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

"McRoberts has written about Boston's urban religious environment and offered a trenchant analysis that challenges much of the conventional wisdom concerning 'faith-based communities.' As such, Streets of Glory is as relevant as President Bush's proposal to support through federal funds the so-called faith-based initiatives.…If we are truly interested in contemporary community life and civil society, we will want to know how churches actually work in depressed urban areas. There is no better study available on this volatile subject than this one, required reading for all would-be policy makers, and citizens."—Peter J. Gomes, Boston Globe

"Omar McRoberts's illuminating look at the relationship between black religious experience and urban poverty is a tour de force. Streets of Glory is replete with insights, including an original analysis of the impact of urban religious districts on neighborhood social organization. This book will be required reading for anyone interested in community life and civil society."—William Julius Wilson

"Omar McRoberts has made a major contribution to understanding the lives of the faithful in depressed urban areas. Streets of Glory will take its place among the most influential works in urban ethnography and the sociology of religion."—Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk and Slim's Table

An interview with
Omar M. McRoberts
author of Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood

Question: Your new book Streets of Glory is an analysis of the relationships that urban churches have to the community in which they are situated. To start with, can you give us an overview of Four Corners, the neighborhood you studied?

McRoberts: In a nutshell, Four Corners is a poor, predominantly African American neighborhood in Boston. Since the mid-1980s, the Four Corners neighborhood has been known for its high violent crime and unemployment rates, for its poverty, and for its economic underdevelopment. It's not unlike the neighborhoods that typically appear in urban poverty studies. [See a map of the Four Corners commercial district.]

Question: So what's remarkable about the neighborhood of Four Corners?

McRoberts: What really struck me about the neighborhood, when I first began visiting in 1995, was how many churches there were. After walking around for several days, I counted at least 29 congregations in about half a square mile. Nearly all were in commercial storefronts, so colloquially we would call these storefront churches. And even though many of the clergy I interviewed occasionally fantasized about having big, freestanding churches, most were satisfied with their little storefront communities and were even suspicious of larger churches, which they felt may have lost some of the spiritual authenticity of a smaller congregation. So these churches were not cycling out of their rented-storefront status into some other, more powerful, property class. These sacred commercial spaces are fixed, at least until rent fluctuations—due, perhaps, to economic development—push them out.

Question: That's a lot of churches concentrated in a fairly small area. How did that happen?

McRoberts: It is very important to understand this in terms of the history of neighborhood demographic change. Otherwise, it is easy to reduce this phenomenon—what I call the "religious district"—to clichés about poor neighborhoods containing little more than churches and liquor stores, and poor people of color simply being "overchurched." In Streets of Glory I trace the phenomenon of the religious district back to the waves of black migration that reached northern cities in the first half of the twentieth century. Black Boston—similar to the black belts all over the urban north—was not deeply homogeneous but was diverse along many social dimensions. Any voluntary association, and especially churches, allowed blacks to reflect their distinct origins and affinity groups—whether working-class Baptists from North Carolina or middle-class Methodists from Virginia, and so on.

As a result a lot of churches were concentrated within the fairly small geographic areas of the original black belts: Harlem in New York, Bronzeville in Chicago, South End and Roxbury in Boston. And many of these churches were not large at all; they had small memberships and required only a small amount of space, perhaps in a storefront situated on some major thoroughfare. In these new black urban centers, churches could locate quite near each other without coming into geographic competition; social distance—the differences between churches as social and cultural enclaves—not physical distance—as is the case with traditional parish-like churches—could mediate competition. This presumed that people felt comfortable shopping, in a sense, for the religious communities that suited their particular tastes. It assumed, in other words, that this was a voluntaristic religious context, as increasingly was the broader American religious scene. So blacks were not simply overchurched, or more prone than others to seek escape through intoxicating religion as so many said at the time—and some say even now. The religious district is an inner-city crystallization of the larger American pattern of religious voluntarism—the ability to choose a religious community and not simply fall into one based on neighborhood or family ties.

After 1950, when racist housing restrictions were relaxed and blacks began to pour into other parts of cities, this pattern was reproduced elsewhere in the city, and especially in those pockets of cities worst hit by the economic disinvestment that follows the flight of whites and middle-class blacks. Suddenly these pockets had dozens of vacant storefronts—cheap to rent but unattractive to merchants because insurance was so high. So churches moved in and rented those spaces. Because churches don't have to compete with each other for residents of that particular neighborhood. If a church distinguishes itself demographically and culturally, people will commute from other parts of the city, and even from outside the city, to attend it if that's where they feel at home. Thus, highly localized economic decay, combined with social and cultural diversity within the urban population, plus the broad American trend of religious voluntarism, leads to the religious district.

Question: So what's the relation of these churches to their urban neighborhood, like Four Corners? What sort of relationship do the churches have with their community?

McRoberts: For the most part, churches do not identify with the neighborhood as such. Many churches didn't even know they were in a neighborhood called Four Corners. They only knew they had found a place to worship where rents were low and crime was high. Unlike the traditional parish church, these churches do not lay claim to their neighborhood and compete for local residents. Remember, this is one reason, besides the glut of vacant space, why the religious district can exist. Churches thrive by carving out a social niche in the demographic and cultural landscape, not a neighborhood niche in the geographic landscape. Churches therefore are not dueling to the death over neighborhood residents. They coexist by focusing on their target populations, which may or may not live in the neighborhood. This lack of identification with the neighborhood is exacerbated by the fact that churches, like poor residents, are themselves highly mobile. When rents go up for whatever reason, churches, like people, may choose to leave for another neighborhood. Church members, who are used to traveling to worship, simply follow the church. And on top of that, the ongoing threat of being priced out of a neighborhood by economic development leads some churches to actively avoid involvement in neighborhood affairs.

Question: Are you saying that churches are basically oblivious to their surroundings?

McRoberts: Actually, churches are far from oblivious to their surroundings. Church people are acutely aware that they worship in a rough neighborhood, especially since many church people come from neighborhoods that are not so rough. So the experience of worshiping against the backdrop of the immediate streetscape becomes an important part of their religious experience and identity, even without religious identification with the neighborhood as such.

The street becomes a religious trope, alternately embodying notions of irredeemable evil and combatable sin. The street is an evil other, against which the church is defined. The world of the street supplies the raw data about the nature of evil that gets incorporated into moral teaching. So the church and street ultimately cannot be separated here. But the form that the street takes in the religious imagination discourages direct engagement with the immediate neighborhood. And this further discourages many churches from developing a sense of neighborhood identity. The key is that there is a difference between an awareness of one's surroundings and a sense of identity with the neighborhood. It is the latter that matters when the neighborhood residents and institutions must mobilize to win resources for revitalization.

Question: The 1996 Welfare Reform Act made local churches eligible to receive federal money to provide welfare services to the poor. President George W. Bush has made faith-based initiatives a cornerstone of his attempts to reshape federal social programs. Are there implications in your book for church-led aid programs?

McRoberts: Absolutely. The beginning of my research in Four Corners coincided with the period leading up to the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which includes the Charitable Choice clause you are referring to. Debate over the role of faith-based institutions in the delivery of social services, community revitalization, and in poor urban areas in general was beginning to play a large role in public discourse. At the time I realized that even while discussion of the role of organized religion in remedying urban social problems was increasing, there were fundamental sociological questions about the place of religion in poor urban contexts that had barely been asked, let alone answered. Much of the sociological literature on depressed black neighborhoods focuses on poor individuals, not the institutions that might exist in those areas. Yet churches often are the only institutions present.

Once I came to understand how religious districts actually operate, I felt compelled to offer, among other things, a counterpoint to all the excitement about faith-based community development and social services. Faith-based social welfare assumes that churches really are neighborhood institutions—that they are inherently concerned with neighborhood affairs, that their clergy are in the streets making contact with neighborhood residents—and that churches, as quintessential neighborhood institutions, are well-situated to do the work of secular nonprofits. I think these assumptions deserve a good deal of interrogation. Streets of Glory shows that churches—for some very ordinary organizational and experiential reasons—are not necessarily anchors of neighborhood life. They are, however, anchors of community life, that is, the life of particular religious communities. This means that the places where you find the most churches concentrated in the poorest areas—the religious districts—are probably not going to be full of potential neighborhood social welfare providers. If social welfare policy is to involve local religious institutions, it should do so in ways that account for the trans-neighborhood, delocalized tendencies of urban religious practice. In the meantime, the infatuation of social policy experts with neighborhoods—as the ideal urban social units to which institutions and people should be attached—needs to be re-evaluated—for neither disadvantage nor human community nor community organizing are necessarily confined to the contrived and fluctuating boundaries of local neighborhoods.

Question: Why did you title your book Streets of Glory?

McRoberts: The phrase "streets of glory" is in some of the old Negro spirituals, where it refers either to heaven or to freedom from slavery, oppression, and suffering. Such spirituals were resurrected during the Civil Rights era and transformed into protest songs that simultaneously affirmed a sense of human dignity while urgently calling for earthly justice. The irony was that protesters sang about these streets of glory while, for instance, being dragged from coffee counters into the actual and not-so-glorious streets or while being violently attacked for marching peacefully in the streets.

The religious district embodies a related irony. A neighborhood full of churches might be known literally by its streets of glory, if glory refers to the very serious religious practice happening there—the earnest striving for human wholeness. But the kinds of streets where we find so many churches are often far from material or social glory—they may in fact be full of abject human suffering. It is this apparent irony that the book begins to unpack in the hope that we might better understand these ambiguous streets of glory in cities all over the United States.


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Omar M. McRoberts
Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood
© 2003, 188 pages, 7 maps, 5 tables
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 0-226-56216-6
Paper $17.50 ISBN: 0-226-56217-4

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Streets of Glory.

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