The Red Line Archive: An Interview with Walis Johnson

Interviewed by Prithi Kanakamedala

Today on the blog, editor Prithi Kanakamedala sits down with artist Walis Johnson to discuss her current work, The Red Line Archive Project, which activates conversations about the personal and political effects of redlining using her own family’s story growing up in Brooklyn.

What led you to design The Red Line Archive?

Actually, the Archive was my final MFA thesis project for the Integrative Media Arts Program at Hunter College. I had been looking around for a subject and story to tell. I thought I was going to do yet another film about gentrification. I had this idea to tell a story about gentrification spatially, through my own journey, during a period of time from 2008-2013 when I had moved from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn to Crown Heights and later to Bedford Stuyvesant and finally back to my childhood home in Clinton Hill. I was getting nowhere with this project because it was so huge! Then, in 2014, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic and my mind was completely blown. I was drawn to the political, economic and emotional argument he made for reparations through the examination of the policy of redlining in Chicago. That got me thinking about my own family history of property ownership in New York.

As I tell the story, I begin with the date October 13, 2013—the day my mother passed away. The next day I received a note folded into the gate of my family’s brownstone in Clinton Hill. It said: “I am interested in buying your building. I will pay cash now or in the future. Please give me a call if you are ready to sell.” As you can imagine, this really angered me. I started receiving phone calls and letters asking me to sell before I’d even wrapped my head around the fact that my mother was gone. It took two years for the Red Line Archive Project to take shape. I was grieving my loss as the thesis deadline was looming. My mom died without a will and I was executor of her estate. As I sorted through family documents and realized that I had an entire archive of documents historically aligned with the official end of redlining and the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the year my parents bought their home! I’d also spent a lot of time thinking about the 2008 financial crisis, racial capitalism and the loss of black wealth and property through foreclosure over the last 10 years (the Obama years!). That got me thinking about ways to connect what I seeing in the present to what had happened in the past. My anger and grief gave rise to curiosity as my very personal story suddenly became political. I started to understand on a profound emotional level the importance of owning property and land and how that has impacted black wealth, notions of citizenship and our experience of “freedom” financial and otherwise in this country. What does it mean to be a free black person in America? How can black people really be free given this history of dispossession? I did a close reading of African American history after WWII in this country and I was traumatized. It radicalized my thinking in ways that I couldn’t have imagined before 2016 when I literally rolled the “cabinet of curiosity” out into the world as a mobile archive that holds objects and documents that represented a personal and a collective history of how economic and social racism works in this country and also globally if one considers colonialist projects throughout the world.

The Red Line Labyrinth at Weeksville Heritage Center, 2017.

The Red Line Labyrinth at Weeksville Heritage Center, 2017.

Tell me more about The Red Line Labyrinth—what was its inspiration, its focus, and where has it been installed to date?

The Red Line Archive Project is iterative. It is a constellation of projects that work together and separately, each part building on the one previous. I continue to research and contemplate my family journey, juxtaposing it with the history of black people in this country. One of the advantages of creating an archive is that it can continue to expand and deepen over time as I consider what works, the layering of experience to complicate the narrative, what emotions I am feeling and what I want to express at each iteration.

After I launched The Red Line Mobile Archive and began taking it into public spaces to talk with people about its content and history, I realized that I was often doing most of the talking (or teaching), much more than I had intended. I’d be in these very aggressively gentrifying spaces like Crown Heights, Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy, among people, especially newcomers to the neighborhood, couldn’t engage with the work or I had to spend a lot of time explaining concepts like redlining and gentrification helping them interpret their position in relation to the current moment in real estate. Then, layered over everything, is the whole issue of how incredibly difficult it is to find a stable place to live in New York because of high rents even if you have a job and some money! Many people would be considered gentrifiers themselves and had been so conditioned to think that they were somehow personally responsible for displacing black people from the neighborhood that they didn’t really want to engage in dialogue. Or they just didn’t want to be seen as racist. Or they didn’t have any idea what I was talking about because the history had been kept from them! Many people, black and white, just don’t know how racial segregation and capitalism work together to limit our collective imagination, our compassion for our self and one another. They are totally conditioned by the “boot strap” myths of this country and the reality is far more complicated than that. It was exhausting and emotionally draining to try to explain it in a way where we actually engaged in informed dialogue about the economic, political and spiritual, historical dissonances and contradictions present in this moment and the possibility of doing things differently going forward.

I use the sculptural form of a public labyrinth walk –The Red Line Labyrinth—as a way to explore our inner, affective relationship to land, home and belonging that redlining has so brutally disrupted. I wanted to expose the poetic relationship we have with the land. People walk the Labyrinth with a reflection card that they have chosen that helps them reflect on their current or historical situation in a new way. Though I’m not always explicit about my goal, I see walking as a practice that opens a collective grieving process where we can really begin to accept how redlining and government racist engineering as a system of oppression has robbed us of a huge part of our humanity. I want to open a poetic space where we can witness our grief and own humanity in the midst of the crisis we’re experiencing with a person like President Trump who is, ironically, a real estate mogul whose father was a racist who actively enriched himself as a result of this policy. I want people to become aware of how they may have or have not benefited from property ownership and their own personal red line story. No doubt many European immigrant families and others worked hard when they arrived in this country. And, so did Black people! –our ancestors worked for free for centuries. No one else has this experience! Yet this bootstrap myth persists without understanding or acknowledging the parallel (and invisible) backstory that undergirds the myth.

I’ve installed the Labyrinth on the grounds of Brower Park in Crown Heights, Weeksville Heritage Center in 2017, and on the CUNY campus at Bronx Community College. I try to install it in communities of color that are being aggressively gentrified today or have been undervalued because of redlining and property as a result has increased in value in ways that drive speculation and gentrification. I love the conversations that I have with people in these spaces! It’s fun and also pretty heavy.

For your artistic work is there a research process, and if so, do you use archival materials, oral histories?

I use walking as a research practice and way of exploring and embodying the experience of redlining. For this project, I walked around the periphery of redlined neighborhoods from Greenpoint to Dumbo. As I walked I tried to “read” the neighborhoods I traversed by listening to the soundscape, looking at architecture and other clues hidden in the landscape that reveal a hidden narrative of redlining. I wrote in my journal and read a bunch of books on the history of Brooklyn and African Americans in New York. I conducted oral history interviews with people I met in Bed-Stuy and formal interviews with scholars like Mindy Fullilove, among others. The archival materials collected were primarily the 1938 Home Owners Loan Corporation Red Line Maps and Neighborhood Assessment forms and my family documents. I also created sculptural objects that I placed in the mobile archive as poetic artifacts—objects that I appropriated from my walks that emerged as an emotional signifier for how redlining works and the ways in which black people struggled to overcome it.

Home Owners Loan Corporation Map of Brooklyn, 1938.

Home Owners Loan Corporation Map of Brooklyn, 1938.

I can only imagine the range of rich and moving responses you've had to your work. Any that stand out?

One of the people who walked the Labyrinth in Weeksville was a woman named Cassandra who had worked for my mother in her clothing boutique back in the 1990’s. She cried during the video interview we recorded. She said that she felt she had been “redlined” in the fight to keep her apartment in the coop apartment her mother left her after she died. She spoke so eloquently about how hard black people worked to just live in this country and redlining prevented us from getting loans and being full citizens. I really identified with her story even as I consider myself an undeniable “winner” as a result of redlining and gentrification today. Sadly, I’m part of the renter economy. People think I should be happy, but I feel deeply conflicted about it all. I’m not rich and I think about ways that I can use this project to be of service.

Your work speaks to New York's (and this country's) deeply problematic urban history. Can The Red Line Archive or The Red Line Labyrinth speak to audiences in other countries?

I presented the Red Line Mobile Archive at an artist’s conference in Delphi, Greece a couple of years ago and there was a lot of identification with how the piece tells the story of global capitalism, the movement of capital across borders and the way it works to displace and dispossess. In the U.S. we can feel like we are isolated from global trends, but we are not. Europe experiences racism that works in different ways, but some of my reading has uncovered forms of redlining in both The Netherlands and Italy. It’s just not so explicitly racial and white supremacist - it’s more class based in those countries. Certainly Greece has been held hostage to global capital and has been coerced by the EU to privatize many of its historical sites because of its financial crisis. There was even some talk about privatizing the Parthenon, though I don’t know where this project stands at the moment.

I think the project speaks to the primacy of human desire for a home and belonging and the ways in which the experience of displacement and dispossession have upended what we need most in this moment of crisis: a sense of place, safety and continuity of community.

Walis Johnson is an interdisciplinary artist/filmmaker whose work documents the experience and poetics of the urban landscape through oral history, ethnographic film, and artist walking practices. She holds a BA in history from Williams College and MFA from Hunter College in Interactive Media and Advanced Documentary film, has taught at Parsons School of Design, and has extensive experience in policy and philanthropy, collaborating with community-based organizations citywide, in San Francisco and nationally.

Prithi Kanakamedala is an Associate Professor in the History department at Bronx Community College CUNY, and an editor at Gotham. In Spring 2019, Prithi and BCC students taking her African-American History class had the privilege of working with Walis on an installation of The Red Line Labyrinth on Bronx Community College’s campus quad, as part of a larger CUNY-wide project called Pressing Public Issues.