The American Earthquake: Mike Davis and the Politics of Disaster
Phoning Mike Davis is a good way of getting acquainted with his answering machine. It is a virtually futile way of getting hold of the celebrated author of City of Quartz. Before arriving in Los Angeles, where Davis lives and writes, I'd had no luck reaching him. Sitting on his porch on a warm evening this past June, I understood why: The phone rang incessantly, and Davis never once rose from his chair.
The calls last from morning to midnight. It might be the photographer Richard Avedon or the architect I.M. Pei with a request for one of Davis's legendary tours of L.A. It could be Backlash author Susan Faludi, whom Davis has introduced to young gang members for her upcoming book on masculinity, or former Crip leader Dewayne Holmes, a Davis confidante who works in state senator Tom Hayden's L.A. office. It might also be a Danish curator mounting an exhibit on the postmodern city, an organizer with the hotel workers' union, a student at UCLA's Cesar Chavez Center, or (very likely) a Hollywood screenwriter. What this motley crew has in common is a belief that Mike Davis holds the keys to understanding the city of Los Angeles, and much else. In his writings on Southern California, the American working class, and the lives of the dispossessed, Davis offers dark parables of a post-liberal America poised on the brink of ruin.
Mike Davis's reputation rests largely on City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Verso), his 1990 chronicle of the city's history from the socialist cooperative of Llano del Río to Blade Runnerstyle capitalism. The book appeared at a serendipitous moment: A full decade of Reaganism had remade American society in the image of Southern California, with its volatile mix of squalid inner cities and gated communities. But City of Quartz had merits of its own: Here was an urban history that took to heart Lewis Mumford's admonishment that rebuilding a city "involves the larger task of rebuilding our civilization." In arresting meditations on homeowners' revolts, Daryl Gates's police department, Frank Gehry's aesthetics, Anglo-Latino conflicts within the Catholic Church, and the death of the steel industry, Davis took the reader on a kaleidoscopic tour of contemporary L.A. Even as he offered vivid street-smart reportage (and frequently breathtaking prose), Davis projected a distinctive historical vision, a New Left Marxism infused with working-class nostalgia--and apocalyptic rage.
"Contemporary urban America," he flatly declared, "is more like Victorian England than Walt Whitman's or La Guardia's New York. In Los Angeles, once-upon-a-time a demi-paradise of free beaches, luxurious parks, and 'cruising strips,' genuinely democratic space is all but extinct. The Oz-like archipelago of Westside pleasure domes--a continuum of tony malls, arts centers, and gourmet strips--is reciprocally dependent upon the social imprisonment of the third-world service proletariat who live in increasingly repressive ghettoes and barrios.... Even as the walls have come down in Eastern Europe, they are being erected all over Los Angeles." Two years after the book's publication came the L.A. riots, lending Davis's analysis a luster of prophecy.
A more curious aspect of City of Quartz's appeal was its design, marrying postmodern cool and Bogartian machismo. Robert Morrow's photograph of the eerily glamorous turquoise observatory of the Metropolitan Detention Center graced the cover, while William Gibson's back-cover blurb proclaimed the book "more cyberpunk than any work of fiction could ever be." Although Davis—with his boyish frame, liquid-blue eyes, and gently weathered face—lacks any hint of menace in person, his mug shot on the inside jacket radiated tough guy: arms folded defiantly, dressed in black, glowering at the reader. He was described as "a native son" and "former meat cutter and long-distance truck driver" who incidentally "teaches urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture." The packaging paid off. City of Quartz became a cult hit, appealing to readers far beyond its target audience of left-leaning urban geographers and historians—including Bruce Willis, a big donor to Newt Gingrich, who was recently glimpsed reading the book in a New York Times Magazine feature.
Meanwhile, the man who blasted suburban escapism and took us down L.A.'s mean streets has turned his attention to the furies of nature, a move that may puzzle many of his admirers. The Ecology of Fear, which will be published next spring by Metropolitan Books, is a richly eccentric study of the social and political significance of natural disasters. Treating environmental history as a window into "larger class struggles," Davis argues that justice and ecology amount to the same thing in the Land of Sunshine. Unchecked urbanization has not only laid waste to democratic public space but "transgressed environmental common-sense," thus inviting nature's revenge. A work of distinctly millennial cadences, The Ecology of Fear conjures up a catastrophe-prone landscape governed by a geological "dialectic of ordinary disaster" and visited occasionally by cougars, snakes, and killer bees. The fire next time, it seems, may come from the sky as well as the streets.
In the past few years, Davis has retreated from the public-intellectual circuit, rarely granting interviews. "I'm really not that interesting," he protests weakly. Coming from a man so attentive to the creation of his literary persona, the self-effacement can ring a little hollow. But behind it lies the defensiveness of a proud outsider uneasy with celebrity. "Mike is a very romantic guy who has this image of himself as a working-class revolutionary," says journalist Alexander Cockburn, a longtime friend and admirer of Davis. For the better part of his adult life, Davis has been on the road: He was still making ends meet as a truck driver long after many of his friends on the left found permanent sanctuary in the academy.
With City of Quartz came the fruits—and the bruising ironies—of mainstream recognition. L.A.'s poor have seen little improvement in their lives since the riots, while Davis, who took up his pen to dramatize their plight, has acquired a small piece of the California dream, the very idea he set out to debunk. He received a $50,000 advance for The Ecology of Fear. He won a Getty Fellowship. And he entered the ranks of L.A. homeowners, the vanguard of complacency in City of Quartz, moving into a modest gray-stucco house in Pasadena, just south of the San Gabriel Mountains. (He lives there with the Mexican political artist, Alessandra Moctezuma, his fifth wife.) "Ever since I got a mortgage, I've been corrupted," Davis half jokes. "I've been dreaming about my lawn and worrying about my property values."
That said, he still has to hustle to make a living. A tenure-track position continues to elude Davis, who averages five adjunct courses a semester at various schools. "Mike is a brilliant loose cannon and also a kind of wonderful political journalist, and neither of these would be accepted by peers at a major university," says Davis's friend and erstwhile employer, Ed Soja, a UCLA geographer.
Davis, who never completed his Ph.D. in history at UCLA, has his own misgivings about the academy. As the father of two school-age children, he needs the security of a steady income, but he has not made it easy for departments to bring him on board. This spring the University of Southern California nearly offered him an endowed chair in American history. Davis, who had spray painted the university's walls with anti-Vietnam graffiti in 1965, was thrilled but warned administrators, "You'll have intractable problems if you hire me." When friends in the food-service workers' union informed him that the university was contracting out the jobs of its cafeteria workers, Davis assailed the school in the L.A. Weekly as "the most reactionary institution in L.A." A top administrator accused him of slander, and the job was given to someone else.
Even when his extracurricular politics are not the issue, Davis's pedagogical practices might well cause a university to think twice about tenuring him. Once, while teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, he devised an experiment to prove that one could feel reasonably safe in any neighborhood in L.A. in the middle of the night. One of his students, a crown prince of Fiji, decided to test this idea in Hollywood. There he met a handful of drug dealers, and they ended up having a marvelous time--until they were jumped by another group of dealers, who stabbed and nearly killed the prince. Davis recalls: "When I visited him in the hospital, I told him how sorry I was, but he said, 'No, Mike, I'll never be able to thank you for this. I would never have experienced anything like it in Fiji.'" Even so, Davis was almost fired over the incident. "I had to lie low for a while after that," he says with a smile.
Though Davis may have become an angry messenger from the streets of L.A., he doesn't originally hail from the city. "I'm a white, middle-aged working-class guy who grew up in the far outer suburbs that turn out into the desert," he says. "That's my existential relation to the metropolis."
Davis was born in the dusty California town of Fontana in 1946. (The same year, a group of Fontanan motorcyclists founded the Hell's Angels.) The Fontana of Davis's childhood wasn't paradise, but there were plenty of decent jobs in Henry Kaiser's steel mill and in trucking. The unions were strong, and management relatively liberal. Mike's father, Dwight Davis, worked in town as a meat cutter. Fontana looms large in the Davis imagination, largely as a place of lost possibilities: Over the ensuing years, Fontana's steel industry was gutted, and what replaced it were inflated land prices and untrammeled development. Indeed, remembering the fate of his hometown inspires Davis to turn toward extravagant metaphors of disaster. As he wrote in the final chapter of City of Quartz, "The former primary steelworks itself looks like Dresden, Hiroshima, or perhaps the most fitting image, Tokyo in April 1945 after three months of concentrated fire-bombing with Kaiser-made 'goop.'"
Davis's family eventually moved to Bostonia, a hamlet east of San Diego—and the crucible for the writer's catastrophist sensibility. A number of residents of this military town imagined themselves on the brink of annihilation, thanks to rumors spread by the John Birch Society that an elite unit of Chinese troops on the Mexican border was poised to invade San Diego. On the weekends, families would go to the Marine recruiting depot to hear fiery anticommunist oratory and watch soldiers toss flamethrowers into the sky. Davis joined the Devil Pups (the Marines' answer to the Boy Scouts) and counted the days before he would "go somewhere in Asia to kill people." For a while, he was "a real Cold War fanatic."
When a heart attack left Davis's father temporarily disabled, his mother took her sixteen-year-old son out of school and put him to work at the Bostonia meat factory. And there he might have stayed had it not been for a black civil rights activist named Jim Stone.
The husband of Davis's cousin Carol, Stone cut a bold, charismatic figure. In 1962 Davis accompanied Stone to a demonstration against the all-white San Diego branch of the Bank of America. It was a kind of conversion experience conducted under the most harrowing conditions. "A group of redneck sailors drenched us with lighter fluid, and one of the guys started flicking his lighter," he recalls. Under Stone's tutelage, Davis transformed himself into a political activist, working at the San Diego offices of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He finished high school and landed a full scholarship to Reed College.
His stay in Oregon, however, was short and unhappy. Painfully aware of being a working-class kid among the children of doctors and lawyers, he became belligerent, ultimately getting himself expelled for living illegally in his girlfriend's dorm. So Davis returned to full-time activism. In 1964 he joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), spending the next three years organizing sit-ins and protests on the West Coast. As the Vietnam War escalated, he grew further radicalized, eventually joining the Communist Party. For nearly two years, he managed the party's bookstore in L.A., not far from FBI headquarters.
In 1969, after being fired by Dorothy Healey, the regional party leader, for hounding the Russian cultural attaché out of the store--Davis despised the Soviets and didn't like them snooping around--he enrolled in a teamsters' opportunity program. For the next four years, he hauled 240-foot trailers filled with Barbie dolls out of L.A., acquiring an encyclopedic knowledge of the city as well as of Western geography. In his spare time, he tried to master Marx's Capital and Sartre's Search for a Method and paid visits to Herbert Marcuse. Fellow left-wing truckers were rather hard to come by. "At night we'd go out to topless bars, and I'd blurt out, 'I'm a communist,' and they'd say, 'Dick's a Jehovah's Witness. Let's have another drink.'"
One day, Davis decided he had had enough and that he wanted to resume his education. A particularly jolting experience clinched his decision. "I had this job with a bus-tour company when suddenly this insanely violent strike broke out. A strikebreaker ran a bus over one of our guys, and next thing I knew I was in a room with forty guys voting on whether each of us is gonna put up $400 to hire a hit man to kill the head of the strikebreakers. I said, 'Hey, guys, this is just crazy,' and made the best speech of my life. I was outvoted thirty-nine to one. I thought to myself, 'Typical American workers'; I think I said 'pussies.' Instead of coming up with a political strategy, they reach for their guns as soon as they see a scab driving their bus. And here I am about to become a freshman at UCLA, and I'm going to get arrested for criminal conspiracy." Ironically, Davis was saved by the L.A. Police Department, which apprehended the hit men for drunk driving and seized their guns. The Westwood campus started to look like a pretty good alternative to trucking, given the dues the Teamsters union seemed to require of its members.
As always, though, Davis grew restless. After three years at UCLA, he packed his bags for Scotland on a fellowship to study Irish history. He was soon dividing his time among London, Edinburgh, and Belfast—conducting research and agitating for the independence of Northern Ireland. But what set his intellectual career in motion was falling in with a small but brilliant circle of European Marxists gathered around the New Left Review. Through his association with the Fourth International, a Trotskyist group, Davis met NLR editor Perry Anderson, who had just published Lineages of the Absolutist State, a magisterial history of European monarchies. Though Anderson's aristocratic background couldn't have been more distant from Davis's own, Robin Blackburn, the current NLR editor, recalls that they seemed kindred spirits, both possessing "this gift for mapping large trends." When Davis returned to complete his bachelor's at UCLA and begin graduate study in history, he kept in close contact with Anderson. Finally, after reading Davis's erudite essay on the Regulation School, a group of French Marxist economists, Anderson offered Davis a full-time position at NLR.
From 1980 to 1986, Davis worked out of the journal's London offices. He read voraciously. He established the Haymarket Series of Verso, NLR's publisher, specializing in radical studies of North American politics and culture. And he began publishing chapters of his first book, an acerbic analysis of the American working class from the early nineteenth century to the Reagan years.
Published by Verso in 1986, and dedicated to El Salvador's guerrilla army, Prisoners of the American Dream was like a grenade thrown at the New Labor History pioneered by Herbert Gutman. Where the Gutmanites piously stressed the valiant resistance of American workers to capitalist power, Davis distinguished himself as the great antisentimentalist. American workers had indeed shown extraordinary militancy, but the more important fact was that they had almost nothing to show for it. Splintered by racial and ethno-religious divisions, confronted by an exceptionally large middle class, and lacking a social democratic party, the American labor movement had drifted from one defeat to the next, "disarmed...before the challenges and battles of the following period." Reaganism's successful assault on labor was the grim coda to this dirge.
It was only fitting that Davis should find his calling as a critic of Reaganism. According to his friend, writer Barry Sanders, "Mike had always been preparing for the worst." Now it had arrived. "In 1980, the worst nightmares of the American left appeared to come true," Davis wrote. "Like some shaggy beast of the apocalypse, Reaganism hunkered out of the Sunbelt, devouring liberal senators and Great Society programs in its path." In an analysis of Reaganism's social base, Davis argued that a "protean 'broad right,'" backed by open-shop Sun Belt corporations and affluent homeowners, would decisively reshape American politics. The neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council would conquer the Democratic Party, while the Republican Party would adopt the "high-growth, pro-entrepreneurial platform of Kemp and Gingrich." But for all his prescience, Davis occasionally let his apocalyptic streak, and his love of incendiary metaphor, run wild, as in his vision of a future "American West Bank of terrorized illegal laborers."
Although Prisoners received overwhelmingly favorable reviews in historical journals and the left press, it drew sharp criticism for presenting a closed and bleak universe that seemed almost wholly resistant to reform. In an otherwise laudatory review in The Nation, Yale labor historian David Montgomery asked, "What role are the prisoners to play in their own liberation?" At the offices of NLR, some had a similar reaction. "Mike is an exceptionally astute analyst of the enemy, but if I were an American trade union leader I wouldn't go to him to ask which way forward," editorial board member Tariq Ali told me.
By and large, however, the NLR board was elated to have a precocious American—better yet, a precocious working-class American—wash up on its shores. "Marxists have long had this feeling that America shows us our future," explains Blackburn. "Mike's very robust, American working-class style further contributed to his charm." Yet, as even this circumspect editor concedes, "tact wasn't his strong suit." Some staffers thought Davis exploited his background. "Mike could be psychotic. He was very in-your-face about his identity," says a former NLR editor. As Davis himself admits, "I've always had a sort of truck-stop attitude toward effete intellectuals."
Among the first to feel its blows was Marxist literary critic par excellence Fredric Jameson. In his classic 1984 article, "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," Jameson had breathlessly described L.A.'s Hotel Bonaventure as the archetypal postmodern structure. Its multiple entryways, elevated gardens, and glass mirrored surfaces formed a delirious "hyperspace," inciting those who entered it to "expand our sensorium." While noting in passing that the hotel's glass skin "repels the city outside," Jameson breezily praised the hotel as "a popular building, visited with enthusiasm by locals and tourists alike." Davis's response was unsparing: "To speak of its 'popular' character is to miss the point of its systematic segregation from the great Hispanic-Asian city outside," he thundered in NLR (where Jameson's essay had also appeared). Cutting through Jameson's theoretical haze, Davis emphasized the "smog-poisoned reality" outside and described the hotel as part of an ominous trend of "large vivariums for the upper middle classes, protected by astonishingly complex security systems." (In the endnotes to his 1991 book, Postmodernism, Jameson curtly dismissed Davis as "characteristic of the more 'militant' sounds from the Left.")
Davis's confrontational pose made for an unusually anxious workplace. At one NLR meeting, he stunned his audience into silence with the letter he had sent to Eugene Genovese, who had complained of being spurned by the journal: "Dear Professor Genovese, Fuck you." Then there was Davis's terrifying collection of pets. The centerpiece of the office was his atrarium, filled with a garter snake, an axolotl, and a carnivorous African toad. At an explosive moment toward the end of his tenure, recalled by everyone who witnessed it, Davis spilled his reptiles onto the office's lush carpet.
When I ask Davis about this, he strikes a remorseful note. "If anyone was guilty of wild or outrageous behavior, it was me," he concedes. In the end, though, he says he never felt a part of the Etonian clique around the journal: "Ultimately you couldn't really understand these guys unless you'd taken showers with them when you were ten." He longed to go home.
In 1987 Mike Davis returned to L.A. He took a job as a trucker again, this time for a high-end furniture company. There was no union, and wages had declined. "I felt like a sharecropper on the interstate," he says. "The industry had regressed to the conditions of the Thirties." To supplement his income, Davis picked up a few teaching positions at local colleges. He also began work on a manuscript arguing that the California gold rush was "the only successful revolution of 1848." The manuscript was lost—"that's what happens when you move too much"—and he ended up writing City of Quartz instead.
The idea for City of Quartz had been germinating for years. "I had this daydream of Walter Benjamin finally coming to L.A. and sitting in a bar with Fernand Braudel and Friedrich Engels. They decide to write a book about L.A. and divide it into three projects. Benjamin is going to get at all the complex and lucid fragments about power and memory. Braudel will explore its natural history, the larger world-historical forces that made it possible. And Engels will report on L.A.'s working classes." City of Quartz was to be the first volume in this "imaginary trilogy." The title came from a poem written by Davis's old SDS comrade Todd Gitlin, who "compared political struggle to quartz, hard and sharp. I thought it applied better to L.A., because it implied something that looks like diamond but is really cheap, translucent but nothing can be seen in it."
City of Quartz began by looking at Los Angeles "from the ruins of its alternative future"—the community of Llano del Río, a turn-of-the-century socialist commune in the Mojave Desert. Davis did not seriously entertain the idea that Llano del Río represented a plausible future. If anything, his choice of this short-lived experiment made contemporary L.A. seem an all but foregone conclusion. But the conceit held up an unforgiving mirror to the behemoth that L.A. had become: a "carceral city" of swelling black and immigrant poverty, prisons filled to capacity, and capitalist mansions defended by sinister new forms of public and private security.
Since the early Eighties, urban geographers with an interest in L.A.'s emergence as a center of international capital and immigration had been mapping these divisions. Indeed, there arose a whole school of radical L.A. geography, one of whose members likened the city to Jorge Luis Borges's Aleph, "a limitless space of simultaneity and paradox, impossible to describe in less than extraordinary language." The L.A. School's edge was blunted, however, by its never less than cryptic prose, which only planners and poststructuralists could untangle. Much of what Davis did was translate these approaches into vibrant English and infuse them with reportorial flair and a sense of throbbing immediacy.
Indeed, at a time when many leftist writers were embroiled in increasingly arcane debates about the nature of postmodernism, Davis's hard-nosed treatment of gang warfare, police brutality, NIMBY protests, and the machinations of real-estate moguls satisfied a craving on the left for reportage grounded in a sense of lived reality. As urban theorist Marshall Berman put it in his Nation review, City of Quartz was "Marxist in a refreshingly archaic way." Moreover, the Dantean portrait Davis drew of the city was calculated to resonate beyond its sprawling borders. Just as Llano del Río was a stand-in for collectivist yearnings, so L.A. was a metaphor for all that had gone wrong in urban America since the disintegration of the Great Society. Of course, Davis's take on L.A. was not wholly original. In 1946 his hero, the Southern California chronicler Carey McWilliams, had sorrowfully described L.A. as an "archipelago of social and ethnic islands, economically interrelated but culturally disparate." But a quarter century after the defeat of segregation, Davis's frank discussion of "spatial apartheid" spoke with eloquent directness to the gnawing sense among his readers that class and racial cleavages had widened, that shared public space was disappearing, and that inner cities were becoming cauldrons of discontent. "City of Quartz fed into a kind of left-liberal guilt, because Mike was saying a lot of things that people felt but were afraid to say," explains UCLA's Ed Soja.
Davis further distinguished himself from his fellow geographers by writing compellingly about California noir novels and films, rap and avant-garde jazz, and, most memorably, architecture. He contended that L.A.'s trendiest postmodern edifices were high-security fortresses--their aesthetic performing the same bullying function as the ubiquitous armed response signs on Brentwood lawns. What's more, he heaped scorn on the work of Frank Gehry, the most outspokenly left-wing of local architects and a fellow son of working-class parents. Gehry's Goldwyn Library in Spanish Hollywood, "is undoubtedly the most menacing library ever built," Davis wrote. "With its fifteen-foot security walls of stucco-covered concrete block, its anti-graffiti barricades covered in ceramic tiles, the Goldwyn Library...projects the same kind of macho exaggeration as Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum." Ironically, Davis's audacious theory of architecture as class-warfare-by-other-means made waves in an art world that had embraced Gehry's own, very different brand of swagger. Since City of Quartz, Davis has participated in Documenta, written regularly for the SoHo quarterly Grand Street, and become the main attraction, along with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, of Voyager's Radical Urban Theory Web site.
City of Quartz received scant criticism—too little, says Davis. According to Ed Soja, Davis's geographer peers felt cowed by his access to blue-collar life and his activist credentials. "Mike was able to kind of tweak this longing, this envy among university academics, who often feel they inhabit an iron cage," Soja tells me. "His image was so attractive it made criticism of the book seem unappealing."
But Davis's Marxist-noir vision of L.A. did find some detractors. Joel Kotkin, a leading L.A. booster at Pepperdine's business school and author of Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Family Determine Success in the New Global Economy, has lambasted Davis as "the poster boy for a New York left that hates Los Angeles." In his view, Davis's despairing opinion of L.A.'s prospects was all wrong: "Davis should go to Detroit, where he'd really have something to write about." Similarly, in a New York Times review of City of Quartz titled, "If This Is Hell, Why Is It So Popular?" historian Bryce Nelson noted that many of the "millions of newcomers to Los Angeles...are even glad that they moved there." For all his praise, Marshall Berman closed his Nation review with a cautionary note, reminding Davis that "radical jeremiads against L.A....have always been incorporated into the city's official mythology."
So it was with Davis. Even though City of Quartz explicitly distanced itself from dystopian visions that "glamorize the very reality they would deconstruct," the city's culture industry devoured it nonetheless. It was avidly read—or perhaps misread—by people indifferent to his political vision. He was invited to speak at luncheons before rich old ladies; he was courted by the union-busting L.A. Times. He felt "foisted on his petard." Yet the astounding thing is not that it happened but that Davis was surprised it did. He either underestimated what he called the "city myth," or overestimated the lone writer's ability to resist it, or some combination of the two. Whatever the case, Davis attempted to nip his stardom in the bud—often in ways that, ironically, caused it to flower. He became notorious for not showing up at speaking appointments and engaged in antics that fed into his bad boy reputation. One colleague sighs, "Mike's like the child in whom you take the most pride but despair of ever doing the normal thing. As he's grown more successful, his need to be at the margins has increased, and the only way to do that is through these weird acts of disappearance."
But Davis did not vanish. He merely sought different company. He strengthened his ties to a network of L.A. labor activists, from Maria Elena Durazo of Local 11, the hotel workers' union, to Eric Mann of the Labor-Community Strategy Center. He met with black and Latino writers like Lynell George and Ruben Martinez and cultivated them as authors for the Haymarket Series. And, most controversially, he became a mentor to young gang members.
Even though City of Quartz featured a scorching critique of the LAPD's campaign against "L.A.'s Viet Cong," the book ultimately came down hard on the Crips and the Bloods. Davis excoriated the gangs as pitiless ghetto Reaganites, "the modern analogues to the 'gunpowder states' of West Africa." In the early Nineties, Davis came to reassess his harsh view of the gangs as he befriended a Crip leader named Dewayne Holmes, the son of Davis's friend Theresa Allison, a South Central activist. Meeting Holmes in 1991, Davis was immediately struck by "the qualities that established him as a leader at a very young age—his modesty and sweetness." At the time, the twenty-four-year-old Crip was cobbling together a truce with the Bloods in the Imperial Courts project. Before long, Davis took on the role of informal adviser to Holmes and his peers. "Mike helped us to contextualize our struggle, to get at the underlying problems and causes of crime and poverty," Holmes explained to me. Around the same time, a group of Crips and Bloods started to wage what Davis has praised as a "lonely crusade to make jobs--and not more cops--the central issue in local politics." Three days before the Rodney King verdict, Dewayne Holmes sealed a historic truce with the Bloods.
Since then, no cause has touched Davis more profoundly than the peace process. He has become a passionate advocate for California Senate Bill 980, which would authorize a Peace Process Task Force to oversee gang truces. Leading the effort is none other than Dewayne Holmes, who now works as a staffer in Tom Hayden's office. The bill has a groundswell of support, since the truces are widely credited with reducing violence. As Davis exclaims to me one evening, "Senate Bill 980 is one of the most progressive things to come along in a while. These gangs need positive reinforcement and recognition for their efforts."
Joel Kotkin sees romantic illusions about the lumpenproletariat in Davis's association with the gangs. "I don't see the gangs as junior revolutionaries, and the city should have zero tolerance for them," Kotkin says. Davis's writing on gangs has not always been temperate. In a buoyant appraisal of the gangs' proposal to rebuild L.A. in NLR, Davis wrote of the truce leaders as "social democrats." I ask him whether some of them were also in the business of selling crack. Yes, he says, but that isn't the important point. "What people on the outside don't grasp is that the kids involved understand their circumstances better than anyone else. What they're saying is we can produce a truce, but we can't do anything about the crack economy until you provide jobs and alternative economic resources."
It was a bit strange to hear Davis defending the wisdom of gang members. A few hours earlier, he had spoken poignantly of his growing doubts about revolutionary violence and of his turn toward feminism. "As I became a parent, I started to think about the masculinization of revolution, and I started to think that the position that socialism has to take instead is that of mothers. Too much of the history of revolutions has been the calculations of young men and a failure to understand the consequences of this for women and children." Now, a few hours later, he seemed to side with the gangs—or had these angry young men assumed the position of the mother by exchanging their guns for the olive branch?
Perhaps Davis was expressing a war correspondent's weariness. Despite his anxieties about public exposure, he had been thrust into the spotlight by the April 1992 riots, which starkly confirmed City of Quartz's vision of a "whole generation...being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon." The man who had predicted the upheaval seemed, after all, like the ideal person to explain it. And for a while, he did just that in the pages of The Nation and NLR. The riots, he argued, were a "referendum on the fate of American big cities," a raw protest against federal disinvestment, welfare cuts, and deteriorating services. He had a contract for a book on the riots, a neighborhood-by-neighborhood account that would reveal the complexity of this first multiracial uprising. Then, one day, he decided he could not write it.
In part, Davis felt that members of the community, rather than a white intellectual, should tell their story. And yet he had deeper reasons for abandoning the project. Davis had entered the lives of his subjects, and the idea of being the outside world's informant agonized him. "I knew Georgiana Williams, whose son Damon almost killed Reginald Denny," Davis tells me. "I knew their whole story, and I think I had a very powerful concept for a book that would have been a best-seller in the hands of a Jonathan Kozol. But mentally I couldn't handle it, I was too close. And I was ultimately just sickened by dead teenagers in L.A. I didn't want to live with it twenty-four hours a day." As teenage corpses piled up on television screens, providing a freakishly morbid frisson in people's living rooms, Davis grew wary of "documentary intrusion into people's suffering." He recalls: "I was sitting in Dublin one New Year's Eve watching the Sky Channel, when suddenly this image comes up: It's the LAPD chasing kids in Imperial Courts, where Dewayne Holmes used to live. The plight of the inner city was being turned into an electronic gladiatorial arena."
Urban blight has become, furthermore, an almost mundane spectacle rather than a premonition of future riots. L.A.'s power brokers—and a number of its citizens--are in a happier frame of mind than they were five years ago. After all, the economy has been on the rebound since the devastating 19901992 recession. The aerospace industry has ceased to shrink, and light manufacturing and film have created some new jobs. The city has twice elected Richard Riordan, a Republican multimillionaire, as mayor, most recently against a progressive challenger, Tom Hayden. On April 12 of this year, The Economist ran an article under the headline a little more like angels, saluting Riordan's victory and portraying Angelenos as "eager for another round of vigorous growth." According to Joel Kotkin, who is riding the wave of the recovery story, Davis has been upstaged. "Mike's fortunes rise and fall with how widely accepted the catastrophic view of L.A. is. During the Depression, Stalin looked very attractive. After the war recovery, he did not. Mike can't make or break L.A. But, frankly, if we lost all our left-wing social scientists, our growth rate would increase by 5 percent."
Davis is not about to give up catastrophism because of today's hype, however. Voter turnout in the last mayoral election plummeted to 20 percent, a historic low; youth unemployment in South Central stands at 30 percent; and the prisons are running, Davis quips, "on automatic pilot." It's a matter of time, he says, before "we see a huge new explosion of poverty," and probably worse.
But the greatest dangers, according to Davis's new work, are the ones coming from nature. The Ecology of Fear was inspired by the floods, fires, and earthquakes of 1992-1994. "I found something I was far happier doing," he explains, "because I was so exhausted from writing despairing things about L.A." This shift in mood is mirrored, sometimes alarmingly, in the book. It is not always clear whether the catastrophist is writing to avoid or to greet tomorrow's natural disasters.
With its elegiac protest against the frenzy of free-market development, The Ecology of Fear at times resembles a green sequel to City of Quartz. In one chapter, "How Eden Lost Its Garden," Davis looks back on the defeated report of the Citizens' Committee on Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches, which proposed to protect floodplains and hillsides from real-estate speculation and to expand recreational facilities in working-class urban neighborhoods. According to Davis, the 1930 report is "a window into a lost future." Just at the moment when a "vigorous social democracy of beaches and playgrounds" might have bloomed, Southern California governments allowed cities to fall into disrepair while lavishly subsidizing private, affluent "firebelts"—Davis's term for suburban communities knowingly established in wildfire corridors. By allowing real-estate interests and homeowners to call the shots, Southern California "has reaped flood, fire and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, and unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets." According to Davis, there's a clear solution: End all further development, and create a green city.
Yet there's a twist. Southern California, Davis argues, lacks the stable ecosystem that many environmentalists take for granted. He conjures up a "revolutionary, not a reformist landscape," one where floods, droughts, and other disasters are the "ordinary agents" of landscape and climatic change. "One of the points I'm trying to make in the book," he tells me, "is that Southern California was urbanized in one of the most anomalously benign periods in the last five thousand years." How much time do we have before the next round of disasters reduces the L.A. lifestyle to ruins? "You could get fifty or one hundred more years, but very few seismologists believe this will continue."
Davis, long an enthusiastic reader of natural history, has emerged as a committed partisan of scientific neo-catastrophism. This increasingly influential school of thought has dealt a powerful blow to the uniformitarian theory of gradual, continuous evolution by demonstrating that extreme, sudden events may spark spectacular shifts in both geological and natural history. The opening salvo against uniformitarianism was launched by theorists of plate tectonics, who saw the hand of undersea volcanoes and other violent mechanisms of change in the earth's design. But plate tectonics still retained the notion of the earth as a "closed system"—thereby inviting the more radical effort to bridge the gap between geology and astronomy. Following the lead of UC-Berkeley geologist Walter Alvarez, who discovered a hundred-mile-wide crater in the Yucatán, the so-called coherent catastrophists have suggested that asteroid impacts may be responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs as well as other cataclysms.
What attracted Davis to neo-catastrophism? The answer, it turns out, was political. "When you look at the actual history of capitalism, it is not economic crises but wars that are truly decisive. I started to think, what would have been the consequences for historical materialism if you took seriously the idea that the Axis could have won? What kind of mode of production would have been established? Marx and Engels believed that at the end of the day force couldn't just hijack the trajectory of history. I think that it can. I think that if the Axis had won history would have been deflected into a whole set of bizarre permutations, possibly back into a period of darkness. Since I was also reading natural history and earth sciences at the time, I became especially interested in neo-catastrophism, which represents a kind of downfall of systems theory and a turn toward unique events and to radical contingency and chaos."
Given his fascination with political upheavals, it's not altogether surprising that Davis would seek their equivalents in nature. But he has gone even further. In a recent tribute to neo-catastrophism in NLR, he suggested that asteroids may have played an important role in the course of human history itself. Noting the claims of two Austrian scientists that biblical floods were caused by "seven large cometary fragments [that] struck the ocean nearly ten millennia ago," he mused that impact craters might be "the functional equivalents of wars and revolutions in human history." Davis's larger point was that the earth is not a closed system: Its history, and the history of its inhabitants, can only be understood in relation to that of the universe. Along with many scientists, he believes the paths of global and galactic history may be due to cross in the future—possibly with dramatic results. At times, he even seems to relish the more cinematic hypotheses of extraterrestrial collision, especially those close to home: "A 500-meter-diameter asteroid impact in the Pacific, say 1,000 kilometers off the coast of Los Angeles, could produce a tsunami several kilometers in height."
Such talk may appeal to fans of disaster scenarios, but it's certain to alienate some Davis admirers. "I'm a bit puzzled by the turn to millennial catastrophism," Tariq Ali says. "I mean, the planet could, I suppose, be destroyed by asteroids, but hasn't that always been the case? Meanwhile, Mike should be studying politics and geography instead of this they'll-come-from-outer-space stuff." The remarkable balance between grassroots reporting and prophetic tropes that Davis achieved in City of Quartz may be sliding, like some tectonic plate, in favor of the latter.
Then again, if L.A. does fall off the face of the earth within the next fifty years, Davis doesn't plan to be around to witness it. He wants to leave L.A. some day—and move to Butte, Montana. Once a mecca of copper mines and labor socialism, Butte is now one of the sad, hollowed-out corners of the industrial West that locals yearn to escape. But Davis, who discovered Butte with his young daughter while on a trip across the four hundred miles of the Pony Express route, dreams of retiring there. "I just love these places everyone thinks of as the armpits of the world," he says one evening. Davis then shows me a series of photographs he took recently in Montana. "The first thing you see upon entering Butte is the Socialist Hall," he says, pointing proudly to a turn-of-the-century building on a vacant street.
One could see why he was attracted to these ruins of the industrial age, but why would he want to live there? "Fontana, where I was born, is a lot like Butte," he explains. But unlike the Fontana of his childhood, socialist Butte was left to decay in peace, dodging the developers' onrushing bulldozers. The Socialist Hall might be empty, but it still offers shelter from the gathering storms of catastrophe. Some may see, in Davis's pilgrimage, a nostalgia for robust working-class cultures of the past, others an anticipation of convulsions to come. In Davis's imagination, the two have always gone hand in hand.
Originally published in Lingua Franca, Vol. 7, No. 7 - September 1997. Published with the kind permission of Adam Shatz and Mike Davis.