Sacralizing the Urban Landscape

Harvard University Press
4 min readMay 30, 2023

In his book God In Gotham: The Miracle of Religion in Modern Manhattan, now out in paperback, Jon Butler reveals how faith adapted and thrived in the supposed capital of American secularism. The chosen excerpt offers a short tour of Manhattan in the early 20th century, as city spaces everywhere transformed into sacred sites. Jonathan D. Sarna called God In Gotham “a masterwork by a master historian.”

“I know a synagogue that was once a saloon.”

In 1929 Sarah Schack described how prohibition “drove one O’Leary out of his Old Landmark,” then “ushered a Jewish congregation in.” The new congregants carried O’Leary’s bar to the street, “daily specials” still on its mirrors. They found benches for worship and salvaged a brass rail to hang the curtain separating the sexes. A Torah scroll appeared, as did its “red velvet cover embroidered with two gold lions,” plus a sign announcing three services each day. When the congregation moved to a fancier building several years later, worshipers still called it “O’Leary’s Schul.”

O’Leary’s was not unique. Schack, who is best known for her 1924 book Yiddish Folksongs, described “bakeries, fruit stands, haberdasheries, and radio emporiums” that had become synagogues. Empty property could stir religious imagination. “Vacant stores have a way of putting ideas into the heads of distracted, amiable old Jews with economic problems,” Schack wrote. Who among them still could not teach children to pray, translate Hebrew, or gloss the Torah, if only they had a place to set up shop? Up went Yiddish and English signs in previously empty storefronts: “Confirmation Speeches Are Taught Here.” When efforts failed, there would be fresh signs reading, “To Let,” and the community would await the next grocer, the next rabbi.

In the modern city, just about any space — from a former barbershop to subway car to a classified ad — could be sacred. In Manhattan, fluid real estate markets furnished opportunities to build, buy, sell, and finance sanctuaries great and small. Religion occupied whole buildings or bits and pieces; some communities owned, some leased, and some rented by the day. Streets became sites of religious display and, sometimes, religious anger. Newspapers devoted considerable attention to religious issues, which they covered with vigor and sometimes intrigue, but largely in ways that legitimatized mainstream faith and faith communities. Specialized religious journals and book publishers, headquartered in Manhattan, deepened and strengthened denominational identities. New York’s prestigious trade publishers, and later radio and television producers, deepened the national interest in religion as they exploited it. Even public schools promoted the sacred and its institutions, albeit controversially and indirectly. For much of the early twentieth century, an interfaith cross-section of New Yorkers agitated for “released time” — one hour per week during which students would be released from school and instead receive religious instruction at nearby churches and synagogues. In 1940 the activists got their wish.

Opportunities for sacralization were not only numerous but also, thanks to new technologies at the heart of modernization, easy to access — so easy that religion was able to penetrate the lives of more people more deeply than in the past. Electricity illuminated religious buildings and signs, albeit not with the grandiosity of theaters and nightclubs. Buses and subways carrying New Yorkers to Times Square and Coney Island also whisked worshipers to distant churches and synagogues, some of the faithful drawn by religious advertising and publicity. Phonographs that lofted the voices of Bessie Smith, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor from apartment windows on warm summer evenings also conveyed recordings by the African American gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, and the New York Tabernacle’s Billy Sunday Chorus. The monumental 2,500-member choir was recorded, if poorly, by the Victor Talking Machine Company as early as 1917. Enterprising ministers, priests, and rabbis adopted radio as quickly as stations took to the airwaves. Rabbis broadcast in Yiddish on WEVD, a socialist station named for Eugene V. Debs, the politician and labor organizer who largely eschewed religion. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen made the move from radio to TV, his Life Is Worth Living drawing national audiences of millions to signals broadcast by the New York–based ABC and Dumont networks.

Even cynical New Yorkers, reluctantly accustomed to the religious din, may have been startled when Billy Graham’s publicity team tagged New York City “Sodom on the Subway” in 1957. New York may not have been a sacred city like Mecca or the Vatican, but it was not for lack of trying. Religion resonated throughout the world’s most populous place, sacralizing every kind of space and linking faith to the press of modern life.