Photography wasn’t enough for Tonika Lewis Johnson.
The Englewood artist is known for using the medium to show Chicago’s segregation. Her wildly successful Folded Map Project digs into disparities highlighting twin addresses — one on the North Side and the other on the South Side — while also bringing and photographing those residents together.
“I started to understand the limitations of photography with some of the issues that I wanted to deliver and present to the public. And I knew that photography wasn’t going to encapsulate all of the little nuances of large systemic issues,” Johnson said. “That’s why I like the built environment, and really making a connection between people having that personal experience with the built environment and accessing this historic information in a way that’s more emotional.”
“Inequity for Sale” is Johnson’s latest endeavor, a public art project that connects legalized “contracting buying” theft of the past to the present-day wealth gap and disinvestment in Black communities. Perpetrators of these ruthless housing crimes have never been brought to justice.
Johnson installed a circular marker in the front lawn of a boarded-up, faded, white frame home with brown wood trim. Black text is inside a yellow circle on the marker. It reads: This home at 7250 South Green was legally stolen from black resident John Garner on December 28 1962 In a widespread land sale contract scam this crime was never brought to justice reparations are due.
The other side of the marker says: This house was sold on a land sale contract, a legally binding contract disguised as a traditional mortgage that enforced excessive monthly payments to the speculator, without an actual transfer of ownership to the home buyer, leaving black families at risk for eviction, massive debt, other predatory loans.
Contract buying affected Black families in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s. With few options to finance homes due to redlining and segregation, thousands of Black families bought homes on contracts. They faced inflated prices, higher interest rates and the threat of eviction for even one missed payment. But they earned no equity during the length of the contract. Many invested in the homes for years and came away with nothing.
In 2019, a report by researchers from Duke University and the University of Illinois Chicago calculated the plunder of Black wealth that contract buying inflicted. Black families here lost between $3 billion and $4 billion.
“If I hadn’t seen those documents, it wouldn’t have made me as emotionally connected to what this house represents,” Johnson said.
Decades have passed and the contract buyers are long gone. But Johnson can still hear the whispers of their agony. She can still feel their pain. The legacy of the predatory practice remains. For Johnson, the blighted homes and vacant lots on this block are signs of the devastation wrought by contract buying.
“I really wanted to demonstrate the point that, you know, this, this discriminatory practice from the ‘50s and ‘60s, is literally financially affecting the homeowners who are here today. The value of their homes is lower because it’s right next to abandoned homes and vacant lots that were really created because of this,” she said.
Researchers found 168 of those contract homes were in Englewood. Johnson installed markers in front of two of those homes. By summer, she plans to have 15 of the markers in place.
In addition, Johnson is contemplating buying these vacant properties and transforming them into community spaces. As she looked at the frame house in the 7200 block of South Green Street, Johnson imagined an art house — a place people could rent out for barbecues, baby showers or graduation parties.
“I want to do my part, if possible, with the support of people who are interested in this project and see if that can help some of the appreciation of some of the homes,” Johnson said.
The Chicago-based National Public Housing Museum named Johnson as an “artist-as-instigator” and is supporting this project.
“Artist instigator is really just about creative policy intervention — thinking about the power of arts and culture to really engage the public, popularize an idea and to get people excited and sometimes angry, to take action. This project is really just like the perfect example of what an artist instigator might do,” said Tiff Beatty, museum program director.
Johnson’s work has already ruffled feathers.
The owner of the other vacant Englewood property with a marker removed the sign.
The removal irritated Johnson, but she said that the truth of the matter is how the owners of abandoned and neglected homes acquire property is emblematic of the large problem that her signs aim to educate those owners and the larger community about.
Johnson said her project is uncomfortable for someone who inexpensively acquires a home that’s not their primary residence and then fails to maintain that property in a neighborhood already struggling with blight. Those new owners are perpetuating the racist systemic issue that has plagued the community for decades, Johnson said. And a reckoning — no matter how uncomfortable — is needed.