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Mapping Religion along Vermont Avenue

Christopher Greene, Curatorial Assistant at the Fowler Museum

This mapping project is part of a new initiative at the Fowler Museum to explore Los Angeles as both a microcosm of religion in 21st-century America and a bellwether for understanding the impacts of religion on contemporary society. This initiative is generously funded by the Lilly Endowment.

Over the past few months, the Fowler team comprised of myself, Patrick A. Polk (Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Popular Arts), and Amy Landau (Director of Education and Interpretation) have been creating a spatial database of sites of religiosity along Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. These sites are not exclusively brick-and-mortar institutions, such as churches and temples; rather they encompass locations where religious activity is occurring or religious themes are being presented. Churches, temples, murals, street shrines, storefronts, billboards, evangelizers on street corners are all considered sites of religiosity for our purposes; their inclusion allows us to better understand the true composition, representation, and modes of religious activity in Los Angeles.

Study Area

The Fowler team is focusing on the 22-mile stretch of Vermont Avenue from its northernmost point in Los Feliz to its termination in Harbor City near Los Angeles port. Together with roughly a quarter mile east-west of Vermont Avenue, the study area comprises roughly 0.5 x 22 miles.

Utilizing both Google Earth and the spatial data collection app TrackKit, we have identified and recorded the locations of over 350 sites of religiosity within the study area. Each site was assigned a general religious tradition. Using a GIS (geographic information system), we are able to visualize the database spatially and apply queries (filters) for spatial analysis.

Filtered data for analysis

Utilization of Census/American Community Survey demographic data for LA County helps to provide context for trends and assists with deeper analysis (e.g., figure 2 above filters Baptist sites over a map showing Median Household Incomes at the census-tract level). This type of analysis allows us to clearly see areas of high and low religious diversity, and to compare trends: for example, whether there is a significant correlation between a certain religious tradition and demographic factors; whether an area has a high percentage of foreign-born residents or is racially homogenous. These are just a couple of examples of the different types of analysis GIS allows.

Beyond offering a tool for spatial analysis, GIS also serves as a means for providing informative and thematic content to the public. As the GIS specialist for the project, I have been using ESRI GIS products to create interactive, map-based web pages that intertwine spatial data, images, and text on one interface: ESRI StoryMaps. The StoryMaps we are working on and will be configuring in the course of this project cover a Northern Vermont Avenue Digital Walking Tour, Murals, Botanicas, site-specific content (e.g., the Hollywood Sikh Temple and St. Raphael’s Catholic Church), and other topics. Each of these StoryMaps have been and will be informed by preliminary GIS analysis and will utilize interactive map products created with the GIS data.

StoryMap introduction for the Hollywood Sikh Temple
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