How a Chicago photographer uses art to bridge racial divides

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes art can open people’s eyes to see their own community in a fresh way. Tonika Johnson’s project has done that by connecting opposite sides of a long-segregated city.

Courtesy of Tonika Johnson
Tonika Johnson is a photographer who has sought to engage Chicago residents on the issue of racial segregation. She started her Folded Map project while on a fellowship at a nonprofit seeking to give greater voice to residents of the city's many neighborhoods.

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Tonika Johnson had personally experienced the social and economic chasm that exists between Chicago’s poorer, mostly African American South Side and the wealthier and largely white North Side. As a teen, she traveled from south to north to attend a selective high school.

Now she’s trying to help her long-divided city reach across those divisions. Photographic art is her vehicle. In a project she calls Folded Map, Ms. Johnson aims to document the ongoing effects of segregation, and also to begin a conversation by introducing people who live at matching addresses at opposite ends of the city.

Those “map twins” learn from each other, and become part of Ms. Johnson’s photography. Publicized in part through a Loyola University art exhibit last summer, the project has caught the imagination of many Chicagoans. 

“What I love about her art is that it’s really bringing it down to a human level,” says Maria Krysan, a University of Illinois sociologist who is helping to develop a school curriculum rooted in Folded Map. “People are meeting each other and telling stories of neighborhood experience.”

When Tonika Johnson was in high school, her day began at 5:45 each morning at a bus stop at 63rd and South Loomis on Chicago’s South Side. Using bus, train, and another bus, she traveled far from her Englewood neighborhood, with its storefront churches, abandoned houses, and vacant lots, to a selective high school on the city’s North Side, a journey whose final leg took her down a tree-lined street graced with cafes and boutiques.

“I thought, wow, this street looks totally different from my neighborhood,” she says. “Why doesn’t my neighborhood have these things?”

The question has haunted her ever since. The racial and economic divide she crossed each day was an old scar across the city, separating the poorer, mostly African American South Side from the wealthier and largely white North Side. Dating to the earliest days of the Great Migration from the South, the divide endures, creating troubling new contrasts, as African American areas lose residents and schools while the North Side booms.

And so Ms. Johnson, long graduated from high school and now a professional photographer, is raising her old question in a new and more public way. In a project she calls Folded Map, she is confronting a divide that still fractures Chicago and many other American cities. It’s a multimedia effort not only to document the ongoing effects of segregation, but also to begin a conversation about them and, in a small way, to reach across the divisions.

“I wanted to help people understand the present-day impact of present-day segregation in Chicago,” she says.

It’s no small task. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country, along with other Rust Belt cities, including Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Segregation dates to the early 20th century, when Southern blacks began streaming north in search of a better life. In Chicago, real estate covenants restricted them to certain South Side neighborhoods. And though laws have changed, segregation and its effects endure in plain sight, perpetuated by economic inequality, racial discrimination, disinvestment, and other factors. A recent report by Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council suggests segregation’s toll includes higher rates of violence, lower educational achievement, and $4.4 billion in lost income.

Ms. Johnson launched the Folded Map project in 2017, when she began photographing buildings on opposite ends of the city, trying to capture the stark contrasts between north and south by looking for matching addresses on the long avenues that run the length of the city. Soon she was interviewing residents of these buildings about their perceptions of the city. She began introducing them to each other, creating what she called “map twins” and encouraging conversations and visits.

These efforts yielded four sets of map twins and a collection of photographs that were put on public display last summer in Chicago at Loyola University’s Museum of Art. Since then the project has taken on new life, with a play based on Folded Map, a series of workshops led by Ms. Johnson, and an effort to bring Folded Map into the schools as a way of engaging young people with the problem of segregation.

Ms. Johnson started Folded Map while on a journalism fellowship at the nonprofit City Bureau. She says she always had the project in mind “in different versions.” And, having returned to Englewood to live, she became involved in a community-led marketing campaign to counter views of it as a place of only poverty and violence. 

“I want my work to be a source of encouragement and empowerment,” she said at the time as part of that campaign, called Englewood Rising. “I want to inspire people to do something, to make changes for the better.”

One day, as she was photographing houses on the North Side, a woman came out to see what she was doing. Ms. Johnson ended up inviting the woman, Jennifer Chan, to visit Englewood. She also introduced Ms. Chan and her husband, Wade Wilson, to an Englewood woman, Nanette Tucker.

They exchanged visits. Ms. Tucker went to the North Side, then led Ms. Chan and Mr. Wilson on a stroll around her Englewood neighborhood. They sat on her front porch and talked “about the things that mattered to us,” Ms. Tucker says. 

She didn’t know what to expect from these meetings. But she was pleasantly surprised. She and her North Side counterparts found they had plenty in common – including a love of gardening. They also shared a common concern for the inequities visible across the city.

“It was easy to talk to them,” she says. “I felt like I knew them. They felt like they knew me. We instantly clicked.” 

Courtesy of Tonika Johnson
Nanette Tucker and Wade Wilson sit on Mr. Wilson's porch on Chicago's North Side. Ms. Tucker and Mr. Wilson, along with his wife, Jennifer Chan, were the first "map twins" for Tonika Johnson's Folded Map project, highlighting the effects of segregation in Chicago. They became friends and still see each other regularly.

Not every match has blossomed into friendship this way. But for North Siders, the project has opened doors to a part of the city that most of them rarely if ever step foot in and that many avoid. It’s also been a chance to reflect on the geographic differences.

“You certainly have a sense of guilt about having so much when other people are struggling,” says Mr. Wilson. “You hope you’re being sensitive to it.”

For South Siders, it’s a chance to show sympathetic outsiders the economic disparities they live with every day. 

“On the North Side you can walk out of your house and go to many sidewalk cafes and many grocery stores,” says Ms. Tucker. “On the South Side you really can’t do that. For a long time it was a food desert.”

Perhaps more important, it’s allowed them to show in a personal way that there’s more to Englewood than the violence that people hear about on TV. “I think we’re a great example of a black family that wants good things for their community,” says Tina Hammond, another Englewood resident who is part of Folded Map. “We just want people to see us as human beings.”

Ms. Johnson isn’t just a photographer. She’s also the mother of two children – one in college, the other entering high school. Her dining room is decorated with a display of African masks and framed photos she’s taken in the neighborhood. 

“She’s creative, innovative, bold,” says Asiaha Butler, a friend and the executive director of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. Ms. Butler says Folded Map is “a really great platform to have conversations around social justice.”

The project has caught the imagination of many other Chicagoans, including Maria Krysan, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert on what she calls the “cycle of segregation.” Ms. Krysan’s research has focused on how segregation is perpetuated by “social networks, lived experiences – and the media.” The Folded Map project seemed to speak to these very ideas, and today Ms. Krysan is helping Ms. Johnson develop her school curriculum on segregation.

“What I love about her art is that it’s really bringing it down to a human level,” Ms. Krysan says. “People are meeting each other and telling stories of neighborhood experience. ... I was really moved by it.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Johnson is working to enlarge the map. On a recent weekend she was out in a black neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side trying to recruit new participants – and hoping to build bridges to another part of a divided city.

“This examination of segregation in this specific way is a reflection of what African Americans in Chicago have known all along,” she says. “They operate in these two worlds. For others, it’s a new thing. It’s eye-opening.”

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