Genre Gentrification, or, “Queers Hate Techies”
Last week, I mentioned that I’ve visited San Francisco’s Mission District well over a dozen times. One of those times was back in 2006, when Christopher Golden and I led a group of writers on what was supposed to be a trip to James Simes’s legendary Isotope Comics, but—due to the fact that none of our phones had GPS technology back in the ancient days of 2006—turned into a walking tour of the Mission District instead. Nate Southard refers to this fondly as “the sixty-block death walk.”
People (mostly out-of-towners who had heard sordid tales of how the Mission District was home to roving bands of homeless, drug addicts, and mentally ill people) admonished us to be careful. They didn’t think such a pilgrimage was a good idea. We explained to them that, if San Francisco’s Alan Beatts was a bookselling demigod, then James Simes was his comic book counterpart, and we had to go pay homage. “Stay in a big group,” people then advised us. “Stay together or you’ll get stabbed!”
“We’ll be fine,” Maurice Broaddus assured them. “We’ve got Keene and James A. Moore and Steven Shrewsbury with us.”
And you know what? We were fine. We walked among the residents of the Mission District—including the many homeless, drug addicts, and mentally ill people—unmolested, and had a lovely time doing so. Not because Maurice was right about Jim Moore or Shrews or myself being imposing figures. (We’re not. Jim may be big, but so is Barney the Dinosaur and Snuffleupagus, and in my spare time, I enjoy kittens and Pinterest. And Shrews? Well, he’s only imposing at two in the morning when, after trying to match my bourbon intake, he puts his fist through a glass coffee table by accident). No, the denizens of the Mission District left us alone because we were in their home, and we treated them—and it—as such. We respected them and where they lived and were shown respect in return.
This is one of those simple life lessons that I try to impart on both of my sons. When you are a visitor in someone’s home, you treat them and it with respect. You don’t move their furniture around. You don’t admonish them for their television choices or their selection of beverages. You don’t force your will, your values, or your perspectives on them. You don’t harangue them over their politics or lifestyle or religious affiliation. If you don’t agree with their lifestyle, values, or perspectives, you shut the fuck up and listen politely and try to learn something. If you still don’t agree with them after you’ve learned, you go back to YOUR HOME where you are free to practice those things, and leave them to THEIR HOME where they are free to do the same.
This is pretty much how I live my life.
This is pretty much the opposite of gentrification.
Gentrification is what happens when rich people move into a poor neighborhood and remake it in their image. They move the furniture around while imposing their will, their values, and their perspectives on the people who live there. It is most commonly associated with urban neighborhoods, but as a country boy, I can attest that it happens in rural areas, as well. Rent and property values soar, and the locals get forced out, losing their homes, their culture, and their identity.
Before my signing at Borderlands Books, Nick Mamatas, Gene O’Neill, Michael Bailey and I walked around the Mission District for a few hours. As I mentioned in last week’s column, I was stunned by the changes gentrification had forced on the neighborhood. My favorite Irish pub where I used to be able to get a double bourbon on the rocks for six bucks was now a cafe shop where you could get a cup of organic, grass-fed, free-range coffee for twice that amount—provided you could shout your drink order over the terrible world music piped through the speakers or the cacophony of upwardly mobile techies typing on their laptops—a sound that only stops when they pause to make sure people were watching them. What’s up with that, anyway? Are selfies on Instagram and favorites on Twitter not enough for you? Are you so fucking starved for attention that you have to haul your laptop along to the trendy coffee shop and make sure everyone sees you typing in public? Is your conversation so goddamned important that you have to share it with the rest of us while you’re walking down the street? Twenty years ago, when people in the Mission District strode down the sidewalk talking to themselves, they were probably schizophrenic. Now, it’s just some asshole on a Bluetooth.
“There goes Keene,” someone is shouting, “hating on the hipster techies.”
Well, maybe so. But you know who else hates techies? The people who used to call the Mission District their home. I know this because Nick pointed it out to me. On every single block a brilliant, politically-motivated graffiti artist had taken a stencil and painted QUEERS HATE TECHIES in big, bold, red letters. I saw it on walls and sidewalks, businesses and mailboxes. And every time I saw it, I smiled. It gave me hope. It was a sign that at least one person was still fighting back.
We passed a building that, at one time, was a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, providing beds and food to the poor who needed them. Now it is a barbershop, providing eighty-dollar haircuts to the hipsters who need them. That is not a typo. Eighty-dollars to get your hair cut like Matt Fraction’s or to have your beard trimmed like Grizzly Adams.
After the signing, I bid farewell to Gene and Michael, and to Alan and Jude. Then Nick and I headed for the subway. As we shoved our way through hordes of hipsters and techies, I saw another person talking to himself on his Bluetooth, and I asked Nick where the locals had gone.
“I’ll show you,” he replied.
We descended down into the subway system on concrete stairs lined with used needles and bloody napkins. “Watch where you step,” Nick cautioned. “You don’t want any of that on your shoes.”
At the bottom of the stairs, I saw a man talking to himself. Unlike the man on the street above, he wasn’t wearing a Bluetooth. He had a cardboard sign in front of him, along with a paper cup with some coins inside. I gave him ten bucks—all the cash I had on me. It wasn’t enough to get a cup of coffee or a haircut, but if he walked to another part of the city, it might buy him something to eat.
It was midnight by the time I checked into my hotel. I had to be at the airport at four in the morning. Once that plane touched down back home in Pennsylvania, the first leg of this nine-month book signing tour would be over. Instead of sleeping, I lay there in bed, watching Adult Swim and pondering whether the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District could be compared or contrasted with the post-Dorchester/post-Borders changes in the horror genre.
“Queers hate techies,” I mumbled.
And then I smiled.
Yes, I decided. Yes, we could compare and contrast gentrification with the changes in our genre. And although I hadn’t realized it, I’d been out there on the road for the last four weeks with a big old stencil and a can of red spray-paint.
What had I learned so far? Let’s recap the previous sixteen columns, shall we? After the collapse of Borders and Dorchester Books, most horror fiction went underground. The gatekeepers at Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million weren’t stocking the latest from Jack Ketchum, Mary SanGiovanni, Bryan Smith, Sephera Giron, or Wrath James White, which started the false narrative that horror fiction was once again on the wane. Upon hearing this, the gatekeepers at the mainstream New York publishers opted to stop buying horror novels, focusing instead on coloring books and celebrity memoirs, thus perpetuating that false narrative. As a result, most of your favorite horror writers had opted for one of three alternatives—they’d switched genres, signed with a small press or indie publisher, or had begun self-publishing via Amazon. Some horror fiction fans followed them to these new outlets, but a significant portion of our readership—a segment who prefer physical books and only shop at the big chain stores—couldn’t find these horror novels, and thus, bought into that false narrative that horror was dead…again. And even when the mainstream New York-based publishers put out a horror novel, it wasn’t marketed as horror. Paul Tremblay, Joe Hill, Stephen Graham Jones, and myself were all out on the road this summer, promoting our various novels, all of which had a decidedly supernatural bent, and none of which were being sold as horror.
When horror fiction collapsed in the Nineties, its writers and readers were forced to go underground. Because this coincided with the birth of the Internet, it led to the rise of the small press as a viable alternative to mainstream publishing. I started my career and made a name for myself by preaching about that viable alternative to a mainstream audience who hadn’t known about it. Now, a little over twenty years later, we had been forced underground again, just like the denizens of the Mission District. This time, it had led to the rise of self-publishing and alternative distribution sources. And for the last four weeks, I’d been out here on the road preaching those alternative distribution sources to a mainstream audience who hadn’t known about them.
History repeats itself, I thought. But where do we go from here? What happens next? Will we see a rebirth, the way we did when we were starting out at the turn of the century…or are we doomed? Is this a renewal…or our last dying gasp?
I lay there until my airport shuttle arrived, thinking about all that I had learned out here on the road. Thinking about the older writers whom I admired, and where they fit in amidst this brave new world. Thinking about the newer writers I’d adopted, and whether they could bend and shape this new world on their own. Thinking about the friends I’d seen at my various signings. Thinking about the friends who were no longer there with me on the journey. Thinking about J.F. Gonzalez and Tom Piccirilli.
“I miss you guys,” I told the empty hotel room as I left.
If they heard me, they didn’t respond.
As I climbed onboard the shuttle and gave the driver my airline info, I was suddenly overcome with apprehension. I had the feeling that something was amiss—that things were about to take a severe turn. Most of my friends will tell you (when I’m not around) that I’m terribly paranoid—but they will also admit, if pressed, that when my sixth sense starts tingling, it’s usually right.
Where were we going, as a genre?
I hadn’t figured that part out yet. But for the time being, I was going home.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.