In her influential study of religious life along Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, Katie Day asserts that the premise of her study, and the book it yielded, is that "place matters." Attending to what she calls the "religious ecology" of the street, we learn how religions are embedded in communities by virtue of their location as much as any deliberate social or theological engagement with their surroundings. Taking this premise as a point of origin, this page begins to plot the religious ecology of one of St. Louis's most iconic and divisive streets, Delmar Boulevard.
These photographs represent only a fraction of the religious life and culture of this 6.5 mile stretch of asphalt, itself a short segment of a much longer avenue bridging St. Louis City with outer suburbs. Day confines her study to a rather tight definition of religious "organization," and that is what is reflected here. A more thorough study would include the abundance of activities and spaces along the Boulevard that are more episodic than structural, such as the community art that covered boarded storefronts after protesters clashed with law enforcement in September 2017 or the statue of St. Louis native Chuck Berry that transformed into a shrine to the rock 'n roll icon after his death in March of that year. From farmers markets to holiday displays to movie theaters to coffee shops, the religious life of Delmar is much more nuanced, much messier, and much richer than this page yet evinces. This window shopping from the sidewalk, then, tells a very different story of religion along the boulevard than one attentive to the sounds, sights, textures, smells, and people practicing religion on the street and in these varied spaces.
The short stretch of Delmar in these photographs connects downtown St. Louis to the city's oldest "inner ring" suburbs, effectively mapping the concentric rings of twentieth-century growth (or, just as accurately, flight). Implicit in these photographs, particularly for those familiar with the socioeconomic topography of the city, is the movement from the affluence of the region where Delmar intersects the I-170 beltway near its western terminus just north of Ladue (one of the wealthiest, educated, and white suburbs in the St. Louis metro) to neighborhoods marked by economic blight and poverty as the boulevard crosses the city line. The oft-cited "Delmar Divide" further invokes a stark bifurcation of the city along this street, dividing the predominately white, educated, and high earning residents to its south from the predominately undereducated, underemployed, impoverished, and African-American residents to its north. (Click over to this page on the Central West End for more about the Delmar Divide and a short video). The origins of this divide reach deep into the city's history of slavery, housing covenants, public housing, and other forms of systemic racism, including religion.
Looking north and south from Delmar, this portrait would further reflect the religious and racial composition of the region. The only synagogue within city limits, Central Reform Congregation, is just a few blocks south of Delmar. Along this stretch of the street there are no active Catholic churches, but, again, look south from Sarah to see the dome of the Cathedral Basilica or north from Vandeventer to see the steeple of the recently renovated St. Alphonsus Liguori "the Rock" Catholic church. Mosques north and south of the street reflect the diversity of Muslim cultures throughout the city. Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Ba'hai, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians work, live, and go to school in the neighborhoods branching off of this street, from large medical complexes to universities to local merchants. A complete portrait of religion along Delmar would better reflect the lived circumstances and realties of residents, worshippers, activists, performers, and others. These are just a few glimpses from the sidewalk.