Tonika Johnson is a photographer and activist from Englewood. Her most recent project, Folded Map, aims to showcase the economic disparity between the neighborhoods on opposite sides of Chicago through pictures of houses with the same addresses on the North and South sides of Chicago, interviews with the residents about their neighborhoods, and facilitated conversations between “map twins.” Johnson sat down with The Gate to discuss her project, inequity in Chicago, and the power of art.
The Gate: For readers who might be unfamiliar, what is the idea behind the Folded Map Project?
Tonika Johnson: Folded Map is a multimedia exhibit to illuminate Chicago’s segregation and the disparity between neighborhoods.
I’m utilizing Chicago’s grid map to identify mirroring points in Chicago in different neighborhoods—for example, 6900 North Ashland and 6900 South Ashland—photographing them, and comparing them so that people can observe the difference and ultimately the inequity.
The additional aspect of Folded Map is that I’ve identified residents who live on those same streets and had them meet each other to talk about their own neighborhoods and experiences. I video-recorded those conversations so people can observe and get a model of what kind of conversation is necessary to ultimately create empathy.
Gate: How has your background shaped your intentions behind this project? What originally inspired you?
TJ: My whole life has led up to creating Folded Map. It started with me growing up in Englewood and having to leave my neighborhood for school and extracurricular activities and the observations that I began to have while doing that. That started in elementary school but was amplified in high school when my daily commute consisted of me leaving Englewood to go further north for high school.
I realized that I knew how to navigate that neighborhood because a lot of the street names were the same. I was always amazed, however, at how different the neighborhood looked. That began my obsession with wondering why, and as I got older, it led me to discover things like redlining.
That whole entire journey led me to wanting to do a project like Folded Map, but it really didn’t crystallize until 2016. I think 2016 impacted all of us, especially in Chicago. I was just like, “I’ve got to get this idea out of my head now to help Chicago face the ugly history and ultimately heal.” So it was really born out of the urgency of wanting to respond to everything that was going on in 2016.
Gate: What surprised you most when you were talking to the residents?
TJ: Ultimately, it was how genuine, sincere, and open [participants] were to talking about a really huge issue. And the empathy they had toward each other. The South-Siders weren’t blaming the North-Siders, and the North-Siders recognized the privilege that they had, which shouldn’t even be privilege. It’s not privilege. They realized they had access to the basic rights of having a decent neighborhood. When you have two people who have completely different lived experiences in the same city, and, ironically for Chicago, on the same street, it allows for a really moving conversation that touched me as an artist. I did not anticipate being as moved as I was with everything: the awkwardness, how they still were committed to listening and trying to figure out what to say, being thoughtful. I was most happy to realize I had created a space for people to be that vulnerable.
Gate: How would you characterize the starkest differences between the North Side and the South Side?
TJ: I hate for it to be so simple, but it’s just disinvestment, the amenities and the resources. It’s very clear that, for a lot of reasons, there are elected officials who support a variety of initiatives to enhance different business and entertainment corridors on the North Side that is just not happening on the South Side. This leads into the difference in the city resources.
Unfortunately, the streets are even noticeably different. I’ve known people who have visited the South Side, and if they notice that a street has potholes or that a block looks a certain way, they make the snap judgment and say “why don’t people call their alderman to look at this.” The default is to blame residents as if it’s their fault. People blame the people who live there, and that’s the problem.
That’s the most painful and stark difference, that it really has to deal with the difference in investment and city resources because that could be transformative.
Gate: You previously pointed out a problem on the South Side, specifically on your street in Englewood: vacant buildings turning into vacant lots. Could you talk a little bit more about how that process happens?
TJ: There are several consequences to a neighborhood having the reputation that Englewood has and why it’s problematic for that reputation to be perpetuated in the media and everywhere else. One, it’s just not true that that’s all that goes on in this neighborhood. Two, it really has a severe impact on the investment because it controls what people think of a neighborhood.
As a result, the neighborhood of Englewood experiences that reality in a variety of ways, one being the lack of home ownership. Only about 30 percent of the people who live in this neighborhood are homeowners.
The pervasive negative media attention should be addressed when it comes to gun violence, but there should be a clear distinction that it’s not the entire six square miles of Englewood. But [because of how the media frames the neighborhood], no one’s going to want to purchase property here. So it’s just a downward spiral. Over ten thousand people have left Englewood in the past decade or so.
That impacts the number of students who enroll in the schools, and public school funding is dependent on attendance. Then you have schools that become underfunded, and they don’t rate as high as other schools, so the lack of attendance continues. That’s now a school that no one wants to go to unless you absolutely have to.
Also, there are six aldermen who have not unified to help address this larger pervasive issue. It’s really just a case of all of these issues stacking on top of each other, so when these beautiful homes aren’t purchased, the bank demolishes it, and it turns into a vacant lot. That also contributes to how particular types of crime and violence spread. Vacant lots become attractive to people who are selling drugs, and then all the activity related to that kind of crime would take place on this block.
Crime is only able to be as pervasive as it is in Englewood because of the environment.
Gate: What do you think the alderman should do to address this problem? Does the responsibility lie with them or is it more a bigger City of Chicago issue?
TJ: It’s a bigger City of Chicago issue, but it would be able to make a lot of headway if all of the aldermen got together to decide a specific location they wanted to make an impact on. I don’t even care if it was “let’s all get together and find money to build a community center,” “let’s all get together and figure out a way to build up the 67th or 63rd street corridor that runs through half of the alderman’s ward,” you know, just something.
For example, there are five public high schools being closed this year because of under-enrollment and low scores. That’s because they were underfunded so parents didn’t want to send their kids. An overwhelming majority of school-aged kids in Englewood don’t go to school in their neighborhood, so they close those schools. They’re going to build one new one on the site of one that closed, that won’t open until next year, so there is going to be a whole year when this neighborhood won’t have a public high school. There are a couple charter high schools, but it’s definitely not enough to accommodate the population of school-aged kids in the entire neighborhood. That high school is in a specific alderman’s ward, and I’m sure that specific alderman had majority involvement, whereas it should have and could have been all of them involved to maybe address the fact that all of these schools were closing.
Gate: What impact do you think art can have on social issues like this one?
TJ: Art definitely can help fill the void and also challenge the pervasive narrative about communities of color in Chicago that is in the large media outlets. The goal of true journalism is to help people connect why they should care, and art serves as a great conduit for that if done right and with genuine concern and passion. It can help people expand their thinking in ways that reports can’t, the news can’t; it has the potential to touch people in a different way.
Art has also always been of the times, so even if people can’t connect to it, it is still a great way to know what a generation felt in that specific time period. Art creates a clear insight into a culture during a specific time period and can also help transform what people think about an issue in a way that I don’t think anything else can.
Gate: What do you see for the future of the Folded Map project? Are you thinking about other projects?
TJ: The response to Folded Map made me realize that I need to organize and formalize Folded Map in a way that can be permanently accessible to the public. As a result, I’m currently working on getting a website for it ready. I want the Folded Map website to be the gateway into people learning about these larger systemic issues and how it has impacted people today, as well as for it to be the site for me to upload additional map twins that I do. Also, I want to create a curriculum around it so everybody could use or apply to their own city or location.
As a result of the people interested in Folded Map, it’s going to be a theatrical production, which I still giggle about. This is the beauty of how art influences and can inspire other art mediums. This social justice theater production group called Collaboraction is actually working on creating some scenes and vignettes to debut at the beginning of the year at Encounter, a theater festival.
I am also continuing to do workshops and speaking engagements at different institutions and schools because I definitely enjoy and am in love with that part of Folded Map’s expansion. I have a new project that I’m planning to work on that’s kind of an offshoot of Folded Map called Belonging. It’s dealing with teenage youth in Chicago and their feeling of belonging or not belonging in certain public spaces in Chicago.
Tonika Johnson presents Folded Map at Chicago Humanities Festival South Shore Night
To learn more about Tonika Johnson’s projects, including Folded Map, check out her website.
Photos used in this article are courtesy of the author.