Book Review from the Journal: Everything Must Go, Kevin Coval

This week, we are sharing a book review from the most recent edition of the Carolina Planning Journal (Volume 45). Doug Bright shares his thoughts on author Kevin Coval’s Everything Must Go. The collection of poetry is an ode to Chicago’s Wicker Park and also features illustrations by artist Langston Allston.

Book Review by Doug Bright

Kevin Coval’s latest collection of poems, Everything Must Go, offers a story about the “life and death of an American neighborhood”: Chicago’s Wicker Park. Coval’s words, paired with drawings from Langston Allston, illustrate the Wicker Park that Coval came to know during his time as a resident, starting in the 1990s. The pages honor institutions that made the neighborhood what it was upon his arrival, but also document the changes—physical and spiritual—that came through the process of gentrification. Coval’s celebration of diversity—of culture, of income, of thought—evolves into a eulogy lamenting the departures of his friends, the incumbent community that artists moved into, and, with those two, the soul of the neighborhood he came to know, vanquished by a wealthier and whiter demographic. The book comes at a time of political change in the city, where a new mayor’s promises to dismantle long-standing political power structures conflict with continued neoliberalism of the previous administration, buttressing economic inequality through public subsidy. While reminding us that the spirit of a neighborhood is non-trivial, Coval reflects too briefly on the role that he and his fellow bohemians played in the process.

 For Coval, gentrification is more than the loss of affordable housing, forced displacement, and the demographic shifts that come with it. He emphasizes the importance of the character of Wicker Park through a micro lens, through individual characters. Odes to personal connections and roommates, a neighbor nicknamed Mr. Rooster, fellow poets such as Denizen Kane and Thigahmahjiggee (a.k.a. Sharkula), and romantic prospects—mingle with salutes to the nameless, whose work make the neighborhood work: tamale vendors, waitresses, an incense salesman, barbers, car mechanics, and the like. He stresses, too, the importance of place, especially in its ability to create connection, recognizing the specific (cafés—Earwax and Urbis Orbis—and a bookstore called Lit-X) and the categorical (bowling alleys, dive bars, barbershops). The poems progress pseudo-chronologically, eventually revealing more and more obvious changes: fancy restaurants pop up, new construction booms, and MTV’s The Real World moves into the former Urbis Orbis space (not without protest).

Coval is a long-time player in Chicago’s poetry scene and serves as a mentor to young poets. He plays institutional roles as the artistic director of Young Chicago Authors (an organization that emphasizes youth expression through creative writing and hip-hop), is a founder of that organization’s Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry festival (the largest in the world), and has taught at both the School of the Art Institute and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a white man—raised Jewish in the northern suburbs of Chicago—who participates in and educates others about the traditionally black realm of hip hop, a source of conflict that Coval himself has addressed. Coval’s grandfather moved to Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in 1906 as a newly arrived immigrant; the author, raised in the suburbs, began living in Wicker Park in the 1990s.

Langston Allston, a New Orleans-based illustrator and muralist, focuses on people (especially portraits) at both scales. His smaller works are consistent with the black-and-white, line drawing style seen in Everything Must Go. The illustrations alternate between direct representation of the subject of the poem (often people) and sketches of buildings in the neighborhood, creating a visual atmosphere, especially useful for non-Chicagoan readers. Allston never saw the Wicker Park constructed by Coval’s words, so his drawings are primarily derived from Coval’s poems.

Today’s Wicker Park represents yet another gentrified neighborhood radiating from the center of wealth on the Near North Side of the city. It is separated from Lincoln Park, a lakeside neighborhood synonymous with old money in Chicago, by the Chicago River, the Kennedy Expressway, and the blighted, industrial areas that line both of them. It is this missing piece in Chicago’s wealth map that is the site for a megadevelopment known as Lincoln Yards, a hotly debated topic in the city, in large part due to massive tax increment financing incentives the city has committed to the project, one which opponents argue could easily be funded without subsidy. On the west side of the river, Wicker Park was arguably the first neighborhood to gentrify and plays an analogous role to Lincoln Park, a core from which other gentrification stems into nearby neighborhoods such as Ukrainian Village, Logan Square, and Humboldt Park. With Lincoln Yards, two cores can become one, but Everything Will Have to Go Again.

Coval’s poems do not address how politics and policy impact gentrification, but by chronicling individual people and places, they add nuance and weight to the argument that gentrification destroys neighborhood culture. The author meaningfully reflects on his relationship with the neighborhood, especially whether or not he has claim to the neighborhood due to his family history, in which his grandparents were residents, but his parents participated in “white flight” to the suburbs.

The expressways were built
/& my parents remember
/they left & i return.

(A Portrait of the Artist in the Hood, lines 9-11) 

He fails, however, to reflect on the fact that patterns of gentrification, including in Chicago, often involve the influx of artists as an early transitional stage in the process, one that could be seen as catalytic.

At a time in Chicago’s history that represents nearly unprecedented potential for progress on equity, Everything Must Go provides a reflection on neighborhood change that emphasizes the up-close-and-personal, the nuance, and the sum of its parts: a soul of a neighborhood. It aims to capture, backed by emotion, a component of neighborhood change that can too easily be shrugged off as ever-changing or too ethereal. While it neglects to suggest solutions for the challenging problems of gentrification (including one that impacts health most directly: displacement), it comes as close to success as possible in explaining the potential loss that lives in the relationships between people and places and the human connections borne out of sharing those spaces.

Buy Everything Must Go here.

Find past volumes of the Carolina Planning Journal online here.

Doug Bright is a second-year Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in transportation and pursuing the design track. He is interested in youth planning literacy, urban food systems, the social power of place, and the intersection of technology and sustainable transportation systems. He received his undergraduate degree in Social Studies from Harvard College and is a proud Chicagoan. 

Featured Image Courtesy of HaymarketBooks