Mike Davis, Los Angeles and the sins of capitalism
“Los Angeles is the Great Gatsby of American cities,” wrote Kevin Starr, the chronicler of California history and former state librarian, many years ago. The City of Angels has of course famously been the destination of those who wished to reinvent themselves for over a century now, but the region itself also has a certain aptitude for erasing its own past and revitalizing its myth. And it remains an optimistic place. The title of a 1991 review by Bryce Nelson in The New York Times of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles perhaps said it best: “If This Is Hell, Why Is It So Popular?”
Bryce Nelson wasn’t a big fan of Mike Davis, and Mike Davis wasn’t a big fan of Kevin Starr, in part because Davis felt Starr’s multi-volume history of California, "Americans and the California Dream,” painted far too rosy a picture of the state and its largest city—and of the troubled history of both. An urban sociologist born and raised in Southern California (yes, there are some of us who are actually from there), Davis first rose to prominence with 1990’s City of Quartz.
In City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis painted dark portraits of a megalopolis ruled by paranoia and balkanization.
Sean Dempsey, S.J., wrote in America in 2020 that City of Quartz “reads like social history filtered through the febrile imagination of a sci-fi novelist. This was clearly no accident, as two of Davis’s subjects, Carey McWilliams, the leftist author of several works of Southern California history, and Philip K. Dick, the Los Angeles-based writer who is most remembered for his dystopian visions of the city in the film ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), were also clear inspirations.” Davis’s many other books include Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998), Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City (2000) and 2020’s Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.
The online media journal Boom California once called Davis the “chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade.” In City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, Davis painted dark portraits of a megalopolis ruled by paranoia and balkanization, an archipelago of gated white communities in a vast sea of underprivileged people of color and immigrants struggling to find housing, jobs and a piece of the California dream. Historians and sociologists ever since have had to reckon with Davis’s portrayals and conclusions, even if he remains a polarizing figure.
While he is no booster for Southern California in its current form (in the words of the aforementioned Bryce Nelson, “Los Angeles is Mr. Davis’s ideal whipping boy for all the sins of capitalism”), Davis has said that readers should not be disheartened by his books on Los Angeles: “They’re just impassioned polemics on the necessity of the urban left.” A more optimistic study was Magical Urbanism, which noted the (often ignored) ways in which Latino migration was revitalizing American urban life. “This demographic explosion has an ongoing impact on the design of major U.S. cities,” wrote John Coleman, S.J., in a 2000 review for America. “Davis contends that Hispanics (who prize home-owning and frequently merge mortgages across multiple owners to achieve it) are bringing redemptive energy to neglected and worn-out spaces in the core of our cities.”
Bryce Nelson: “Los Angeles is Mr. Davis’s ideal whipping boy for all the sins of capitalism.”
While Davis focused on political coalitions and sociological factors, Coleman noted that Magical Urbanism could be valuable for Catholic social service agencies as well. “For Catholic readers who rhetorically evoke a preferential option for the poor, Davis provides a needed focus on where to put one’s energies. Apart from jobs,” Coleman wrote, “the vital public resources for the working poor are education, health care and transit. These need to become the chosen goals, as well, of our big-city diocesan parishes, Catholic Charities agencies and social justice commissions.”
The “radical Los Angeles” of the 1960s is the focus of 2020’s Set the Night on Fire, which Davis co-authored with Jon Wiener. “Instead of watering holes and and the Playboy Mansion, our guides to the city take us to college campuses at the height of the antiwar movement, to the streets of Watts on the brink of uprising, and to the churches and meeting halls where the fight for gay rights began,” wrote Sean Dempsey, S.J., in a 2020 review for America. “In propulsive prose and vivid historical vignettes, Davis and Wiener narrate a near-mythic history of radical Los Angeles, a movement that they contend planted the seeds for an as-yet-unrealized revolution.”
“Together, Davis and Wiener have crafted a book that is both encyclopedic and prophetic, scholarly and polemical,” Dempsey continued. “The omnivorous quality of the book makes it the most complete single volume on the history of radical politics in the city in any time period.”
However, Dempsey found the book lacking in important ways. “Davis and Wiener’s attention to the movement’s public actions, from street protests and civil violence to school walkouts and radical political advocacy, also runs the risk of erasing quieter forms of resistance and struggle,” Dempsey continued. “My own research on Los Angeles has revealed that the city’s many churches and other faith communities were also centers of these less obvious, but no less vital, struggles for dignity and equality among the city’s most marginalized citizens.”
Despite these flaws, Dempsey concluded, “Set the Night on Fire will be an indispensable resource for scholars and activists interested in radical politics in Los Angeles for years to come. Indeed, Davis and Wiener call for a new generation to ‘enlarge and revise’ the histories recounted in the book and, in the process, bring a new, more just Los Angeles into being.”
On another note: Today we are delighted to announce the winner of the 2022 Foley Poetry Contest: Lisa Mullenneaux, for her poem “In Copenhagen.” Congratulations! Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.
"Set the Night on Fire will be an indispensable resource for scholars and activists interested in radical politics in Los Angeles for years to come."
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
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James T. Keane