Reading L.A.: Mike Davis, ‘City of Quartz’ and Southern California’s ‘spatial apartheid’


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When it comes to ‘City of Quartz,’ where to start?

Mike Davis’ 1990 attack on the rampant privatization and gated-community urbanism of Southern Calfornia -- what he calls the region’s ‘spatial apartheid’ -- is overwritten and shamelessly hyperbolic. It is prone to dark generalization and knee-jerk far-leftism (and I say that last part as somebody who grew up in Berkeley and recognizes knee-jerk far-leftism when he spies it). It is in desperate need of editing and -- as many have pointed out in the two decades since it appeared -- fact-checking. Its view of Los Angeles is bleak where it is not charred, sour where it is not curdled. Many of its sentences are so densely packed with self-regard and shadowy foreboding that they can be tough to pry open and fully understand.

Here’s a (perhaps unusually turgid) sample from Chapter 2, ‘Power Lines’: ‘In the genealogy that follows, I sketch a generational narrative of power elites framed within a tripartite periodization according to historically dominant modes of land development.... In this first century of Anglo rule, development remained fundamentally latifundian and ruling strata were organized as speculative land monopolies whose ultimate incarnation was the militarized power structure.’


As Bryce Nelson put it in reviewing the 462-page book for the New York Times, ‘It’s all a bit much.’

And yet for all its polemicism,’City of Quartz,’ the 12th title in our Reading L.A. series, is without question the most significant book on Los Angeles urbanism to appear since Reyner Banham’s ‘Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies’ was published in 1971. It earns its reputation as one of the three most important treatments of that subject ever written, joining ‘Four Ecologies’ and Carey McWilliams’ 1946 book ‘Southern California: An Island on the Land.’ Though Davis’ ‘Ecology of Fear,’ which appeared in 1999 and explored the inseparable links between Southern California and natural disaster, was a surprisingly potent follow-up, no book about Los Angeles since ‘Quartz’ has mattered as much.

Why? Simply put, ‘City of Quartz’ turns more than a century of mindless Los Angeles boosterism rudely, powerfully and entertainingly on its head. It is a bracing, often strident reality check, an examination of the ways in which the built environment in Southern California was by the 1980s increasingly controlled by a privileged coterie of real-estate developers, politicians and public-safety bureaucracies led by the LAPD. For all its warts, it is a book that needed to be written. Its era -- of trickle-down economics, of Gordon Gekko, of new corporate enclaves on Bunker Hill -- demanded it.

In fact, when the L.A. riots broke out in 1992, Davis appeared redeemed, the darkest corners of his thesis tragically validated. Davis won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 1998 and is now a professor (in the creative writing department!) at U.C. Riverside.

The strength and continuing appeal of ‘City of Quartz’ is not hard to understand, really: As McWilliams and Banham had before him, Davis set out to produce nothing less than a grand unified theory of Southern California urbanism, arguing that 1980s Los Angeles had become above all else a landscape of exclusion, a city in the midst of ‘a new class war ... at the level of the built environment.’

In a region as complex, layered and tough to fathom as ours, we reserve a special place in the canon for those writers brave enough to explain it all (or try to) in a single book. And even if Davis’ theory was plenty frayed along the edges, his (paradoxical) pessimistic enthusiasm for it -- the sheer fevered drama of his Cassandra-like warnings -- made it fresh and remarkably appealing.


Much of the book, after all, made obvious sense. It explained the battalions of helicopters churning overhead, the explosion not only of gated subdivisions but also of new skyscrapers and shopping centers thoroughly and ruthlessly detached from the life of the street. Not to mention, looking back a few years after it was published, the seeds of the Rodney King riots. And in those sections where Davis manages to do without the warmed-over Marxism and the academic tics, a lot of the writing is clear and persuasive.

Los Angeles, though, has changed markedly since the book appeared. It is fitfully trying to rediscover its public and shared spaces, and to build a comprehensive mass-transit system to thread them together. And if few of the designs for new parks and light-rail stations in L.A. have so far been particularly innovative, the massive, growing campaign to build them has made Davis’ altogether dark view of Los Angeles look nearly as out-of-date as Reyner Banham’s altogether sunny one. We are at the beginning of a period in which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, its coffers stuffed with $40 billion in Measure R transit funding, is poised to have a bigger effect on the built environment of Southern California than all the private developers combined. The City Council earlier this year passed a bicycle master plan, for goodness sake.

Yet Davis has barely stuck around to grapple with those shifts and what they mean for the arguments he laid out in ‘City of Quartz.’ The success of the book (and of ‘Ecology of Fear’) made him a global brand, at least in academic circles, and he has spent much of the last decade outsourcing himself to distant continents, taking his thesis about Los Angeles and applying it -- nearly unchanged -- to places as diverse as Dubai and the slums ringing the world’s megacities.

It’s too bad, really. Davis’ analysis of Dubai, his ideal subject, wasn’t just predictable; it practically wrote itself. I’d be much more intrigued to read his take on the unwieldy, slowly emerging post-suburban Los Angeles.


Reading L.A.: David Brodsly’s ‘L.A. Freeway’

Reading L.A.: A Reyner Banham classic turns 40

Reading L.A.: An update and a leap from 25 to 27

-- Christopher Hawthorne