Tonika Johnson grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, commuted across the city by bus and train to a high school on the city’s North Side, then studied journalism and photography at Chicago’s Columbia College. She interned at The Chicago Reporter, an award-winning investigative publication that focuses on issues arising from race and poverty.

But after graduation, Johnson noticed how ”all the large media outlets” covered those issues in Chicago, and how places like Englewood were portrayed. “The way my neighborhood was covered —  where I live and grew up — I didn’t like the reality that I was going to have to cover stories that way.”

Johnson turned her art and photography talents to freelance. She moved back to Englewood after college, which she could find more affordable housing. As she got involved in work as a grant writer and fundraiser for community nonprofits, her awareness of the deep roots and stubborn legacies of segregation sharpened.

“I got tired of hearing this horrible narrative of Englewood that was disconnected from the larger historical context,” she said.

All that — from a lifetime in Englewood, to a bus commute from a world of poverty to a world of wealth, to an immersion in neighborhood work — led to the “Folded Map Project.” Johnson matches a street address on the South Side of Chicago to the matching address on the North, then interviews and introduces the people who share a street — but live in vastly different realities.

Johnson is using her 2019 ivoh fellowship to expand her project to other neighborhoods, and to help people move past assumptions to a better understanding of their communities: “I want this to be a tool for people who are passionate about change but don’t know all the ways they can insert themselves.”

Johnson spoke with ivoh this week about the origins and goals of her project. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What was the inspiration for the Folded Map Project?

The idea came from my observations in high school. Chicago is so big and so segregated. Deeply segregated. As part of a selective enrollment process, Chicago youth often go to high schools far away from their homes. That’s especially true for students from the black neighborhoods of the South Side.

I got accepted at one of the high schools on the North Side. On my daily commute, I would see street names that were the same as those in my neighborhood, even though they were miles and miles north. I started recognized how different things looked from one side of the city to another. My high school (Lane Tech College Prep) was the largest in Chicago — more than 4,000 students  — and very diverse. My friends and I weren’t looking at race maps when we were in high school; we were learning about each other’s neighborhoods through our friendships.

As an adult, my then-husband and I were pregnant and wanted to purchase a home. We couldn’t afford to live in the North Side neighborhoods we liked, so we moved back to Englewood. We got to know it as adults — which is very different than the experience of growing up there.

Englewood is very large — six square miles. It has six aldermen. I started doing photo walks, and started working at RAGE. I started to understand the political fragmentation of Englewood. And after years of community work, I start to realize that all our big social issues involve segregation and redlining.

I thought about my observations in high school, my community work, how Englewood was being divested  all five high schools there were closed in one year. Add to that the 2016 presidential election and how Chicago was being represented in the national media … Frankly, I just got frustrated.

 

How did that knowledge and frustration lead to the Folded Map Project?

I want to help people understand why Englewood is in the condition it is in. People think it’s solely because of crime, when crime is actually the consequence of all these other injustices that have been going on for 50 years, or even longer. And I wanted to show the inequities that exist from one neighborhood to another in ways that were clear.

You can’t deny that reality if you look at a single street and see how different things are just because of the side of the city you’re on.

 

But why a folded map?

I’m 40 years old. My generation is unique because it has lived through the beginning of the internet to what’s happening now.

When we were teenagers, we had to travel by public transportation to go to school, so we had to know streets and blocks so you knew how to get there. We memorized coordinates, and we memorized maps. When you took the trains and buses, you had to know. There was nowhere to call. You’d ask the bus driver. When GPS maps first came out, we printed them out.

We were the last generation to understand the city by grid maps. We knew there were mirroring points. I knew my friends in Rogers Park were on streets that were 6300 North, while (others) were 6300 South. I used that knowledge to prove the point of segregation.

 

The Folded Map Project was introduced to the public last year, in an exhibit at Loyola University in Chicago, in various news stories and now through your website. What’s been the reaction?\

So far it’s just been a little Chicago thing. A couple of smaller niche national publications wrote about it, like Atlas Obscura, which I had never heard of before.

That led me to be invited to speaking engagements. But so far it happens in sections, like urban planning organizations and fair housing organizations. I recently spoke at a housing symposium in Michigan. I have had people who work in different organizations in Detroit and Ohio say “We have a dividing line, too.”

My Folded Map website just launched two months ago. That was a post-exhibition goal. With no more exhibit, Folded Map didn’t exist anymore. It needed to have a virtual home. I did a fundraising campaign for the website so the project could exist and live.

 

What do you hope to do this year, with support from the ivoh fellowship, to advance or expand the project?

The current Folded Map focuses on mirror points from the North and South. My project is about bringing Chicago together, but I am leaving out half of the city. It just didn’t feel complete. And how segregation is laid out on the West side is completely different.

North and South Chicago are 15 miles apart. People could just say at the end of the day, “It’s far away. I don’t know anybody there.” But on the West side, segregation is just a real but neighborhoods are just three or four miles part. So the racial divide is far more stark and visible. I wanted to do other address comparisons, as interview other “Map Twins” (people who live at the mirrored addresses) to speak to the unique ways segregation and inequity play out on the West side.

People are just three miles apart but have no interaction with each other, and resources are dramatically different. That impacts how we engage. My hope is that this will speak to the impact of systemic issues even more than first Folded Map Project. And it will be a different kind of conversation because people are just three miles apart. I want people to see that and give them an opportunity to express how they feel about that.

 

Why do you think it matters?

We feel like there’s nothing we can do (about segregation and racial issues) because it’s so systemic. I want to give people an opportunity to at least speak to the social aspects of changing that. And I want to include a larger population to show how we as residents, of Chicago or anywhere, can get to know people who have a different lived experience just because they live in a different neighborhood. We can get to know each other and understand how these systemic issues are affecting our social networks.

The first Folded Map Project just made people hungry to know more. Give me an example of a couple of the things you have discovered in your reporting this year? Any surprises?

How uncomfortable it is for people to talk about these things is something I didn’t expect. I went into the project being biased, thinking that people from the North Side wouldn’t care, that no one would want to do these weird map interviews. I thought that because these issues mostly affected black neighborhoods on the South Side, they were more of a concern for us, but not for people dealing with same things on the North Side.

So for me it was a surprise having people from the North Side self-select to participate. People who live in neighborhoods with far more resources — they still care. They care but they don’t know how to help or what to do to beyond voting. They said they didn’t know how to break down the social barriers that segregation creates, and that ultimate perpetuate the whole problem. That made me realize the project was actually helping me deal with my own biases.

 

You say you ask the “Map Twins” or “resident pairs” a set of five questions. What are those questions?

How did you come to live in your neighborhood?

How would you describe your neighborhood?

Is everything you need day-to-day accessible in your neighborhood? If not, what would you like to see in our hood that’s not there.

Is your neighborhood a place of peace?

How much did your house cost, or how much do you pay for rent?

The beauty of a video interview is that even with these simple questions you get to know people. It was very difficult for them to listen to someone whose answer to the same question was so different from theirs. People had no problem answering these questions until they were in front of their Map Twins. The body language was so awkward. And you could see how uncomfortable it was for people to use words like race, white, black.

Housing prices — that was the question that was really interesting. For example, Carmen, who is white, lives on Winchester Avenue on the North Side; she said her house cost $400,000. A black woman who lives on South Winchester just said, “Wow! I knew it was expensive there, but I didn’t know it was that expensive.” When asked the value of her home, she said wasn’t sure, but her father bought it in 1972 for $30,000. (It’s now estimated to be worth $77,000.)

 

Did any of the Map Twins continue to get talk after your interviews were done?

Of four Map Twins — 12 people — all but one has kept in touch. They aren’t best buddies, but they keep in contact through electronic media or maybe as Facebook friends. And in November, they all got together to take me to dinner for my birthday.

 

You’re doing these stories a couple of people at a time. Is that enough to achieve the kind of change the city needs? Or is it just a pebble in the ocean?

I don’t like to think about measuring ways to “solve” these problems. This multimedia project certainly isn’t going to solve the problems of segregation in Chicago. But what it’s doing is creating an entry point and platform for this conversation to become widespread in a way that shifts responsibility for solutions back to our elected officials.

What happens in a deeply segregated place like Chicago is that residents are blamed. People blame South Side residents for the way their neighborhood is. They blame North Side residents for gentrifying or not caring. It becomes a silly cycle of assumptions and stereotypes — when actually our social interactions are actually a reflection of segregation, not the other way around.

We’ve never had a chance to create neighborhoods where true diversity exists. That’s not part of our history. Our neighborhoods would look different if different people could afford to live there.

So this is a chance for people to say “This isn’t fair. I don’t live in this neighborhood, but through this project, I know this is how people feel.” This is a tool for people who are passionate about change, but don’t know all the ways they can insert themselves to make that change happen.

 

How do you incorporate ivoh’s mission of telling stories as a way to connect people and build community? Or put another way, what do you hope your project has achieved in 10 years?

  • Folded Map would be part of educational curriculum, from elementary through higher ed.
  • Folded Map would be a community curriculum toolkit, giving people access in their hands — not just online — for ways to meet each other and help.
  • Folded Map would be national. I’d like to see other cities identify artists in their location to do their version of the project.

I’ve had people tell me I should come to Detroit to do this there. No. You need to have someone from there do this. The only way Folded Map was created was because I was a born-and-bred Chicago native. I know my city intimately, so I see it from a vantage point that I know others don’t.

 

Besides including other Chicago neighborhoods, are there other changes you plan as part of the ivoh fellowship?

Kathie Klarreich, my ivoh fellowship coach, suggested I used multimedia tools to help people interact with each other more. An evolution of the project. So I want to work with Map Twins so they can take each other to someplace in their respective neighborhoods, and have them introduce it to each other as they know it. That means the videos will not just be interviews, but little episodes that take people on tours of each others’ lives.