ENGLEWOOD — A sign that aimed to bring attention to racist real estate practices was removed this week, prompting the project’s creator to consider different approaches to highlight the history that denied Black Chicagoans homeownership.
As part of her “Inequity for Sale” exhibit, artist and activist Tonika Johnson recently installed a yellow-and-black “landmarker” on the sidewalk in front of a house at 6823 S. Aberdeen St.The landmarker aimed to highlight how homes like the Aberdeen one were sold through a legal but discriminatory practice in the ’50s and ’60s that forced Black homeowners to pay significantly more than others while never owning the home.
But the landmarker was missing when Johnson drove by the house Tuesday morning. A neighbor told her the homeowner removed the sign late last week, she said. It surprised her because the home looks abandoned, she said.
“I went closer to [the landmarker] and saw that the metal springs were cut off,” Johnson said. “We did so much testing to make sure that the sign would be secure and that nothing would be able to knock it off because we didn’t want people to hurt themselves. I knew someone put in a lot of work to take that thing off.”
The home is owned by Anthony Laws, who doesn’t live in the city. Laws said he bought the Englewood home in 2012. After Johnson installed the landmarker in front of his home, he said his neighbors called to “ask if it’s true that he stole the house” and said people were taking photos with the sign, Laws said.
Unaware of Johnson or her project, Laws said he cut down the landmarker.
“It’s my property, and I didn’t steal it, and I don’t think the sign should be sitting in front of my house making me look like a person that did,” Laws said. “My neighbors were thinking that I stole the house or I did these people wrong that I got the house from. That didn’t sit well with me and my wife. And me being a person in the church, that doesn’t look right for me.”
Laws said Johnson never contacted him to ask for his permission to place the landmarker. The home is empty but he has not abandoned it, he said. He briefly rented it after taking possession of the home, but stopped after encountering problems with the tenant. Now he plans to work with his church to renovate and use it as a home for formerly incarcerated people.
The landmaker “painted a bad picture of me as a person,” Laws said. ” … I didn’t appreciate the sign being put up in front of my house, and if they put it up again, I’m taking it down again.”
Johnson said she didn’t contact Laws before adding the sign because the house was vacant and she never saw anyone come by in the time she was tracking it. Amber Hendley, the Duke University researcher, confirmed the home had been part of a land sale contract in October 1963.
“The reason I decided not to look up the current owners is because of the condition of the abandoned homes,” Johnson said. “I knew I was going to be putting these landmarkers in front of properties that someone owned, but given the clear neglect, they are still part of the problem.”
Going forward, Johnson said she will work to feature vacant city-owned properties or more abandoned properties to avoid running into a similar issue. More than 100 homes were sold through land sale contracts in Englewood, according to a 2018 study published by Duke University.
“My project aims to highlight how Black communities that have been disinvested in continue to get stolen from,” said Johnson, who collaborated on the project with the National Public Housing Museum. “It was highlighting a piece of history about that specific property before [the current owner]. There is a moral and ethical dilemma here that we have to learn how to talk through and process.”
Johnson said Laws has a “right to feel how he wants to feel about the landmarker,” but it was meant to educate neighbors about Englewood’s history, not harm the current property owner.
The “strange turn of events” speaks to the importance of documenting our communities’ histories, Johnson said.
“I think what happened is a great testament to the power of art, because this is what it can do,” Johnson said. “Everybody on that block saw that landmarker, and they questioned it, and that’s the whole point. It really does show the complexity of this issue and how what a previous generation went through literally affects us today.”
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