Artist Tonika Lewis Johnson’s Expo Chicago Installation Forces A Reckoning With Chicago’s History Of ‘Racist’ Housing Policies

A large yellow circular sign is meant to catch your attention as you stroll the aisles of the 2022 edition of Expo Chicago. What the sign says will stop you in your tracks: “THIS HOME at 7250 S. Green was legally stolen from Black resident John Garner on December 28, 1962, in a widespread land sale contract scam. These crimes were never brought to justice. Reparations are due.” (This marker also stands in front of the actual house on Chicago’s South Side.)

Above these words is a clip art rendering of a person running away, a sack with a dollar sign slung over the shoulder. Behind the sign is a photograph—blown up to over 10 feet—of the house in question. Weeds grow tall in front of the white vinyl-sided house; its first-floor windows and door are boarded up. This intervention, part of a larger series, titled “Inequity for Sale,” at the fair comes courtesy of Chicago-based artist Tonika Lewis Johnson and Windy City gallery Weinberg/Newton.

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During the ’50s and ’60, a common land sale contract scam was a form of rent-to-own practices “wherein would-be homebuyers, locked out of traditional mortgages by racist policies, were offered contracts that enforced excessive monthly payments without ever transferring ownership,” according to the project’s website.

As the sign notes, Garner’s situation is not a one-off; it affected over 3,300 homeowners in Chicago—and counting, as the full number is still being tabulated. As with most racially discriminatory housing practices throughout the United States, the effects of which are still felt to this day, the scam predominantly impacted Black homeowners, in particular, in four historically Black neighborhoods: East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale on the West Side and greater Englewood on the South Side.

“Those are the same neighborhoods today that struggle with low home ownership, school closures, gun violence, crime,” said Lewis Johnson, who was born, raised, and continues to live in Englewood. “It just drained these families of the wealth that they thought they would be able to accumulate from the American dream of purchasing a home. This installation is to help people understand how those neighborhoods began to struggle with those issues.”

Large scale photo of a white house with a sculpture of sign in front it.

Installation view of Tonika Lewis Johnson’s ongoing project “Inequity for Sale,” at Weinberg/Newton, at Expo Chicago 2022.

Prior to beginning “Inequity for Sale,” Lewis Johnson had produced another project, “Folded Map,” that looked at Chicago’s historic segregation “and presented a possible way for us to disrupt it,” she said.

Close to a year after the project was exhibited at Loyola University’s Museum of Art in 2018,  Duke University released a report titled The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago (2019) “to quantify the amount of money that was stolen from Black families in Chicago during the ’50s and ’60s. That amount was close to $4 billion in today’s money.”

People began to send her the report and she soon reached out to the researchers to learn more, who helped her map each of the individual homes and the people who were impacted by these land sale contracts.

“A lot of those homes today look like this: abandoned or they’ve been demolished and are now vacant lots,” she said. “I always wanted to know why there were so many abandoned homes and vacant lots in my neighborhood.”

For Lewis Johnson, though, this project is just the beginning of the conversation.

“A lot of times with large, systemic issues, people have a difficult time understanding how it’s still with us today,” she said. “I wanted to help broaden people’s understanding with this context. If you know, the historic reasons for that then it will help you figure out realistic solutions. You can’t just tackle the consequence without tackling the root cause of the issue.”

She continued, “Chicago was really critical in teaching the rest of the country how to make racism and segregation into real estate and so Chicago should also be the city that shows the rest of the country how to reckon with it.”


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