Kevin Coval’s poetry has always focused on the margins of identity and community. Tackling subjects like his Jewish upbringing and structural racism, the self-styled breakbeat poet has drawn inspiration from working-class Chicagoans and people of color whose stories were not often told.
Coval’s last book, A People’s History of Chicago, ambitiously aimed to tell the story of Chicago in 77 poems, and his follow-up collection two years later, Everything Must Go (Haymarket Books), tackles another topic close to his heart—gentrification. Specifically, the gentrification of Wicker Park, once a working-class neighborhood and hotbed of young artistic talent. It’s now one of the most expensive communities in the city and, many would say, a skeleton of what it once was.
Before he was artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, cofounder of the slam poetry competition Louder Than a Bomb, and an instructor at UIC, the poet was a scrappy kid from the suburbs who moved to Wicker Park in the mid-90s when it was still a blue-collar, predominantly Latino and eastern European neighborhood. Like many other creative spirits at the time, he was attracted by the cheap rent and burgeoning arts and culture scene. “Wicker Park was my announcement—really even to myself—that [being a writer] was the life I wanted to pursue,” Coval says.
But the connection runs even deeper than that. His grandfather had first moved to Wicker Park in 1906, about 90 years prior to Coval. “My whole life has revolved around the neighborhood. It’s been painful to see it shift in such a way that—like, I can’t live here anymore.” (A studio in Wicker Park will now cost you $2,700 a month.)
Coval had been wanting to write a book about Wicker Park for a long time, but it wasn’t until artist Langston Allston came into the picture that the idea became a reality. The two met at Allston’s 2017 show, “When People Could Fly,” on the history of Chicago public housing. Allston’s work had a “realism that hinted at a comic book love,” Coval says.
They first worked together on “Milwaukee Avenue,” a long stand-alone poem published in chapbook form last year. It was their “mixtape,” as Coval puts it. Allston’s work is interspersed throughout Everything Must Go, from portraits of neighborhood mechanics (“The Saviors of El Barrio”) to full-page illustrations of Coval’s old apartment at 1108 N. Hermitage.
“Wicker park’s a quinoa wrap / a lite grain, a lite beer, a small brewery / a facsimile of what it used to be,” Coval writes. Coval says that the first sign he noticed that the neighborhood was changing was the closing of coffee shop and beloved “third place” Urbus Orbis in 1998. (It’s now the site of an expensive gym.) The second sign was when MTV’s The Real World was filmed in Wicker Park in 2001—a move that was met with protests and has been blamed for hastening gentrification in the neighborhood.
Coval cut his teeth at weekly open mikes hosted by Urbis Orbis and other coffee shops, indie bookstores, and dive bars. You could go to the “six-way”—the intersection of Milwaukee, Damen, and North—on any day of the week and see something going on. Some of those businesses and organizations, like the Guild Literary Complex and Subterranean, are still a training ground for young artists today, but other centers for the community were eventually priced out of the neighborhood.
In his collection, Coval pays tribute to those neighborhood mainstays, like Cafe Matou and Lit X, and some of its best-known residents, including local rapper Sharkula and the late poet Oba Maja. But he focuses most on the working-class Wicker Parkers who were displaced—the mechanics, barbers, waitresses, the tamale guys.
For them, there’s a “constant threat of removal,” Coval says. And when that happens, “you have an erasure of working-class people and stories in the city.”
As a resident of New Orleans—a city still undergoing gentrification post-Hurricane Katrina—Allston sees these forces happening in real time. “It’s not really that alien of a concept to read through [the book] and imagine the neighborhood changing, because I watch my community change constantly.
“As artists, we’re always looking for this way to freeze the neighborhood we came into, in the way that we came into it,” Allston adds. “And then you watch it start to change and you watch the things you love about it disappear, because the things you love about it are the parts that aren’t viable under capitalism.”
Some would argue that the low-income white artists who moved into the neighborhood were themselves a gentrifying force—and with that comes a recontextualizing of people’s experiences coming of age in Wicker Park. This sentiment is reckoned with explicitly in former Reader contributor Jessica Hopper’s memoir Night Moves (2018), which followed the music critic’s life in Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village in the early-to-mid 2000s, when the neighborhood was still relatively affordable.
Coval evinces the same grief—and guilt—in conversation. “We were a part of the plan, unbeknownst to us,” he says. But even as he acknowledges that gentrification is a complex, systemic force, he thinks it can be mitigated at the individual level through small actions like supporting local businesses and public schools.
Even as the neighborhood has become almost unrecognizable to longtime residents, you can still see some vestiges of old Wicker Park, Coval says. Many of the dive bars are still intact, for example. And Sharkula still slings mixtapes on Milwaukee Avenue more than 20 years later.
For Brian Wharton, who goes by Sharkula and Thingamajig, Wicker Park was essential in his journey as a hip-hop artist. “I worked two jobs just to fulfill my habit of wanting to get cassettes out,” he says. All of the best record stores, clubs, and parties were in Wicker Park. “It was just exciting to be able to breakdance and pop-lock in a circle amongst the greatest breakdancers, beat boys, pop-lockers.”
His old hangout spots—Lava Lounge, the Pontiac, the Blue Note—are no longer around, though, and neither are the rappers and breakdancers of that time. But even as Sharkula has watched the neighborhood morph, he still believes in Wicker Park. One of the main routes that he hustles at is still Milwaukee Avenue—the stretch between Damen and Ashland.
“I can definitely feel the spirit,” he says. “That’s what I feed off of.”
Even the illustration accompanying Coval’s poem about Sharkula reflects that hope. It’s a portrait of Sharkula—his hands clutching his face, gazing upward as if having a vision. “He outlasted the chain / & the burger king / & the real world / & yuppie capitalism,” Coval writes. “Sharkula, will die / if he ever stops / moving.” v