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Photo: Tonika Lewis Johnson

With Folded Map, artist Tonika Lewis Johnson brings a segregated Chicago together one set of cartographical twins at a time

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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The group assembled this Saturday afternoon at the Loyola University Museum of Art is something like Chicago in a room. It’s a small but diverse cohort: children and retirees; North and South Sides; white, black and Asian; educators and yoga instructors and librarians and healthcare workers and architects—the only thing missing, really, is an improv comic. They have all come to hear Tonika Lewis Johnson talk about Folded Map. They have come to ask questions, and, in a way, participate in her work.

Johnson is a photographer from Englewood on the city’s South Side, and, as its name suggests, her latest project involves folding the map of Chicago. She matches mirrored addresses on the city’s North and South Sides and takes photos of the corresponding houses and their residents. Then Johnson brings these “map twins” together to talk about their impressions of both neighborhoods, to say what they love and dislike, what they have and what they need. The photos and videotaped interviews serve both as art and documentation.

And what she sparks, in her map twins, in this room and hopefully across this city and nation, is a real discussion about segregation.

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Chicago is not segregated on accident or instinct alone. The racial inequity in the city—most obvious in its black and white, North Side/South Side divide, split by the glorious spires of the Loop and the Willis (neé Sears), John Hancock and Trump towers—is the product of decades of systemic and personal racism from a host of hostile actors.

“Really, at every level—the Federal government, local government, individual actors—all conspired to assure that we baked segregation into the region, into the Chicago area,” said Dr. Maria Krysan, author of The Cycle of Segregation, by phone. The head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Krysan has spent her career researching racial segregation, and Chicago provides a devastatingly clear example.

One of the most starkly segregated metro areas in the U.S., Chicago kept black residents concentrated in certain parts of the city with an array of discriminatory methods.

“Mortgages couldn’t be written for African-Americans if their presence in a neighborhood would ‘upset the racial order,’ if you will,” Krysan said. Attempts to move into different, predominantly white neighborhoods in Chicago were met with beatings, firebombs and harassment, while redlining—the refusal of services, often financial, by real estate agents, landlords and banks—ensured restricted movement even within predominantly black neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods were purposefully fractured with the erection of highways to aid white flight to the suburbs, decollating black economic power. Meanwhile, public housing, mostly black, was funneled primarily to the South Side, concentrating poverty.

Even with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which prohibited discrimination in renting, buying, mortgaging and other housing activities, the systems put in place decades ago continue on, both via inertia and the continuing actions of individuals today. “Their perceptions of their options [for housing] are shaped by their social networks, by their lived experiences and by the media,” Krysan said. “And the reason those things matter in a segregated city is that those things are also segregated.”

Developers who show only white people in their promotional materials, for example, send a message of who is welcomed and who is not. Media portrayals of the South Side as a war zone keep visitors ensconced north of the Loop. The lack of transit access—the South Side is woefully underserved by the city’s famous L trains—makes getting to jobs or school difficult, costly and time consuming. This, too, according to Krysan, was not a bug, but a feature.

“It was absolutely created intentionally, so we have to be just as intentional about undoing it,” Krysan said. “We can’t undo this system that we set up just by waiting around … it’s never going to come undone. We have to take intentional actions to undo this.”

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With Folded Map, artist Tonika Lewis Johnson recorded the north and south versions of the same addresses in Chicago, like these two homes on North Wolcott Avenue (left) and South Wolcott Avenue. Photos by Tonika Lewis Johnson

On her commute from Englewood to Lane Tech, the coveted and respected North Side magnet high school, Johnson saw the effects of segregation laid out before her. Englewood’s empty lots, lower per capita income and higher level of crime were starkly juxtaposed by the fine houses and flower-filled gardens around her high school.

“It made me aware of my environment,” Johnson tells the circle gathered at Loyola. “How people use it differently from one neighborhood to another. And also just the inequity, even just aesthetically how the neighborhoods were different.”

The goal of Folded Map is threefold: to expand people’s thinking beyond their own neighborhood; to foster personal connections that will help break down segregation and stereotypes; and to illuminate Chicago’s history of systemic racism that led to the segregation in the first place.

Johnson began Folded Map while on a photography fellowship with City Bureau, a South Side-based nonprofit media organization. She started with streets she knew ran all the way to the North Side, then took the addresses of acquaintances on the South Side and found their corresponding blocks up north.

Initially Folded Map was going to be only photos of the antipodean addresses, but a chance encounter on the North Side changed that.

“Photographing people’s homes, people want to know what you’re doing,” Johnson says. “So that’s when I started meeting residents, specifically on the North Side.” The first person to approach her was Jennifer Chan, who saw Johnson walking the block with her camera and asked what she was up to.

“We got into a conversation, and I invited her to a neighborhood party we were hosting a couple weeks later,” Chan said by phone. Chan and her husband, Wade Wilson, became Johnson’s first map twins when they met Nanette Tucker at her home in Englewood. The ensuing conversation inspired Johnson to place information in North Side mailboxes asking for volunteers to participate in Folded Map. Johnson arranges for the map twins to meet, photographs them at each other’s homes and films interviews about the differences between their neighborhoods and lives.

In one interview, for twins on Paulina Street, North Siders Jon and Paula Silverstein talk about how they love the bustling nature of their neighborhood, Rogers Park. “We go east and there’s a university community,” Jon says in the tape. “You go west, there’s the Indian and Pakistani community, and we’ve got a lot of, I don’t know, hippie artist types up here. All kind of different communities. You know, it’s kind of fun to be around. It pretty much has what we need.” They talk about the vast array of foods they can find, buying things they don’t even recognize for a taste of different cultures.

Maurice Perkin’s description highlights a changing neighborhood still facing a disparity. “I would say that Englewood is definitely improving, there’s a lot of things in the works. But for the most part, for a long time, when it comes to food, it’s been definitely a food desert,” Perkins says. “We could definitely use more markets, supermarkets. Fresher foods, vegetables. Entertainment.”

The slight discomfort and greater empathy is clear on Jon’s face.

“I think the conversations are a good model for how people can have these uncomfortable conversations about very serious issues,” Johnson says.

By meeting each other, North and South Siders can help to dispel their own misconceptions. Johnson saw the transformative power of the interviews with her very first map twins, Wilson and Tucker.

Nanette Tucker and Wade Wilson met through the Folded Map project and, after initial conversations, have maintained a connection. Photo by Tonika Lewis Johnson

“They forgot about me, and they started expressing some really intimate thoughts about segregation and how it impacts their life,” Johnson says to her city in a room. They had many mutual interests, especially organic food and gardening, but different relationships with them; where Wilson could find many of the things he wanted near his house, Tucker would have to travel considerable distances. “Wade admitted to Nanette in that conversation that he felt guilty. He said I feel guilty that I have access to everything that we have shared interest in, but you have to go out of your neighborhood. And when he said that, that’s when I knew I have to have more map twins, because their conversation was really powerful.”

Wilson and Tucker’s experience highlights another form of segregation. While many South Side residents must travel North for their jobs, or for restaurant and grocery options, the abundance of amenities on the North Side gives few Chicago residents a reason to venture South. Media coverage, mostly confined to blue lights spiraling in the night, ensures that they do not. Entire vibrant communities become roped off with police tape, a soft segregation which draws hard lines through the city.

“I think, with Folded Map, it will give people some type of insight into us on the South Side, and the people that live on the North Side as well,” Tucker said by phone.

For Wilson, Chan and Tucker, the first set of map twins, their involvement in Folded Map has blossomed into full-on friendship. Since Johnson introduced them, Wilson invited Tucker to come on a garden walk with his brother in Roscoe Village—the North Side neighborhood where Lane Tech is located—and has brought plants to Englewood for Tucker’s garden, followed by a guided tour to see his first prom send-offs. More cookouts and meet-ups are in the works.

“They’ve been knowing each other for over a year now, and their relationship has evolved way beyond what I would ever have imagined,” Johnson tells the circle.

It is a small, but real, victory in the face of the decades of racist and oppressive systems that have segregated Chicago into the city that it is today. Each meeting Johnson facilitates, each contrast of edifices and interview she films, is an intentional act on the long road towards desegregation.