Friday, May 9, 2014

Chris Cantwell on the Lost Landscapes of the American Religious Past

World Parliament of Religion, Chicago, 1893
I know very little about georeferencing and digital mapping, but I have become fascinated by the whole process through my affiliation with a new digital project we are sponsoring at Messiah College.  We call it Digital Harrisburg.  

On Tuesday I was involved in a presentation about Digital Harrisburg to about thirty Messiah faculty and staff.  I watched as my colleague David Pettegrew showed how his digital history course, working together with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) classes at Messiah, Harrisburg University, and Harrisburg Area Community College, was able to link the 1900 census record of Harrisburg to contemporary digital maps.

After attending this session, and hearing David talk about this project over the course of the semester, I was particularly interested in Chris Cantwell's latest post at Religion in American History: "Lost Landscapes of American Religious History."  Cantwell teaches public history at the University of Missouri--Kansas City, but he is still finishing up an exhibit on the religious history of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century for his old employer, The Newberry Library.  The exhibit is called Faith in the City: Chicago's Religious Diversity in the Era of the World's Fair.

Cantwell's work in mapping churches and religious organizations at the turn of the twentieth century has forced him to realize that "the built environment of American religion is also a history of occlusion and erasure."

Here is a taste of his fascinating post:

But even more pervasive, and more revealing, is the ways in which today's built environment reveals the enduring privilege of race and class upon the built environment. This is most easily seen by the fact that most of the sites of Chicago's religious history that still exist are those that remain in the hands of their founders. Holy Family Church, for example, has remained at the intersection of Roosevelt and May Streets for nearly a hundred and fifty years. The congregation has survived several fires and a neighborhood that has turned  over repeatedly throughout the century because it has had the resources to sustain itself. Many storefront churches and evangelical rescue missions, however, are all gone.

Yet the ways in which power and privilege manifest themselves in the presence and absence of go even deeper than the survival of buildings. It also occurs in the seemingly innocuous act of assigning geocoordinates. Data is supposed the be the great leveler. We're all ones and zeroes to the computer. But level of precision one can get in assigning coordinates is deeply inflected by race, class, and gender. For example, Chicago Sinai Congregation's 1890 temple no longer exists. But the fact that the neighborhood it was located in remains relatively stable means that translating its 1893 address into 2014 coordinates is relatively easy--even if that space is now luxury condos. But to try and locate the coordinates of the city's black churches has been one of the most depressing research tasks I've undertaken. The intersections, streets, and alleyways that once pulsated with the rhythms of black Chicago are in many instances gone. And not just the buildings. Streets have been removed, intersections torn up, and alleys completely abandoned. Assigning these sites geocoordinates has involved a lot of estimated guesses, and in many instances I've been forced to simply place a church in the middle of the street because the data does not suggest which corner it was on. It's like witnessing the traumas of the twentieth century in longitude and latitude.