existed literally side by side.

Thus, as the neighborhood changed from a once thriving commercial junction to a place known for its economic depression and violence, residents witnessed the peculiar irony that eventually inspired this book. This is the irony of religious generation in the midst of neighborhood decay. Aware of this irony, Reverend Eugene Rivers, Four Corners resident and pastor of the Azusa Christian Community, warned that unless local religious institutions intervened, "in a decade it will be Welcome to the Terror Dome. All that's going to be left of the Black community is crack houses, churches, and twelve-year-old girls prostituting themselves on the streets to survive. Everything else will be gone."


This is not the first study to explore aspects of religious life in an African American urban context. It is, however, the first study since 1940 to show how a dense religious ecology emerged within a Black neighborhood, to explore in ethnographic detail the diversity of churches in that ecology, and to explain how churches have impacted the locale. In their classic sociological works, Mays and Nicholson (1969 [1933]), Gunnar Myrdal (1944), and E. Franklin Frazier (1974 [1963]) pondered the abundance of churches in urban Black areas but adopted a national perspective rather than a more intimate local one. Each of their treatises traced the phenomenal post-Civil War growth of urban Black churches to three factors: 1) the great migration, during which millions of southern Blacks moved to urban, usually northern, centers; 2) their continued exclusion from the political, economic, and associational institutions of White society, which forced Blacks to establish parallel institutions in their own areas; and 3) class and cultural differentiation within the Black populace.

All of these scholars further agreed that Blacks were "overchurched"-- that is, that African Americans possessed far more churches than they could keep up or that could be useful in ameliorating the social and economic conditions of the Black population. Moreover, each predicted that as racial barriers to the wider urban society crumbled, Blacks would attain higher levels of education, cultural sophistication, and professional status.


Excerpted from Streets of Glory: Church and Community in A Black Urban Neighborhood by Omar M. McRoberts Copyright © 2003 by Omar M. McRoberts. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Birth of the Black Religious District
3. Four Corners: Birth of a Contemporary Religious District
4. "In the world, but not of it": Particularism and Exilic Consciousness
5. "The Street": Clergy Confront the Immediate Environment
6. Changing the World: Church-Based "Activism"
7. Who Is My Neighbor? Religion and Institutional Infrastructure in Four Corners
8. Conclusion: Saving Four Corners?
Author's Note

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