The Sealey Challenge: Milwaukee Avenue

a white hand holds a white pamphlet-book covered in handwritten text and with illustrations of birds. The book is MILWAUKEE AVENUE, by Kevin Coval & with art by Langston Allston
Milwaukee Avenue, written by Kevin Coval & illustrated by Langston Allston

For three years now, Kevin Coval and Langston Allston’s collaboration Milwaukee Avenue has sat near me, daring me to unfold it and read its accordion pleats, covered in print and image, telling the story of one street, sure, but also of Chicago. Today, this fifth day of the Sealey Challenge 2021, was the day.

Milwaukee Avenue tackles race and class and gentrification, home and community and culture. Coval pulls no punches here, any more than he pulls punches in any of his works: he’s not afraid to look at the vicious side of gentrification, or to stare down racism. At one point, in text stuffed in beside an image with a sign that says “D & S YO YO WIGS – HAIR EXTENSION,” Coval writes of what comes after those who live and hustle in a neighborhood are pushed out: “The nail in / a coffin, / the straw on a camel / sinking in a vanilla dump / the damn / near tidal / wave soon / wealthy & / homogeneous / & boring / as fuck.” The color leeches out of neighborhoods as the gentrifying tidal wave moves in, sweeping aside everything—and everyone—who was there before.

In many ways, Milwaukee Avenue is a love song to the displaced, and to the places that have been, in Coval’s word, colonized by gentrification. Parts of it are funny—those pigeons!—but much of it is sad, a record of an ongoing urban tragedy in illustrations and text. Coval points out, more than once, that the city isn’t terribly kind to the people who make its culture and give it vitality, from bucket boys to artists. He calls artists “workers / who make the / culture of / a city & / avenue,” and anyone who knows Chicago—or, I assume, any other urban space—can speak to the importance of art, from tagging to murals, on community.

Milwaukee Avenue, published by Chicago’s very own Haymarket Press, is a very different sort of chapbook. Haymarket calls it a “fold-out book or chart,” which is, I guess, pretty accurate. It’s a fascinating design, one in which the images get pride of place on each page, taking up space, demanding acknowledgement, while the text stuffs itself around them. The text itself looks hand-written, although I assume it’s one of those tricksy hobbitses of fonts and only cosplays as handwriting. Nonetheless, whether real or cosplay, it can be a bit of a trick to read, especially for someone like me with misfiring neurons. And I’m not always sure I read it in quite the right order—but, to be honest, while I’ll try reading it in other orders next time, I’m also not terribly sure it matters.

Milwaukee Avenue is a love song to the displaced, raging against the genteel coloniality of gentrification, crying out for something better. It is also, at its heart, a love song to Chicago: its rough streets, its long avenues, and, always, most of all, its people. It catalogs tragedy with love, allowing the denizens of Milwaukee Avenue a chance to shine.