From Purses and Pitas to Possibly Piety:
An Exploration of Cultural and Religious Diversity on Devon Avenue & the Sacred Symbols and Objects Found in Secular Spaces
Imagine stepping into a Payless Shoe store to see a large crucifix of Jesus Christ above high heels and flip flops, or a portrait of the Virgin Mary next to a rack of purses. Imagine entering your local Walgreens or Dollar Tree to see statues of Buddha on the shelves mixed among bags of chips or near the magazine rack. Typically, when we think of sacred spaces or sacred objects we tend to imagine churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and temples. We may even think a proper place to display religious objects is within the walls of our own homes. For many Americans, we may not often think of book stores, clothing stores, or convenient stores as a place for incorporating cultural objects of religious belief. For the residents of Devon Avenue in Chicago religious objects are not solely designated to the place of worship, nor are they set aside for one day of the week at a certain time of day.
Is devotion to one’s belief part of everyday interactions? More specifically, is this even a sign of devotion at all? Did the transactions on Devon Avenue, such as that of doing business, which are seemingly secular involve some level of recognition, praise, homage to, or involvement of religious cultural identity? On Devon Avenue religion and culture appears to be deeply embedded in the economy of the community. Upon purchasing a dress in a sari shop I was offered a choice of a Christian or Hindu Calendar as a gift for making a purchase. In the Babylon butcher shop a wood plaque with “I seek refuge in the Lord of Mankind” is written in Arabic and displayed at the meat counter. A book store featured a very large brass statue of the Hindu God, Shiva (“The Destroyer”). Since statues are not believed by Hindus to be merely statues, but the actual gods themselves, one could say that Shiva was actually present, residing in the fiction section of a small book shop.
The blocks between Western and California on Devon is more than simply an “ethnic community” or a “religious community” but a unique interfaith and cultural experience. Not only can one smell curry and freshly made naan in the air, or see glittering saris or black hijabs in the windows of boutiques, but one can witness a shared multi-ethnic space where believers of the major religions of the world (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and more) live, work, eat, shop, and interact peacefully as neighbors. The following photos will tell a story of how the people of the neighborhood incorporate religious cultural objects into everyday practices, sometimes converting secular spaces into sacred ones. The photos show how religious symbols are not merely an aspect of culture, but possibly central to it. On Devon religion and everyday on-goings are not mutually exclusive concepts in separate categories of life. Religious symbols are present in some way, in all places, in all things from purses to pitas.
In the establishments on Devon Avenue there is a high concentration of religion and ethnicity that is present. This is not to say that religion and ethnicity isn’t present everywhere else in some way, but the abundance of religious symbols that are present as you enter in and out of each door down the street appears to be much more than your typical strip mall or your average row of shops and storefronts. Many questions arise. Is this indicative of the religions themselves? In other words, are certain religious groups more prone to fusing religion with daily work? Are Hindus and Muslims more likely to put their beliefs on display than say Lutherans or Baptists?
Or is this a question of origin and ethnicity? For example, are Indian and Indian-American Christians more likely to display and make use of religious objects more often than say white American Christians? Does this occurrence signify that South-Asians and Middle Easterners are more religiously devoted people?…Or is something else going on that can better explain the Devon phenomenon?
To help answer these questions I took several trips to Devon Avenue. My methods included visiting as many establishments as possible. In some establishments I acted as simply a shopper looking the store up and down, at the items, the decor, the signage, the people. In other places I told employees that I was doing research for a class assignment and asked permission to look around and take a few photos. Not only did I visit the establishments but I spent some time people-watching and wandering up and down the sidewalk. On one occasion stores were closing up so I peeked in windows. Not only did I observe symbols in the establishments, but I participated in some ways by making purchases and eating in restaraunts, like Hemma’s Kitchen on Devon and Campbell.
The observations I have made, photos I have taken, encounters with the people, and conversations have led me to believe that the religious objects on display have a more complex story than that of religious devotion. I argue that the prevalence of religious symbols in and out of the shops and establishments on Devon Avenue represent a number of different explanations, some having to do with religious devotion, but in many cases having to do with cultural tradition and familiarity (especially for immigrants) rather than religious piety. I argue that these symbols are signifiers with which to identify with others in order to seek social bonds on the basis of ethnicity.
According to Roger Fink and Rodney Stark (1988) cities gained a major influx of religious people at the turn of the century. They found that in 1909 religion in large cities was growing not only due to the new wave of immigrants, but also a growing number of religious rural migrants that were moving from the farm to the city. They also argue that active religious participation is higher in cities than it is in other areas. This could imply that there is something about city life itself that contributes to a higher level of religiosity, helping to explain the appearance of an area like that of Rogers Park and Devon Avenue. According to Fink and Stark “the city is surprisingly sacred” (Stark and Fink 1988: 47).
Middle-Easterners and South Asians may not necessarily be more “devoted” than others, but it’s possible that when it comes to one’s social position there may be a hierarchy or difference in perception of which factors contribute to one’s social role. For many Americans growing up in an economy where money-making seems to be encouraged as the highest goal, we may have gotten accustomed to placing career and class status as the dominant marker of one’s social role. According to T.N. Madden (1987) people of South Asian decent define their place in society through religion, as it bestows meaning in their life and establishes their role. For them, religion does these things more than any other social or cultural factor.
However, Hirschman (2004) argues that immigrants actually become more religious after immigrating to the U.S. They do so to maintain cultural continuity and as a way of lessening the “trauma of international migration.” He says, “Although religious faith provides continuity with experiences prior to immigration, the commitment, observance, and participation are generally higher in the American setting after immigration than in the origin country” (Hirshcman 2004: 1208). Hirschman says that this argument is supported with the frequent observation that one of the very first acts of newly migrated people is the finding of their own church, temple, or mosque and that many supportive examples can be found from European immigrants in the early twentieth century and for contemporary immigrants from Asia and Latin America.
He explains that this happens because immigrants, like everyone else, have economic and social needs, and since churches, temples, and synagogues have a long tradition of social and community service they can go to them in hopes to find individuals who might be able to help them attain living arrangements or jobs or simply to find a social life. Lowell W. Livezy (2001) gives the example of The Arc, which is a place where Jewish people can find assistance. With the loss of familiar sights, smells, sounds, language, and customary behaviors many immigrants turn to religion for support and cultural familiarity (Hirschman 2004). Hirschman says that “shopping for food, working, and leisure time pursuits — can be alienating experiences for many new immigrants who find themselves in strange settings that require constant mental strain to navigate and to be understood” (2004: 1210).
The abundance of religious symbols in food stores, clothing stores, book stores, etc. could be the result of this post-immigration heightened religiousness and/or a way to find psychological comfort with the use of familiar items, images, and settings. Hirschman also says that this is a way of assimilating and that “immigrants first become American by becoming ethnic Americans” (2004: 1209). Nazli Kibria (2010) touched on this by pointing out that ethnic Americans’ identities are shaped by a political construct rather than something rooted in cultural commonality. She explains that being labeled as “Asian” or “Oriental” is more of an assignment given by a white middle class idea of what they should be like, so immigrants begin to identify with that concept, even if it doesn’t accurately reflect their own cultural experience. The use of cultural objects that are religious may be a sign of this process of forming an “ethnic” identity in America in hopes to fit the standard that other Americans place on them.
Herbert J. Gans (1994) explains the concept of “symbolic religiosity” which he defines as the consumption of religious symbols apart from regular participation in a religious culture or organization for the purpose of expressing feelings of religious identification. He gives the example of adding religious decoration to what might otherwise be non-religious activities. The use of religious symbols and decorations may be a cultural identification they want to make, which may be to identify with others of the same ethnicity.
The notion of “symbolic religiosity” that Gans discusses seems that it could be somewhat problematic in terms of identifying it. It is sometimes hard to draw definitive lines indicating whether something is substantial or symbolic. In other words, it would be hard to say whether something is truly “symbolic” or not, as there may be a conflicting interpretation between the observer and the self-identifier. A political analogy comes to mind. We often times see U.S. citizens who tend to vote opposite of their own interests. People will often times feel a strong association to a particular political party due to their class affiliation, family upbringing, etc. For example, a person may self-identify as “Republican” not recognizing that their actual opinions on many social and political matters do not necessarily match that of the Republican ideology. It is possible that this occurs with self-identification in religion and beliefs as well. One may have all the symbols or attend mass every Sunday identifying as a true believer. If their actual behavior and actions do not necessarily reflect that of a certain belief system the observer may consider their usage and consumption of religious symbols as purely symbolic, applying Gan’s “symbolic religiosity,” whereas the individual self-identifying with a particular belief may disagree with this distinction.
If someone wearing a crucifix around their neck actually states that they are an atheist and the symbol is related to familial ties or cultural ties then we are certain that this exemplifies a case of “symbolic religiosity” (Carroll 2015). However, for some, the lines may be less clear. For some, religion and culture are mutually exclusive concepts, while many others cannot disentangle religion and culture as two distinct categories. They can be tied to traditions having many layers which overlap ethnic identity.
Despite some potential confusion with being able to clearly identify particular instances as examples of “symbolic religiosity” some examples of this did seem clear and present in my findings on Devon Avenue. In a sari shop a woman displayed a silver Hindu prayer altar. From what I learned in my previous travels in southern India these prayer alters are referred to “Mandir Shrines” for puja (offerings to the Gods). I originally assumed those who own/run the store must be participants in the Hindu religion. I assumed that I was observing religious individuals who wanted to pray and participate in religious rituals during their daily work. Upon making a purchase I was offered a free gift, which was the choice of a Hindu or Christian calendar. At the time I was unaware of potential “symbolic religiosity” in this display.
In my next visit on Devon I returned to the sari shop and was once again offered a Christian or Hindu calendar. I sparked up a short conversation about the alter mentioning that I had seen a similar one in a gift shop at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago in Lemont, Illinois. This was my way of gently prodding at her religious identity without appearing to be nosy. I had kindly asked the women who rang up my purchase if she was Hindu and she replied with “No, I am Christian.” I asked if she was from India to which she replied “yes” without offering any further information. This demonstrates an example of “symbolic religiosity” as she does not identify as Hindu, yet with the Hindu religious object. It may have reminded her of home or was placed inside her store to identify with others from India. The alter might bring forward other people of Indian decent for her to associate with on the basis of shared ethnicity rather than shared religious belief, despite the object being a religious one.
Another case that may reflect Gans’s “symbolic religiosity” is the display of a wooden plaque in the Babylon Butcher Shop. The plaque contained scripture, written in Arabic, from the Qur’an. At first I had assumed that the owners/employees were quite religious to have such an object hanging in the store. However, when I asked the store owner what was written and what it meant he had to look it up on his computer to tell me. It wasn’t fully clear to me if he was having an issue with translating the passage into English, but I got the impression that he wasn’t quite sure what the passage meant. It is possible that this too was a case where the religious symbol hanging in the store was not refletive of religious devotion, but symbolic, in that it served the purpose of expressing a cultural identification, with which to identify with others of Middle Eastern decent.
These particular findings would indicate less about the beliefs and devotion of the individuals, but emphasize ethnic identification. If devotion was the case the butcher shop owner may not have had to look up the Qur’an passage. Nor would the sari shop owner be likely to dispay Hindu religious objects, being a believer of Christianity.
Another similar instance came up. In a small book shop carrying mostly Indian books I observed many Hindu objects. I came across something I was fairly familiar with, which was a brass sound bowl. From my knowledge sound bowls are used to create a resonating vibrations, which is believed to align the chakras in the human body. Chakras are different areas of the body that require balance for physical, mental, and spiritual health. This concept is a part of the Hindu tradition. It was placed next to the cash register and I noticed that it was being used as a candy bowl. When I had asked the employee which particular chakra that bowl was associated with he was uncertain. These bowls usually create sound in a certain key, so often times they will have an indication on the bowl of “C” or “D” which will indicate the chakra the bowl is believed to balance. I removed the candy for a moment to test it out for fun. The employee didn’t mind, but his lack of knowing it’s purpose stood out to me. This is not to say that he is not a religious person. However, it may be telling of the person’s actual devotion and religiosity. If he was unaware of the meaning and tradition associated with this Hindu object, yet still displays the item, we might conclude that this person is not necessarily revealing a strong level of devotion by choosing to display this object, but yet another example where one identifies culturally and ethnically.
Another significant observation in my findings on Devon is the prevalence of stores and establishments that would have display a distinct combination of religious items. In many places I observed items associated with Hinduism as well as items associated with Christianity. In other establishments I observed items associated with Islam among a few items associated with Christianity. What I did not see, at all, was the combination of Hindu items and Islamic items. This could lead to a number of implications. I think the general public would be more apt to believe that Hindu and Muslim items would be grouped together, rather than Christian and Muslim items. Referring to Hirschman (2004) who said that immigrants become more religious after entering America, and that they tend to become “ethnic Americans” in the process of becoming able to identify as Americans, this observation might tell us something about transitions of immigrants. It is possible that the displays represent an existing cultural identity of individuals who want to also identify with their new world. Since the United States is largely Christian, it is possible that immigrants want to identify with a status as “American” rather than specifically Christian, and since religious symbols are tied very much to culture and ethnicity it may be percieved by many that this engaging of the two beliefs represents their home culture as well as their new cultural identification.
This display of dual beliefs may also represent hopes to be viewed by outsiders as American, or may even function as a peace statement. It may be a way of telling the outside population that they are accepting their new location and it’s traditions, as a way of gaining acceptance by Americans. Seeing as these are businesses it may also indicate a method for attracting a larger customer base, rather than detering them. I did observe that these image were often times diplayed in the windows, rather than inside the stores. If I were to expland on this or change my methods I would do a few things differently. I would not only have some brief conversations and questioning with store owners and employees, but I would also arrange for some formal interviews. I would suggest that more field work and research be done on this, as it may reveal a larger cultural story.
At the point of my initial proposal I thought I would be embarking on a field-work journey that would answer questions of why Indian Hindus, Middle-Eastern Muslims, and Jewish people seemed to be so religious and so extremely devoted that they practice their belief all throughout their daily lives. I had hypothesized that these items and symbols that are so prevalent through each window and door down Devon are examples of turning everyday practices and atmospheres into sacred ones. I had previously connected these observations to what I believed to be telling a story of piousness.
While I certainly cannot make generalized claims about each and every individual’s religious position, my findings suggest that what I refer to as the “Devon phenomenon” is much more than simply a condensed area of religiously devoted people creating sacred spaces. Much of the symbols and items that are ever so abundant on Devon indicate “symbolic religiosity” which can function as a way for these immigrants to feel at home in their new home. As they create an atmosphere that looks like home and reminds them of their country of origin or their childhood memories they not only create feelings of familiarity, but also send a signal to others of their cultural heritage as a way of identifying with others and making social connections. The inclusion of symbols of multiple religions may tell a story specific to the experience of immigration, as well as the need to form bonds. After all, we are all social creatures.
Fink, Roger and Rodney Stark. 1988. “Religious Economies and ScaredCanopies: Religious Mobilization in American Cities.” American Sociological Review 53(1): 41–49.
Gans, Herbert J. 1994. “Symbolic Ethnicity and Symbolic Religiosity: Toward a Comparison of Ethic and Religious Acculturation.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 17(40): 577–592.
Hirschman, Charles. 2004. “The Role of Religion in the Origins and Adaptation of Immigrant Groups in the United States.” International Migration Review 38(3): 1206–1233.
Kibria, Nazli. 1997. “The construction of ‘Asian American’: Reflections on intermarriage and ethnic identity among second‐generation Chinese and Korean Americans.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 20(3):523–544.
Livezy, Lowell W. 2000. “Communities and Enclaves: Where Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims Share Neighborhoods.” Cross Currents 45–70.
Madden, T.N. 1987. “Secularism in Its Place.” The Journal of Asian Studies 46(4) 747–775.