On a recent evening, urban theorist Mike Davis brought his battered Toyota to a halt in the hills of the Beaudry Temple neighborhood north of downtown Los Angles. In this area of poverty-scarred bungalows awaiting the developers’ wrecking ball, residents were gathered in a makeshift cluster of chairs. Like observers at a silent spectacle, they faced the glittering wall of Bunker Hill skyscrapers--30 million square feet of new real estate illuminated before them.
The scene, which appeared as apocalyptic to Davis, embodies his view of Los Angeles as a city of social polarization, promoting its glamorous upside and largely ignoring its huge underbelly of ethnic poverty.
In his book, “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” (Verso), published last month, Davis describes a lustrous, sharp-edged, opaque metropolis that, like quartz, is capable of inflicting pain, especially on its dispossessed.
From the city’s early 20th-Century “boosters” to the contemporary corporate patrons of a “Manhattanized” culture and skyline, from the Westside “Gucci Gulch” to the suburbanized working classes clinging to the outer edges of the megalopolis, he chronicles the social forces behind the would-be utopia and its opposite image, a dystopia.
A radical populist who became a Marxist in the ‘60s after reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy, “Roads to Freedom,” Davis sees the gaping class disparities as a rift that will cleave the city, unless the poor can become productive members of a working class. “It seems impossible to imagine Los Angles getting better, even though it’s been merchandised as a utopia for several generations,” he says, talking upstairs at Philippe’s, one of the city’s more democratic delicatessens, where a cup of coffee still costs a dime. Unions have been meeting in the plain beige room, with its rows of wood tables and small worn stools, since the letter carriers from the old central post office across the street began assembling here in the ‘30s.
Sipping coffee from a mug, Davis speaks with the disciplined passion of the committed intellectual. At 44, he has bowl-cut hair that falls in a saw-toothed fringe over his forehead, and is dressed in a respectably worn crew-neck sweater and jeans.
In terms of urban and social problems, he says, Los Angeles is at ground zero. “It’s going against the grain of the new celebrations of itself.” The city that received international kudos as home to the 1984 Summer Olympic Games and the Los Angeles Festival is, in his view, better portrayed in a bumper crop of popular movies and books, from “Blade Runner” to “Repo Man.”
In “Report 2000,” Mayor Tom Bradley’s 1988 commissioned study of Los Angeles’ future, “the city is assumed to be a perpetual motion machine,” Davis says. The report pictures the economy as “a happy black box generating eternal ways to prosperity.”
Even in the eyes of some liberal academics, he says, “there aren’t any victims. There are just ethnic entrepreneurs on the first rung of the ladder.
“What we’re going to find out in short order is that for tens of thousands of people, there’s only one rung of the ladder. There’s no place to climb up.”
Government, Davis believes, has failed to invest in a social infrastructure, including education and health care, to accommodate the new immigrants to Southern California. Also, unlike the Europeans who arrived on the East Coast during the waves of turn-of-the-century immigration, L.A.'s immigrants are trapped in low-productivity jobs.
While the Italians, Poles and Irish labored in the steel and automotive industries, which were able to meet workers’ demands for increased pay, the immigrants of Los Angeles work in small, poorly capitalized manufacturing firms and service areas. “The symbol of the new immigrants’ struggle for union rights and higher wages has been the janitors,” Davis says, referring to the corps of primarily Latino sanitation workers, house cleaners, gardeners and waiters who tend the city’s affluent homes and restaurants.
However, for Davis, the long-range problem for the city will be joined to the lives of the second-generation immigrants. “The biggest question Los Angeles is going to face in the future is the fate of their children. What’s going to happen if there’s no mobility for these kids? This is a latent time bomb in L.A.”
More immediately, he predicts, the worsening economy will precipitate a social crisis for workers at the subsistance level. “The supply of cheap, deployable, exploitable labor here is super-saturated. Any downturn in the economy will lead to dramatic jumps in homelessness and absolute poverty.”
If Davis is mining the downside of the city’s history, his approach is a logical outgrowth of his own experience. When his maternal grandparents arrived in this country in the 1880s, he says, “They were Democrats within 10 minutes after they got out of Ellis Island. Probably 15 minutes after that, they joined a union.”
After his father lost his job as a railroad brakeman during the Depression, he and his wife hitchhiked to California from Ohio. Settling in El Cajon, in San Diego County, Davis’ father went into the wholesale meat business, becoming the founding member of his local branch of the meat-cutters union. With his earnings, the couple soon built a bungalow and planted a small avocado orchard on their property.
After high school and work for the Congress of Racial Equality and Students for a Democratic Society, Davis butchered meat for two years with his father. He then entered a program for disadvantaged youths, organized by the Teamsters Union, that trained him as a truck driver. For the next five years, he drove an 18-wheeler, hauling freight and toys.
At 28, with a scholarship from the meat-cutters union, Davis enrolled at UCLA, earning a degree in economic history and, during his academic career, spending a year at the University of Edinburgh. He wrote his thesis on the working class in Belfast and, after graduation, returned to live there and in London. For two years, he was the managing editor of the Marxist publication “The New Left Review,” and wrote his first book, “Prisoners of the American Dream,” an analysis of the political failure of the American labor movement and a study of the Reagan years.
Coming back to Los Angeles in 1986, he took up his present post of teaching urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Santa Monica, and for a time returned to truck driving.
“I got the full blast of what Reagan’s America was about,” he says of the psychological impact of his reintroduction to Southern California. Truckers’ wages had sunk far below levels he had previously earned, while his father, retired from the meat industry, had lost his pension and part of his medical coverage.
Turning his outrage into observation, Davis began studying the region’s urban history, reading decades’ worth of metropolitan and regional newspapers. Of particular interest to him was downtown Los Angeles, with its Bunker Hill redevelopment zone, jarringly separate from the rest of the city.
“Hill Street had become an intranscendable barrier.” To the west, “the city had spent millions of dollars creating a user-friendly environment for tourists and office workers. But everything east of Hill Street was a war zone. Black homeless men had been deprived even of that most elementary right, which is the right to public space, the right to a place to sit down, to urinate, to wash their faces. The city feared that if it offered any amenities to the homeless it would increase their attraction to downtown.”
But if downtown real estate had come to represent a great class divide, the city’s cultural institutions were emerging as the precincts of the wealthy (“Culture fertilizes real estate,” Davis notes in his book).
Heading the current cultural push are a number of imports from the East, who have “come to praise Caesar,” he writes. One of the most prominent is Peter Sellars, director of the Los Angeles Festival. Davis says Sellars expresses a “condescending enthusiasm” toward the city. “Perhaps I did him an injustice,” he allows. “Yet his attitude seemed to me to be indicative of the superficiality of the (colonialist) intelligentsia’s understanding of the city and the uncritical way in which they put themselves in the service of the culture acropolis and the real estate industry. I’m very critical of that celebration of Los Angeles.”
Davis is similarly critical of efforts of arts leaders to achieve cultural parity with New York. “That can only be a bogus identity. What New York has is not the Museum of Modern Art; New York has a huge patrimony of bohemians, of the avant-garde, who have made it a center of world culture.”
In Los Angeles, the exciting cultural activity is taking place outside the major institutions, he says, much of it in the impoverished inner city. It is these indigenous artists and writers living “outside the big endowments and academies” who will form the cultural future of the city. “I think in the next few years you’re going to hear a whole new set of voices.” They may only receive the scraps from the arts-funding table, but “that’s how good oppositional culture has to be created.”
Politically, Davis sees the city’s hope in a broad-based movement that would focus on the human rights of blue-collar working people and would support their right to organize unions, to bargain for better wages, to have better schools for their children and to benefit from universal health care. “Both the Democratic Party and the unions have put so little resources into helping people organize,” he says.
Davis, who lives with his second wife in Pasadena, fears “I’m being undone by my own book"--as an “L.A. basher.”
Indeed, he ends his book with the image of a ruthless capitalism bulldozing the past in Fontana, transforming the gritty, former steel-workers’ town into an insubstantial suburbia. But at the same time, he sees Fontana as a parable of a recalcitrant and ultimately unerasable culture.
“If there is any cliche I wanted to undo in the book it was that about the unsubstantiality of Los Angeles. Despite the best efforts of the city and developers, they can’t just expunge its blue-collar character. They can’t expunge the people.