A large yellow circular sign is meant to grab your attention as you walk through the aisles of Expo Chicago 2022. What the sign says will stop you in your tracks: “THIS HOUSE at 7250 S. Green was legally stolen from black resident John Garner on December 28, 1962, as part of a widespread land sale contract scam. These crimes have never been brought to justice. Repairs are due. (This marker is also in front of the current house on the south side of Chicago.)
Above those words is a clip art of a person on the run, a bag with a dollar sign slung over it. Behind the sign is a magnified photograph over 10 feet from the house in question. Weeds grow in front of the white vinyl house; its windows and first floor door are barricaded. This intervention, part of a larger series titled “Inequity for Sale,” is courtesy of Chicago-based artist Tonika Lewis Johnson and Windy City Weinberg/Newton Gallery.
During the 1950s and 1960s, a common land sale contract scam was a form of rent-to-own practices “in which potential buyers, excluded from traditional mortgages by racist policies, were offered contracts who imposed excessive monthly payments without ever transferring ownership,” according to project website.
As the panel indicates, Garner’s situation is not unique; it’s hit more than 3,300 owners in Chicago — and counting, as the full number is still being tallied. As with most racially discriminatory housing practices in the United States, the effects of which are still felt to this day, the scam primarily affected black landlords, particularly in four historically black neighborhoods: East Garfield Park , West Garfield Park, North Lawndale on the west side and greater Englewood on the south side.
“These are the same neighborhoods today struggling with low homeownership, school closures, gun violence, crime,” said Lewis Johnson, who was born, raised and continues to live in Englewood. “It just emptied these families of the wealth they thought they could accumulate through the American Dream of buying a home. This installation aims to help people understand how these neighborhoods began to struggle with these issues. »
Before starting “Inequity for Sale,” Lewis Johnson had produced another project, “Folded Map,” which examined Chicago’s historic segregation “and presented a possible way for us to disrupt it,” she said.
Nearly a year after the project was exhibited at the Loyola University Museum of Art in 2018, Duke University released a report titled The Looting of Black Wealth in Chicago (2019) “to quantify the amount of money that was stolen from black families in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s. This amount was close to $4 billion in today’s money.
People started sending her the report and she soon reached out to researchers for more information, who helped her map each of the individual homes and people affected by these land sale deals.
“A lot of these houses today look like this: abandoned or demolished and are now vacant lots,” she said. “I always wanted to know why there were so many abandoned houses and vacant lots in my neighborhood.”
For Lewis Johnson, however, this project is just the start of the conversation.
“A lot of times, with big systemic issues, people struggle to understand how it’s still with us today,” she said. “I wanted to help broaden people’s understanding with this context. Knowing the historical reasons for this will help you find workable solutions. You can’t just address the consequences without addressing the root cause of the problem.
She continued, “Chicago was really key in teaching the rest of the country how to do racism and segregation in real estate and so Chicago should also be the city that teaches the rest of the country how to take that into account.”