“I’m sure you’ve heard the words to describe Englewood are ‘Black, dangerous, poor, gun violence,'” says Tonika Johnson in one of the opening lines of her short film, The Folded Map Project. Englewood is where Johnson was born and it’s where she still lives. Englewood is home.
In her film, Johnson asks the viewer to think about how they came to live in the neighborhood where they live or to think about the neighborhood where they grew up. She asks viewers to think about how they decided to live where they do. Who did they talk to before making the decision?
My move from Hyde Park to Back of the Yards happened a year ago and I’m still thinking about my decision, why I chose to move, and what led to these changes. When I moved from Hyde Park my friends seemed to mourn the change more than me. “I just can’t believe you won’t be a Hyde Parker anymore,” they would say. It was as if I was moving state lines instead of only a few miles away.
It’s fitting, then, that Johnson’sThe Folded Map Project asks me—and all viewers—these questions in her introduction. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. What started as a photography project in 2017 while she was a photojournalism fellow at City Bureau has transformed into a short film, which Johnson says will eventually be a long-form film. Johnson originally began photographing “address pairs” where she looked at housing differences in the city and then “map twins” who live on the north and south sides of Chicago along the same street with the same address. If you fold the map of Chicago at its zero point, the streets that connect the north side and south side—like Englewood to Edgewater—are separated by 15 miles within the same city. For example, someone living at 6900 North Ashland in Rogers Park and 6900 South Ashland in West Englewood are map twins. She interviewed the individuals living in specific houses and introduced them to one another, creating a dialogue for folks to confront racial and institutional segregation in Chicago. Johnson uses prompts like, “How much did your house cost?” or “Why did you move to this neighborhood?” and the differences (or similarities) unfold. In 2018 an exhibition of “The Folded Map Project” was presented at Loyola University Museum of Art and that same year, it was also turned into a play presented through Collaboraction, which had four sold-out shows at Kennedy-King College. Johnson also has plans to create a curriculum around the project for Chicago Public Schools and for a future west side study in neighborhoods like Logan Square and Garfield Park.
Crossing one bridge can propel you into a new circle of people and culture. Intersections and cross streets are linchpins for communities. Bus stops, train stations, and bike routes connect us and divide us. What develops in Johnson’s film is a beautiful telling of what it means to live in a neighborhood with your family and peers. It all stemmed from her grandmother, who purchased a house in Englewood, where Johnson grew up with her mom and two uncles. “My childhood was beautiful,” says Johnson as the short film shows slides of images of her grandmother, herself, and even a neighbor who lived next door.
Two weeks ago, I drove from my apartment down 47th street through New City, Fuller Park, Bronzeville, and Hyde Park for a beach day at the Point. From paleta carts to parents with strollers, the view transformed as I drove along the long road to the lakefront. Similarly, during her early commute to Lane Tech, Johnson recalls noticing the changing of neighborhoods along her bus ride north. She explains how on this bus ride she realized not all Chicago neighborhoods are the same. Although street signs and street names read the same from north to south, they looked entirely different.
In her four years at Lane Tech, where her new friends were of Polish, Latino, Asian, and Jamaican descent, Johnson was invested in learning about the neighborhoods and cultures that mold Chicago into what it is. This continued into adulthood when she decided, in order to change the racist conversation surrounding Black neighborhoods and the stereotype of their being “war-torn” or using nicknames like “Chiraq,” to literally fold the map of Chicago.
On September 5, the New York Times published an article detailing the inequality in America by white Minneapolis-based photographer, Alec Soth, using many of the identical locations as Johnson. Soth posted a public apology on Instagram acknowledging Johnson’s project. Soth explained that the editors of the opinion section of the New York Times reached out to him and asked for a photo essay based on the segregation of neighborhoods in Chicago. Johnson contacted him and he ultimately said, “I apologize to Tonika Lewis Johnson and very much regret accepting this assignment.” He also mentioned that all income he receives from the New York Times will be donated to the Folded Map Project. The opinion editor has issued an edit that recognizes Johnson’s work and directs readers to her project.
Despite this apology, it’s a significant example of transgression and infringement of Black America and how white folks profit from the ideas, art, and culture of Black folks. Johnson told The Art Newspaper that it was her “wish and a goal” to have her work featured in the New York Times but now it’s “taken a real twist.”
Johnson’s work is a long-term research project looking at the city she lives in and visually exemplifying the institutional racism and segregation among the 77 neighborhoods. In her film, Johnson mentions how she wants to get at the heart of what brings people to a neighborhood, or what forces them into one. She asks the tough but simple questions: What can be done to combat systemic racism? How do economics and discrimination affect your life? Chicago’s segregation shouldn’t affect how we interact as a city, but it does. Johnson is seeking out the answers and asking others to help brainstorm solutions to the deeply rooted racism that impacts Chicago’s grid of neighborhoods.
“I played outside everyday. I rode my bike with my friends. I met my first friends in life,” recalls Johnson about her childhood growing up in Englewood. It’s an image far different than the one painted in news headlines. She says that you truly get to know Chicago’s neighborhoods through friendships and connections. And by connecting folks with the project, she hopes to open everyone’s eyes and hearts to an integrated Chicago. v
The Folded Map Project short film screens online Wednesday, September 16 as part of Racial Equality Week. Go to FoldedMapConversation.Eventbrite.com for details. The film will be available for purchase (suggested donation) and downloaded on the Folded Map Project website in 2021. The exhibition of images of “The Folded Map Project” are available on Johnson’s website.