Chicago artist brings segregated residents together in 'Folded Map Project'

(Reuters) - Chicago’s segregated residents are unexpectedly becoming friends in a project that an artist hopes will smash barriers and stereotypes.

When Tonika Johnson started photographing houses with corresponding addresses in the city’s North and South sides in her Folded Map Project, she decided to bring the residents together. The North Side is a largely affluent, white area, while the South Side is traditionally African-American, and has suffered with poverty and gun violence.

“It just naturally evolved into me one day asking one resident if they wanted to meet their ‘map twin’ resident,” Johnson said. “And they said, ‘yes.’ And I was like, oh my gosh, what am I going to have them talk about?”

Johnson asked “awkward but necessary” questions such as how much they paid for their house. On the project website, videos of these interviews join photos of their homes side by side to highlight the effect of decades of segregation and disparities in city resources - and how things can change.

It opened the eyes of Jonathan Silverstein and his wife Paula Hermann, who enjoy many shops, restaurants and food markets in Rogers Park on the North Side.

“I guess it is really striking, you know, how lucky we are, and we certainly don’t think of ourselves as living in a rich neighborhood but compared to some we are very privileged,” he said.

Their South Side ‘map twin’ Maurice Perkins in Englewood needs to travel far just to find a grocery store.

“They couldn’t even imagine being in a community, or a community not having the things that, it’s, I guess, basic necessities,” said the local community leader and rapper.

The meeting with his ‘map twins’ was encouraging, he said. “There was, like, a genuine connection, right? It was, like, nothing forced or fake.”

Inspired by the recent U.S. racial justice protests, Johnson plans to expand Folded Map into other neighborhoods, and add resources on her website for people to help desegregate their own cities.

“I’d like to think maybe it’s the start of a movement,” Silverstein said of the project. “I’d love to see more and more people in the city start to build these relationships.”

Reporting by Vanessa Johnston; Writing by Richard Chang; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien