North Branch

Character of the North Branch

The North Branch represents a member of the old guard who has been in the neighborhood for decades and has stayed put through gentrification. She’s an elder shopkeeper who was a fixture in the community in the “before times.” Her shop was a focal point and served as a de facto community center for many families in the area. People would leave a spare key to their apartment with her for safekeeping in case one of the kids got locked out or a visitor was arriving during their work shift. She watched her neighborhood transform as developers bought up parcels of land around her shop. But she refused to sell and just hung on while her community was priced out without any control or say in the matter. All her old neighbors are gone and she’s working through a sense of loss. Sometimes, her old customers come back to the shop just to visit her and say hi. They look down on the new customers because they do not understand the history or value of what came before them.

  • North Branch Lawrence Bridge
    Privately-owned piers and boats along the river near Lawrence Avenue. August 2020. Photo by Becky Lyons
From the actor

I absolutely adore this project and how it personifies the river as a theatrical character! It truly makes it easier for all to understand the inequitable treatment and use of the river based on who lives and what exists around it. I’m deeply honored to be part of such a creative, engaging way to educate the general public about Great Lakes water issues.

Tonika Johnson

To see more of Tonika, visit,, and

Transcript of recording

Look at that! A sweet old couple just closed their corner store down the block. You know they spent a few decades running the store and raising their kids. It WOULD be sad to see their establishment go but no one who went to their store lives here anymore. No one left to say they’ll miss it. Pushed out by rising property taxes caused by gentrification. Like bad acne, a ton of white heads have been gradually popping into the neighborhoods around me. But, the North Shore Channel tells me to be happy with all this. They said this is just what I need to turn myself around to be more welcoming and open. But who am I welcoming and open to??!? All my friends can’t afford to live here anymore, and it’s just a bunch of white people now. 

The city had plenty of opportunities to renovate when communities of color were still here, before they were priced out of their homes. One of the biggest changes that I’m going through is General Iron’s relocation. They’ve been on my branch for a long time. I’ve been here longer though. Their plant is one of the few Industrial Corridors I still have left and I’m happy to see it go. They consistently violated environmental laws as their pollution metastasized in me. 

Now I’m finally getting this tumor removed. Well I wish it was actually getting removed. Instead it’s relocating to The Calumet. They found another river to victimize. But just like the South Branch, they have enough industrial corridors already, and plants that suffocate and poison the neighborhood around them. The city knows this too, but ignores these neighborhoods because they’re not full of white people. 

As the influx of modern colonizers increases, my appearance changes for the better, according to the entitled new residents who have taken the place of those who were here before. The amenities that get added to me aren’t for the people who’ve been here for years, or for me, for that matter. All it does is draw in wealth, not community. Oh great, looks like I’m getting another bar with a craft brewery inside. Pack it up Goose Island. 


Written by Tristen Ortiz
Produced by Anish Tailor
Performed by Tonika Johnson
Story by Tristen Ortiz and Anish Tailor