Ecologies of Faith in New York City: The Evolution of Religious Institutions

Ecologies of Faith in New York City: The Evolution of Religious Institutions


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Ecologies of Faith in New York City examines patterns of interreligious cooperation and conflict in New York City. It explores how representative congregations in this religiously diverse city interact with their surroundings by competing for members, seeking out niches, or cooperating via coalitions and neighborhood organizations. Based on in-depth research in New York’s ethnically mixed and rapidly changing neighborhoods, the essays in the volume describe how religious institutions shape and are shaped by their environments, what new roles they have assumed, and how they relate to other religious groups in the community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006905
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/19/2012
Series: Polis Center Series on Religion and Urban Culture
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Richard Cimino is adjunct professor in Sociology at Hofstra University. He is author of Trusting the Spirit and (with Don Lattin) Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium, and editor of Religion Watch.

Nadia A. Mian is adjunct professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University

Weishan Huang is a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany.

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Ecologies of Faith in New York City

The Evolution of Religious Institutions

By Richard Cimino, Nadia A. Mian, Weishan Huang

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00694-3


Disneyfication and Religion in Times Square

Hans E. Tokke

* * *

"Look, like it's all about consumerism, everywhere I see. There isn't much about the church here," said Alban Boucher, a member of our research team, as he stood amidst the flashing video screens, crowds of gawking tourists with cameras strobing away, and taxis aggressively jockeying for rides in the center of the global universe of media, technology, fashion, and advertising – Times Square. Boucher grew up in New York City seeing the transformation of Times Square, but like many locals, he was unaware of the urban planning agenda behind the changes. An avid Christian, he was bothered that consumerism had ousted religion from Times Square, or so it seemed.

The influence of consumerism on hyperstimulating urban enclaves such as Times Square is a constant. Religious groups ministering within these environments must adapt and assimilate to these social and cultural changes in order to remain relevant. Often these transitions are predictable and measurable, with new residents replacing longtime tenants. The classic term of gentrification is often applied to the process of new, higher-income residents replacing the poor. However, a different type of gentrification takes place when urban planners deliberately reconfigure a neighborhood for the interest of tourism so as to increase economic activity at the expense of pricing local residents out of the neighborhood. Replacing neighborhood dwellers are transitory tourists staying in the hotels, eating in the restaurants, attending the shows and entertainment venues, and buying merchandise as iconic souvenirs of the trip. Cyclic tourist consumers like this add little in the sense of community ownership and vitality, resulting in the neighborhood becoming a themed environment (Gottdiener 2001) created by corporate interests for the purposes of enticing the consumption and self- intoxication of leisure and entertainment. Siegfried Kracauer, in "The Mass Ornament" ([1929] 2004), imagined this urban enclave of the tourist masses in characterizing "the Hotel Lobby" as a purposeless space, empty of aesthetic and community vitality or connectedness, but full of superfluous and contrived imagery. As Kracauer wrote: "A person can vanish into the undetermined void, helplessly reduced to a 'member of society as such' who stands superfluously off to the side and, when playing, intoxicates himself. This invalidation of togetherness, itself already unreal, thus does not lead up toward reality but is more of a sliding down into the doubly unreal mixture of undifferentiated atoms from which the world of appearance is constructed" (36).

This stands in stark contrast to "the House of God," where, according to Kracauer, "the congregation accomplishes the task of making connections," creating a "collective aesthetic," and constructing a "collective subjective." "In both places people appear there as guests. But whereas the House of God is dedicated to the service of the one whom people have gone there to encounter, the Hotel Lobby accommodates all who go there to meet no one" (36).

Significant problems for religious groups are encountered in this tourist entertainment environment. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship built on a social premise of accommodating believers with spiritual meaning and social purpose confront the exodus of congregants who have left the neighborhood. New people on the street visit the congregation as a part of their vacation plans, but have no future connectedness beyond being placed on the mailing list, receiving preaching tapes, sending in a periodic financial gift, and telling idealized stories of "the great church I went to" when they get back to their normal, mundane "church back home." In addition to what has been called the "zoo-tour tourist" congregation, commuter congregants come to receive a boost of spiritual energy to strengthen them throughout the week.

With the value of congregations' real estate increasing due to the influx of hotel chains willing to accommodate tourists and buy out the congregations' facilities, as well as the shift from community to commuter congregants, church leadership is faced with the following choices: sell the property at a profit, relocate to another region of the city and engage a parish approach to mission, or continue on in the same location as a commuter tourist facility. The leaders must grapple with the extent to which compromises can be made in theology and praxis to accommodate commuters and tourists who still come and worship but are disengaged from the community mindset.

This chapter investigates these economic and social ecologies by looking at how two churches located in Times Square were confronted with tourist and consumer-driven gentrification and how they responded to the changes. Originally pioneered in the 1980s era of the economically depressed Times Square, Times Square Church and The Lamb's Manhattan Church of the Nazarene formulated ambitious missions for social justice and care for those in need living on their doorsteps. These churches were successful in their social mission while building middle-class multi-ethnic congregations to support the benevolent work among the poor, disenfranchised, and homeless.

A strong empirical question arises in this milieu. Knowing there was an agenda to change Times Square, what other options were available for the churches? What did the churches' decision-making process look like? In other words, what is the cognitive dimension of ecological adaptation in this case? Following a description of the changes wrought by the pressures of consumerism and commodification and the changes that result, this chapter shows how the two cases chose different cognitive paths though both were founded in an economic decision. These churches did retain their own sense of a theological core that affects their self-understanding of who they are to reach, yet they accommodated (Piaget [1936] 1963) and adapted differently to the changing environment (Ammerman 1997). The financial viability of staying in Times Square was the predominant decision-making factor that affected the response to the ecological changes; the move to Disneyfication wrought by the economic policies of the 42nd Street Improvement District forced the hand of both churches. The only alternative to conforming to the rapid change into a tourist space through renovating their buildings to abide by new heritage criteria demanded by the city was to move completely.

As the chapter reveals, once forced to make a decision based on economics, the churches varied in their response and built theological and sociological justifications in the new reality that would work to keep a connection with the past. One had the financial capability to renovate and stay, and chose to do so, whereas the other church was pushed out of the area so the owner of the building, the Manhattan Initiative, could lease the space for a significant sum and distribute the proceeds to various mission projects including The Lamb's Church. Partial motivators to reengage in another neighborhood were a promise of continuing support from the Manhattan Initiative and the desire for core church folk to continue their work in social justice.

The research method I used for this chapter was ethnographic and was primarily accomplished through participant-observation by the research team in both congregations at various times over a period of four years, combined with interviews of selected congregants and leaders. Several congregational services were attended at both churches. The researchers participated in small-group gatherings, Bible classes, and special events. Informal and formal interviews were completed with former and current congregants from both churches, visitors to Times Square, and both longtime New York residents and tourists.


New York City has jockeyed for decades between being the glorious city or the notorious city. It has a cycle of boom and bust, often linked with fluctuations on Wall Street and their domino effect on the broader urban economy. During the near-bankruptcy of the mid-1970s, the city degraded into a haven for crime and urban decay. Times Square evolved from a center of cultural activity to one of half-empty theaters, drug dealing, the sex trades, and criminal activity. The poor and homeless were drawn to the area. Several social agencies came to Times Square in an effort to care for this new underclass. Religious organizations were part of this evolution, including Times Square Church and The Lamb's Manhattan Church of the Nazarene, featured in this chapter. To many, these were the bad days of Times Square.

New York City urban planners have a long history of redevelopment of neighborhood clusters into specialized economic zones. The Financial District, Fashion District, and Meatpacking District are all expressions of this mode of gentrifying neighborhoods in the interest of specialized industries. Among the recent, and perhaps most public, of these strategies is the redevelopment of Times Square into a tourist spectacle for middle-upper-income families. From an enclave of deteriorating theaters, markets for the drug and sex trade, and poverty-stricken residents, the new Times Square has emerged as a cacophony of consumer culture driven by media, retailing, entertainment, advertising, and marketing. Some have designated this transformation the Disneyfication of Times Square, the Disney Corporation being a foundational investor in creating this themed region formed around the adaptation of its films into live theater.

In 1984 the 42nd Street Development Project was approved by the city and state to create a plan to redevelop the area into a cluster zone for tourism, business, and entertainment. In a sense, this was an effort to bring Times Square back to its "glory years" of the 1920s and '30s, when it was primarily a hotel and entertainment zone for the upper classes. This was given impetus in the 1990s when Mayor Rudy Giuliani instituted a policing policy to obliterate petty street crime in New York City neighborhoods by engaging the broken windows theory (Wilson and Kelling 1982; Kelling and Coles 1996), which holds that where there are broken windows or graffiti there is petty crime, lower incomes, and an urban space in need of redevelopment. Accordingly, police presence was increased in these neighborhoods. The net result of this policy was crime moving underground and out of the city. In the struggle for space, the poorer subcultures lost.

This led to an influx of young professionals into New York City and, simultaneously, mushrooming real estate values, particularly in Manhattan. In fact, the city planner's report on the redevelopment of Times Square promotes a sense that removing street people and homeless to subsidized housing, together with an increase in the number of fully uniformed Business Improvement District (BID) security guards working alongside the NYPD, is improving the neighborhood by providing a safe place for millions of tourists to mingle with businesspeople. More than 1.5 million people travel through Times Square on a given business day. Video screens and public spectacles entrance the masses. Along with this tourist mass, a concurrent immigration of about 15,000 upscale residents into Midtown condominiums have replaced the approximately 5,000 low-income residents who lived there prior to the renovations and rebuilding of the area, in addition to the homeless and other people who were forced out by policing actions. The use of mass media to promote this "positive growth" heightens the perception of the general public that the streets have been "cleaned up" and that the neighborhood is "much better now."

Today, Times Square is considered by city planners to be "the most exciting mixed-use district" in the city. The Department of City Planning (2009) boasts that "within its boundaries are 39 Broadway theaters, 35 hotels offering more than 15,000 rooms, movies showing on almost 40 screens, almost 300 restaurants, and more than 200,000 employees" (6). It is interesting to note that even city planners use entertainment industry and consumer language in their references to development, with little mention of where the poor have been relocated. Attracting a higher-income clientele means there are approximately 17,000 upscale residents who now live in the area, compared to a mere 2,000 who resided there in 1992. The researchers encountered many people whose perception of Times Square was that "it is much better now than before" but had never considered who it was better for or the negative effects on those displaced. This is certainly echoed in the city planner's own report: "Times Square is a unique mix of creativity, commerce, energy, and edge. The district is bustling and bursting with cutting-edge companies, exciting performances and attractions, chic innovative restaurants, and distinctive new retail destinations packed into 33 blocks" (Department of City Planning 2009, 7).


Gentrification is often considered in terms of redevelopment of urban neighborhoods in the interest of increased real estate values, and the out-migration of lower-income residents to be replaced by wealthier socioeconomic classes. While the urban ecological approach is helpful in observing the evolution of such neighborhoods based on rental costs, rental cost changes cannot answer questions about urban ecologies if the properties are converted to tourist zones like Times Square. Observing these changes requires a closer examination of consumer practices and theory.

Promoted by politicians, business leaders, and the upper-class residents accompanying the influx of tourists, gentrification for tourism is viewed as "improvement" and "positive development." There are various reasons provided for this claim. First, the crime rate is reduced with the exodus of lower classes. Second, retail business flourishes with the tourists' purchasing power, and property owners can increase the rental prices on retail business. Third, with wealthier residents moving in, there is a corresponding increase in taxes to fund municipal services. Fourth, renovations change the aesthetic from "dirty and despicable" to "desirable" – at least in the opinion of the newcomers. Legitimate or not, these are some of the public perceptions.

The success of neighborhood redevelopment is often measured in consumer activity and the increase in real estate values, not whether there is an increase in social capital, community activism, or neighborliness. Robert Putnam (2000) believes the latter three elements have been lost in American society, and perhaps this is due to the materialistic consumer culture. Neighborhood development for the purpose of increased consumerism becomes the primary goal and vision of civic leadership as it increases the "public good" of increased tax revenue. In this vein, a U.S. Supreme Court case that originated in New London, Connecticut, has rearranged the rules of how government can force lower-income people off their land in the interest of public benefit. Eminent domain has now become a tool of government to forcibly purchase properties from residents in the interest of retail development. Public benefit is now interpreted as a means to support consumerism through building a shopping mall or other retail venue, not just its traditional meaning of improving public services such as schools, water treatment, or highways.


Excerpted from Ecologies of Faith in New York City by Richard Cimino, Nadia A. Mian, Weishan Huang. Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword/Nancy T. Ammerman
Introduction: The Ecology of Religious Institutions in New York City/Richard Cimino and Nadia Mian, with Weishan Huang
I. Religious Institutions and Gentrification in the Religious Ecology
1. Disneyfication and Religion in Times Square/Hans E. Tokke
2. Filling Niches and Pews in Williamsburg and Greenpoint—The Religious Ecology of Gentrification/Richard Cimino
3. Korean American Churches and the Negotiation of Space in Flushing/Keun-Joo Christine Pae
II. Immigration, Religion and Neighborhood Change
4. Diversity and Competition: Politics and Conflict in New Immigrant Communities/Weishan Huang
5. The "Brazilianization" of New York City: Brazilian Immigrants and Evangelical Churches in a Pluralized Urban Landscape/Donizete Rodrigues
6. Building and Expanding Communities: African Immigrant Congregations and the Challenge of Diversity/Moses Biney
III. Entrepreneurial Innovation and Religious Institutions
7. The ABC's of Faith and Commerce in the Lower East Side/Sheila P. Johnson
8. Navigating Property Development through a Framework of Religious Ecology: The Case of Trinity Lutheran Church/Nadia A. Mian
9. Hinduism at Work in Queens/Matthew Weiner

What People are Saying About This

University of Massachusetts - Jay Demerath

The book deals with important issues in important ways. New York City is a veritable center of the phenomena being studied.

University of Chicago - Omar McRoberts

A great resource for students in congregational, religious, and urban studies [and] a valuable installment in the resurrection of urban religious ecology.

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