I recently saw The Gods of Times Square, a surprisingly cheerful documentary about days gone by–when street preachers, people who thought
they were Jesus and religious white-, black-, and probably other supremacists tried to convert the confused in Times Square. This as central a feature of the area as the pornography and the prostitution, although far less documented. Filmed in the eighties, what makes this movie wonderful is that the filmmaker himself lived in Time Square, was a part of this community, and has a deep and honest respect for and curiosity about the people he speaks to. Although he sometimes questions and prods, he doesn’t invalidate anyone’s idea of reality and gives everyone’s ideas a fair shake.
New York City back then was kind of a spiritual wonderland. Growing up, it seemed perfectly normal to me that corner stores sold religious candles to folk saints and half the people on the bus crossed themselves when we passed a church. Within walking distance spiritual supply stores catered to practitioners of Santeria and Haitian Voudun (Voodoo), where I overcame my initial fears to ask a few timid questions; a short subway ride away you could find yourself in a Hasidic or otherwise-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood; a Rastafarian enclave; a Wiccan witchcraft shop.
Of course,t his wasn’t the New York City my atheist parents and rationalist private school thought they were raising me in, but luckily, it’s the one I grew up in. In every city there are dozens, hundreds of cities, all occupying the same space and time but entirely different. I’m lucky I found the one I needed, and not the one I was given.