ENGLEWOOD — Tonika Johnson stands in front of an old abandoned home in Englewood on a cold November morning.
The house is white, surrounded by overgrown weeds. The doors and windows are boarded up; an attic window is shattered. It is one of several abandoned houses on the street, and it is part of Johnson’s new art project to demonstrate how racism denied Black Chicagoans the dream of homeownership for decades.
The abandoned home, 7250 S. Green St., is one of several featured in Johnson’s installation with the National Public Housing Museum, “Inequity for Sale.”
The live installation showcases homes sold across Englewood to Black homebuyers during the 1950s and ’60s through land sale contracts. Black homebuyers on the South and West sides, denied traditional mortgages, were offered land sale contracts instead and expected to pay high monthly payments without ever assuming ownership of the home.
“The Plunder of Black Wealth In Chicago,” a 2018 study from Duke University, found 75-95 percent of homes sold to Black families in Chicago during the 1950s and 60s were sold through land sale contracts. Speculators would buy a home and then sell it on contract at an 84 percent markup, on average — meaning Black families were paying significantly more while never owning the home.
In Englewood, more than 100 homes were sold this way. Johnson used the data from the study as the foundation for her installation, which will feature 10-15 homes where Johnson will put up markers about their history.
“I want to create a doorway for people to start to think differently,” said Johnson, an Englewood resident. “I want them to read about the theft and see that this was a crime committed by the city. I want people to think about how this history has been removed from public access.”
‘We Were Robbed’
Johnson learned about the impact of land sale contracts in her neighborhood at a community meeting hosted by Resident Association of Greater Englewood, which she co-founded.
One of the Duke University researchers, Amber Hendley, showed neighbors a map dotted with homes sold to Black Chicagoans through land sale contracts. Johnson said she’d known of the racist practice, but she’d always associated the contracts with the West Side.
That was the first time Johnson saw how it permeated the greater Englewood community — there were homes everywhere.
Black homebuyers paid an average of $587 (in April 2019 dollars) more each month than if they’d been charged a fair price and had a Federal Housing Authority-backed mortgage, the Duke study found.
Over the 20 years surveyed, land sales contracts stole $3.2-$4 billion from Chicago’s Black community, researchers concluded. The wealth and equity gaps between Black and white Chicagoans persist today, the study found.
“People in my age group remember people owning homes, but the greater Englewood homeownership rate has always been low to us,” Johnson said. “Older people who grew up here used to say that back in the day, there weren’t as many vacant homes. But I was seeing that people didn’t own those homes. For me, this was the missing piece of the puzzle.”
Hendley’s research helped Johnson better understand disinvestment in her community. After the presentation, Johnson asked for the addresses of the homes on the map they’d displayed ,and Hendley shared the information.
“It was important that it wasn’t just a report that got attention,” Hendley said. “Tonika was excited about the research, and it meant something to her. I could tell that she was going to do something great with it and make sure people knew this piece of history.”
Johnson drove around her community, tracking down homes on the map, she said. It enraged her to discover most of the sites were vacant lots, while others were boarded-up or destroyed homes.
“I thought about my memories growing up in Englewood and how, throughout my life, I saw businesses leave the major business corridor on 63rd and Halsted,” she said. “It made me feel we were robbed. And it’s not only these individual families. When families experienced this, it impacted the entire community. It made me feel like the city owes us.”
Fueled by frustration, Johnson took photos of some of the homes she found, she said. She also reconnected with Tiff Beatty, program director of arts, culture and public policy at the National Public Housing Museum.
Johnson had worked with Beatty during her time on the Folded Map project. Beatty mentioned the museum was searching for an Artist As Instigator resident, a year-long program that provides artists and makers space to produce work.
All Johnson had were addresses, photos and an idea, she said.
She was selected for the residency in 2019 and started her work for the museum this year after a pandemic-related delay. Janell Nelson, friend and co-founder of the Englewood Arts Collective, a group Johnson also helped found, helped her choose the name for the installation.
Beyond photos, Johnson wanted to find a way to show how these homes were stolen from the people who should have owned them outright, she said.
Architect Paola Aguirre helped Johnson create “landmarkers,” or signs, for the Englewood homes sold through the contracts. The first sign is being tested in Johnson’s yard.
“When people see abandoned homes, they immediately think that the neighborhood is bad,” Johnson said. “They might make bad judgments about why the homes are abandoned or about the residents. But I want the landmarkers to remove the stigma of blight, and instead serve as a portal to understanding that this is actually a sign of a crime that was done.”
Once “Inequity for Sale,” is complete, signs and all, Johnson said the exhibit will be “history outside of the museum.” Her goal is to have neighbors from across the city walk through the neighborhood and see history in real time, she said.
Throughout Johnson’s research, she has collected memories and stories of lives lived and ruined, she said. She’s spoken to neighbors who remember those who once lived in the homes sold through contracts. She wants attendees of the installation to meet them, too.
“I want this installation to serve as an invitation to come to a neighborhood all of us have been told to think one thing about and meet people who are homeowners and renters invested in this neighborhood,” Johnson said. “I want you to see them with the flowers in front of their homes and the Christmas lights on their buildings. I want you to see that it’s unfair for them to have to deal with this. They’re residents just like you.”
Johnson also hopes “Inequity for Sale” can bridge the gap between past and present. When the youth in the neighborhood hear the history of Englewood, Johnson wants them to be inspired to come together, advocate for their community and reimagine how to create a neighborhood beyond anything their ancestors’ could have dreamt.
“My hope is that Englewood can be filled with all of the opportunities that families that migrated here during the Great Migration imagined,” Johnson said. “They came here running away from life-threatening racism and quality of life that did not equal their brilliance. They decided to come to Chicago because they thought it had opportunities. If we strive for what they imagined, we can have a proud, Black community.”
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