Tonika Johnson’s celebratory images of her native Englewood provide a perspective on one of Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods that’s rarely seen—one of lives lived with beauty and joy. While there’s no getting around the south-side neighborhood’s problems, statistics on crime and unemployment don’t begin to present the whole picture.
In addition to being a photographer and the program manager for the urban farming nonprofit Growing Home, Johnson identifies herself as a “community arts activist.” “It’s a recent title I’ve stepped into and given myself,” the 37-year-old says. She applies the term with a sense of pride, understanding the kind of power and emotional uplift that can come from creative works. “I want to use my art and my voice as a platform,” she says, “to make art more visible and more valued in the community.”
But it wasn’t until Johnson finally stepped outside of her community that she began to grasp how artwork could elevate a place. In high school her love of writing led her to Young Chicago Authors, when the then-fledgling youth arts organization was located on Division Street in Wicker Park. “That was my first time going into a community that was predominantly of another race,” Johnson recalls. “I was suddenly immersed in a proud Latino community, and I was just amazed at how they represented their culture in murals and street art.” Johnson grew up in a neighborhood all but devoid of such flourishes. “I can only imagine what my childhood might have been like if I had access to art at an earlier age,” she says. Not until her first year in college did Johnson pick up a camera with any intention. “I could have started on that path earlier.”
A couple years ago, Johnson was the photographer behind Englewood Rising, a community-led marketing campaign aimed at calling attention to the neighborhood’s history and culture. She’s also a cofounder of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, with its fiercely powerful acronym RAGE, which raised funds to rent five billboards on which the organization is presenting positive images of the neighborhood, including some of Johnson’s work, through the end of the year. Residents were invited to submit photos; Johnson stepped up and offered a winning portfolio. “To see my photos of Englewood on billboards throughout Englewood is surreal,” she says. “I can’t even explain the joy I feel knowing my home is proud to have my images represent our neighborhood. It’s an honor that I hold very dearly and deeply.” Johnson also helped to establish a youth media program for RAGE. The volunteer work dovetails with her art practice.
Last year Johnson received a grant through the Department of Community Affairs and Special Events for “From the Inside,” a series of community portraits she created with the intention of exhibiting them in Englewood. But given the area’s limited cultural infrastructure, finding a place to hang her work wasn’t easy. A new coffee shop on 69th Street, Kusanya Cafe, was welcoming but too small. Then she ran into community activist and RAGE cofounder Aysha Butler, who sits on the advisory council for Hamilton Park. Butler invited Johnson to display the series during the inaugural Englewood Art Fair, held last October in the park’s field house.
Earlier this year, Rootwork Gallery exhibited Johnson’s “Everyday Rituals,” a series that continues the photographer’s quest to portray the simple yet meaningful aspects of life in her community—from the quiet devotion of a churchgoer to the explosive color of a wig shop. Currently she has a photography fellowship with City Bureau, the south-side-based nonprofit civic journalism organization, which has her focused on documenting segregation. “We have the statistics, we know intrinsically that Chicago is segregated,” she says, “but we don’t really get to see, side by side, different neighborhoods. I want to provide an opportunity for people to engage in this topic in a different way.”
Johnson’s enduring love for Englewood is simple. “It is my home, it is where I grew up, it is where my grandmother planted her roots from East Saint Louis, it is where my first friends are from,” she says. “It is home. I am comfortable here.”
And the love is reciprocal.
“Even though I’ve been doing photography for years, it was really home that continued to encourage and empower me. Home is the root of all my support. I never would’ve thought that my photographs meant more than what I thought of them without the community telling me so.” —Ruth Lopez
Darry Cooks was working on his car at 80th and Laflin when he took a break to greet his daughters Timaya, eight, and Tijani, six, and son Dorian, three.
Lil Willie, 80, was relaxing with lifelong friends while sitting on a stoop when Johnson walked by. The building on 65th and Racine has since been demolished, so Willie’s crew moved their hangout across the street, where they sit under a tree near the corner store.
Denise and her ten-year-old daughter were Johnson’s neighbors when she lived in Auburn Gresham, just south of Englewood. Mother and daughter were always affectionate, but Johnson could never get the picture she wanted once they saw her coming. On this occasion, Johnson managed to shoot the photo before they noticed her. “I was able to capture their little love moment.”
Skating home after buying a bag of his favorite snacks at the Morgan Food Mart on the corner of 67th and Morgan, 16-year-old Brandon caught Johnson’s eye. “I asked him how often he skateboards and he said, ‘Six hours every day!’ ”
The Family Lounge on Racine serves as a social club for older people in the neighborhood. “When I was reflecting on identifying aspects of the community steeped in our history, lounges are a big one,” Johnson says of the hubs for drinking, eating, and dancing.
“Unfortunately these kind of memorials for victims of homicide are familiar to Englewood and similar communities,” Johnson says. “I wanted to photograph this because, although it’s somber, it is still a present-day interpretation of our ancestral African rituals.”
Kaela, 14, is the best friend of Johnson’s daughter Nyjah. The girls requested a photograph they could use for their eighth-grade graduation party invitation, and Johnson knew just the location: a nearby house that had been painted by local artist Amanda Williams as part of her “Color(ed) Theory” series.
“This photo has sentimental value to me,” Johnson says. “Growing up, my uncles used to take me to this fast food restaurant on 63rd and Racine all the time.” The location is now boarded up.
Sunday service at Saint Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church
Ricky, 38, pictured at the gas station on 63rd and Wentworth, reminded Johnson of her uncle, who paid meticulous attention to his car. “I asked him where he was headed to,” she says, “and he said he was just going to visit his mother to help her make banana pudding.”
Barber Umeika Young, 36, puts the finishing touches on ten-year-old Demontre’s haircut at the Longevity Barber Lounge, on the corner of 68th and Ashland. The shop has become beloved during its short time in the neighborhood. There are about six chairs, and they’re usually filled. “Getting a haircut is a ritual, and that’s one of the spots that’s really popular. And I found out why—it feels like home,” Johnson says. “They have couches and a chessboard.”
Dakari, 11, practices chess while waiting to get his hair cut at the Longevity Barber Lounge.
“I remember being just like this group of kids when I was younger, going to the corner store after school,” Johnson says. “I took this photo because I love the fun, youthful innocence of this daily occurrence you can see everywhere in Englewood.”
“The food and liquor store through the window juxtaposed with
the mural of historic African-American leaders inside of the
laundromat at 79th and Loomis intrigued me,” Johnson says.
“Beauty-supply stores are such a staple in predominantly African-American communities in Chicago,” Johnson says. “Going to them is such a ritual of women in the community.” v