When I was in high school, I applied for a job at the Gap downtown, between Carson Pirie Scott and Marshall Field’s on State Street.
I filled out the application on the spot. The sales associate glanced it over and phoned a higher-up. She told whoever was on the line that I was a good candidate and lived nearby on Michigan Avenue. That, she said, was a plus.
I did not live close to the Gap store, but I did live on Michigan Avenue. Not the Magnificent Mile, but the South Side street in the black Chatham neighborhood. In that moment, I quickly thought about the North-South racial divide in Chicago and how the white sales associate clearly had confused the Michigan Avenue addresses.
Maybe her misread could land me the job, so I kept quiet and didn’t correct her. (Um, I never got a call back.)
Little has changed in Chicago with respect to black-white racial demarcations. It’s been 25 years since I walked into that now-closed Gap, but I recently recalled that day when I visited Tonika Johnson’s provocative exhibit “Folded Map” at the Loyola University Museum of Art.
In the exhibit, which closes on Saturday, Johnson explores Chicago’s segregation by bringing together people from opposite ends of the same street. She plays on Chicago’s grid system by photographing places such as 6330 N. Paulina and 6329 S. Paulina. The North Side address is a home with front porch furniture and American flag; the South Side address is a boarded-up two-flat.
Johnson also introduces people from the North Side’s Edgewater neighborhood and the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, and she included a video installation to show the encounters. Using a giant map, “Folded Map” invites people to question the built environment of segregation. Visitors can tag their home and then find their twin address.
Johnson’s multimedia presentation challenges people to consider neighborhood inequity, race and the legacy of segregation. Separate isn’t equal.
In my own work as a journalist, I’ve tried to tease out these themes, and I’ve been excited to see the reception to Johnson’s artistry, including national media coverage. Implicit in her work is this: segregation leads to fewer neighborhood resources, shorter life expectancies, joblessness, disinvestment, billions of dollars lost to the region, diminished housing values and an unfair public school system.
I urge Chicagoans to check out “Folded Map” in its final days; art can be a more palatable vehicle to digest thorny policy issues.
Johnson doesn’t want the momentum to fizzle out when the work leaves the museum this weekend, so she has launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a permanent digital home for “Folded Map” and produce 12 copies of the map. Johnson set a goal of $13,000 and has so far raised $20,000.
“It’s such a huge testament to Chicago being ready to be inclusive in this conversation,” Johnson told me.
When Johnson, an Englewood native, embarked on this project, she didn’t expect North Siders to collectively care. She also learned from city transplants that some of them didn’t know anyone on the South Side and have been told not to venture there.
“Folded Map” starkly displays the barriers of our segregated city, as well as the intentionality of policy makers to create and keep it that way.
“If you live in Rogers Park, you have to have intention” to travel to farther neighborhoods,” she said. “Expressways and public spaces all play a role. It isn’t just race on an individual level. The city as a whole was built on a system and we’re operating in it.”
Chicago’s geography is its strength and weakness. The city is vast, which can be an asset, but that also means someone from Portage Park has no reason to visit Pullman, and vice versa, especially if they have no family or friends in the other neighborhood.
The cultural polarities of Chicago are revealed in our city’s geography. You can chart them on a map. People who might share the same address — except for that directional “N” or “S” or even “E” or “W” — lead very different lives.
The distances might be short or long, but the mental detachment from other neighborhoods is the same.
“Folded Map” perfectly captures that disconnect.
Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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