Segregation. Redlining. Land sale contracts, where real estate speculators in the 1950s and ‘60s sold homes to Black families on rent-to-own contracts for double — or more — what the property was worth. Artist Tonika Lewis Johnson has been highlighting these decadeslong injustices against the Black community in projects such as “The Folded Map” and “Inequity for Sale.”
Now, Lewis Johnson is working on “unBlocked Englewood,” an effort in the 6500 block of South Aberdeen Street in Englewood to showcase the transformative power that emerges when a community unites to heal and uplift.
Partnering with the Chicago Bungalow Association, Lewis Johnson is working with residents along that one block to beautify and revitalize 22 vacant lots and 24 residential buildings, and aiding about 75 residents in the process.
While Lewis Johnson, an Englewood native, was working on “Inequity for Sale” — erecting land markers in front of the Englewood addresses that were involved in land sale contracts’ documenting stories of residents who endured the discriminatory practice, and creating a map connecting family names to the homes listed as land sale contracts and the amount of money that was stolen from said families — there was a “twist of crazy fate.” A land marker placed at 6529 S. Aberdeen St. led her to Melvin Walls, a descendant of a couple affected by a land sale contract, Dock and Johnella Walls.
“When I installed that land marker … I got a call from a friend (TJ Townsend), who I know through community work. He said, ‘Those are my great grandparents,’” Lewis Johnson said. “He said, ‘Their son, my granddad (Melvin Walls). lives across the street from that house because that was the house they were able to buy after they finished paying the land sale contract.’”
In meeting Melvin Walls, Lewis Johnson found Townsend was living in the building to help his grandparents with home repairs. Walls shared his story of living on the block. More introductions to other residents on the block followed, and Lewis Johnson learned the majority of them had been living there for decades, and most of them were elderly.
Many homeowners shared their plight with Lewis Johnson about how the devaluation of the neighborhood made it so they could not afford repairs, cosmetic or structural. “They can’t get a home loan because the value of the home is so low and the value of repairs are more than what they can get,” Lewis Johnson said.
When other residents on the block shared similar stories, the social justice artist took action.
“Existing homeowners in Black neighborhoods, they’re the engine,” she said. “We’re focusing on new homeowners, which is great. But existing homeowners, we’re going to lose them if we don’t provide help. This is exactly what my project was aiming to address, that even through the resilience of a couple completing a land sale contract, the generational wealth didn’t last more than one generation because the whole neighborhood was devalued.”
According to a 2018 study, the amount of wealth land sales contracts expropriated from Chicago’s Black community during the 1950s and 1960s was between $3.2 billion and $4 billion.
When she was thinking about how to help, the Together We Heal Creative Place program was announced. The program from the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and Mayor’s Office of Equity and Justice was offering grants up to $500,000 for artists and organizations to create art to activate public spaces, promote health and safety, encourage movement dialogue and beautify communities. With Englewood designated as a priority neighborhood, Lewis Johnson thought those funds could help homeowners in her community.
“All these public art dollars for disinvested communities … it’s people in these communities that need things because it’s disinvested,” Lewis Johnson said. “I drew some inspiration from New Orleans to show investment in homes is basically public art. (Artist) Amanda Williams showed us adding color also can be public art. I decided to partner with the Chicago Bungalow Association; we applied for $500,000 to help homeowners with repairs, help them beautify their block, and undo the harmful effects of racist land sale contracts. That’s public art when you invest into homeowners who want to beautify their homes. But before you beautify it, you’ve got to fix it.”
“UnBlocked” was awarded $250,000. The project has garnered an additional $120,000 from the Chicago Community Trust and $50,000 from the Terra Foundation for American Art. So far, $220,00 has been used to repair 19 residences on the block, including weatherproofing with free insulation and energy-efficient appliances from the Home Energy Savings program from ComEd and Peoples Gas.
Outdoor power equipment is being used to maintain vacant lots and sidewalks year-round on the block. The Chicago Bungalow Association brought out DNR Construction to do the work. DNR also conducted assessments of the homes on the block to see what repairs are needed and their costs, according to Carla Bruni, a point person for “unBlocked” and a preservation and resiliency specialist with the bungalow association.
Delon Adams had the roof fixed at his home at 6527 S. Aberdeen St. The two-flat was purchased by his late grandmother in the ’80s. Numerous family members have called the building home throughout the years, Adams said, and he’s been doing all he can to keep the building up and within the family.
“The roof had been messed up for years,” Adams said. “It was leaking every time it rained; the wood was messed up, covered the upstairs ceilings with mold.
“I got a new roof, they fixed up some walls and gave me some new light fixtures,” Adams said. “They put a fan in the ceiling in the bathroom upstairs. Then they came back and insulated all the walls. They put a new thermostat up, fire alarms, carbon monoxide detectors — they did a lot. I appreciate it because I was trying to do it bit by bit but the money wasn’t adding up with just my income.”
Adams, who calls “unBlocked” heaven-sent, said the next thing on his to-do list is the concrete steps of his front porch.
Justine Mosely Stephens, a Beverly resident, owns several properties on the block. A resident of Englewood since 1957, Stephens is routinely on the block maintaining her buildings. But when she reached out to her insurance company to help with a dilapidated chimney on a building, they said no. “UnBlocked” said yes, at no cost to her.
Stephens has been a big proponent of “unBlocked,” conducting meetings in her buildings to inform other residents about the work. She wants everyone to participate.
“I knew how it was when I was coming up as a kid and looking at the deterioration,” Stephens said. “I have a heart for Englewood — grew up here, invested here. So I’m going to fight for everything that I can.
“When (‘unBlocked’) was first brought to me, they said, ‘Justine, we’ll do two or three houses’ … and I said no, you’re going to do all of them,” she said. “I was fine in fixing mine up, but what about the rest of them that could not afford to do what I do? We’re getting top-notch, no backdoor, stuff. God has blessed us on this block. I want you all to take advantage of it.”
Stephens has seen more pride from homeowners on the block since the work has progressed this year — pride she hasn’t seen in decades. She is looking forward to throwing the biggest block party Chicago has ever seen when repairs for the remaining homes are complete in 2024.
To make that happen, the initiative is raising funds through the project’s website. To complete more than a dozen homes, the goal is to raise $1 million, according to Lewis Johnson. The first round of financing was for structural work; the fundraising campaign will continue for additional work, including exterior cosmetic repairs as well as fixing the block’s vacant lots.
“We don’t want you to stop at the repairs because our argument is we want to demonstrate that art is also what people do to their homes, how they want the inside of their homes to look,” Lewis Johnson said. “My stance is there’s a lot of art funding out there and our project is really approaching arts organizations that fund projects as a way to say ‘OK, well, you all are prioritizing doing art in neighborhoods that have been historically discriminated against.’ Then why not support projects that have tangible, actual repairs to homes as opposed to only just artistic sculptures and gardens. Our project is calling out the arts funders to consider it.”
Lewis Johnson will have Englewood artists and friends on the block in spring to talk with residents about what art they envision for the block once homes are repaired. Decorative plaques on homes and decorative garbage cans were among the suggestions at a Nov. 14 meeting with residents. Lewis Johnson even mentioned the possibility of “unBlocked” being featured in a documentary.
Bruni said she likes how Lewis Johnson portrays the project.
“Tonika has a really great way of reframing … ’what is art basically? Is repairing and bringing this whole block back art in and of itself, outside of something like a mural?’” Bruni said. “That’s a pretty beautiful way of looking at it. We’re interested in quantifying what does it take to bring a block back?”
Bruni said the Chicago Bungalow Association doesn’t have those numbers, but with “unBlocked” it’s a way to highlight the fact that repair is something that we all need to be talking about a lot more.
“It’s hard to dream about all the beautification stuff when you’ve got water pouring down your walls,” Bruni said. “You can’t worry about what you want your kitchen to look like and how you want to save and if you want to electrify your home until you have a secure, safe home.”
Lewis Johnson said the data collected from the Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization, allows her to represent 65th and Aberdeen as a microcosm for the rest of the neighborhood.
Bruni said “unBlocked” is a blueprint for other community organizations to use. “This work that we’re doing is a case study … a sample of how much it would take to stabilize a block in Englewood,” Bruni said. “If you are trying to do work in the field of disrupting historic racism, this project and donating to it is a way to do it.”
Adams just wants to keep up his family home. And once it’s repaired, he plans to buy another property and rent out the top floor of his two-flat.
Stephens’ goal is to continue to provide decent, quality housing for renters. “I want other folks to know that we can live just as good and decent as they can,” she said.
“If we can’t come to an understanding of what reparations can look like, then we at least have to leverage existing funding opportunities,” Lewis Johnson said. “I don’t care how much art you put into a neighborhood like Englewood; at the end of the day, the people who live here and have been paying taxes here need help.”
With “unBlocked,” Lewis Johnson wants to see if banks that participated in housing inequities in the past will partner with the project to create a wider-reaching program for Black homeowners to get home repairs. Empowerment for Englewood residents, creative revitalization and public engagement are at the forefront of that work.
“I want to use this project as evidence of what kind of financial tool they could create that can help other Black homeowners in neighborhoods that they serve,” she said.