COLUMN ONE : Dueling Prophets of Next L.A. : Mike Davis sees murky decay, while Kevin Starr embraces shiny optimism. This odd couple of historians is helping to shape the debate over the past--and future--of Southern California.
If the world has come to see Los Angeles as either hell or heaven--as a “Blade Runnerish” swamp of crime, race wars and economic devastation or a dynamic, multicultural cosmopolis--two of the people most responsible are historians Mike Davis and Kevin Starr.
Gangs, toxic waste, racial strife and a Neanderthal middle class fill Davis’ “City of Quartz,” a jeremiad on 20th-Century Los Angeles history that depicts the city as the ultimate gladiatorial arena of Darwinian capitalism.
Orange blossoms, red-tile bungalows and Pasadena literati abound in Starr’s “Material Dreams,” a history of Los Angeles in the 1920s that celebrates the entrepreneurial, Progressive foundations of this “Great Gatsby of American cities.”
When the two books came out in 1990, Davis groupies scorned Starr’s boosterism as unfashionably chipper. Many Starr fans dismissed Davis as a left-wing lunatic.
Then came the 1992 riots, and both authors were transformed into media stars. Now, as they work the talk show circuit, fill the Op-Ed pages, guide European documentary makers around town and teach a new generation of urban planners, these very public men of letters are helping to define not only how Los Angeles will be remembered, but what it will become.
Marxist and Catholic, thin and fat, rebel and defender of civilization, the 48-year-old Davis and the 54-year-old Starr are the odd couple of the booming industry of explaining L.A.
“I don’t know that there’s been anybody else as important to shaping intellectual perceptions of Los Angeles,” said Warren Olney, host of the influential radio show “Which Way L.A.”
Next year, they will refuel debate with new books: a local history of the Great Depression by Starr, and a chronicle of recent riots, quakes and fires by Davis.
If Davis expresses the despair of the working class, while Starr captures its hopes, it is because they know them firsthand. Starr’s poor city childhood in San Francisco seems straight out of Dickens, while Davis’ youth in what he calls an “Okie suburb” of San Diego could have been invented by Steinbeck.
Starr envisions the ideal Los Angeles as a city dotted with high-rise apartments and bustling with street life, unified by great public edifices near its center. Davis imagines a place not too different from East L.A. at its best: working people hanging out on the front porches of their bungalows, enjoying the local library branch and the corner mural.
Davis’ writing focuses on the victims of capitalism. He chronicles the destruction of working-class Los Angeles with the closing of the great auto and tire plants south of Downtown, and traces the roots of current gang warfare to the lack of decent paying jobs.
“I remember sitting around in ’67, ’68,” Davis said, “trying to figure out: well, were you gonna be an auto worker, a longshoreman or a trucker? You just sat down and decided. Look, I could end the gang problem in L.A. in five minutes. Just give me 50,000 good jobs that existed here in L.A. in the ‘60s.”
By contrast, Starr mines the history of Los Angeles for nuggets of hope. He reminds readers that violence-torn Venice was once a Utopian village of canals and concert halls, and that Los Angeles in living memory enjoyed a first-rate public transportation system.
“I love Los Angeles,” said the ever-ebullient Starr. “You banish violent crime from L.A. and you almost have Utopia.”
Both men agree that a sprawling morality tale is being played out here, one with consequences for America and the world. For all their differences, Davis and Starr have one agenda in common: the defense of public space and the civic life it represents in a metropolis that is increasingly walling itself off into gated communities and fortress-like patios. Their shared passions for mundane and precious public places such as parks and libraries make the men friendlier toward each other than one might imagine--as do their working-class upbringings.
Starr grew up in San Francisco as what today would be called an “at-risk youth.” It was the city and its churches that saved him, he says. He considers his life a testament to the power of cities--so often seen as corrupters of the young but really great ethical classrooms, and networks of religious, civic and educational institutions linked by public transportation.
His Irish American family had lived in San Francisco for generations. His grandfather was a firefighter in the Great Fire of 1906. His father was a union machinist.
Tragedy struck early. His parents separated when he was 3; his mother had a nervous breakdown, his father was disabled by a brain tumor. Starr and his brother spent much of their childhood in a foster home.
The home, the kind of institutional anchor Starr finds so crucial to a civil society, was where the troubled child developed his dedication to social orderliness and a love of teaching. “He was such a good boy,” said Sister Mauritia Bleiker, now 94. “He helped me take care of the littler boys.”
When he was 11, Starr and his brother moved back in with their mother. They lived on welfare in the Potrero Hill housing project where O.J. Simpson grew up. Starr hated the projects, but from the top of Potrero Hill he could see downtown San Francisco shining in the distance--"like Oz,” an image he would later apply to Los Angeles. He spent his time roaming the city, exploring the libraries and museums, running a paper route in Union Square, and drinking in the beauty of churches.
By contrast, the architecture of Davis’ youth consisted of scattered rural shacks, suburban tract housing and back-yard chicken coops.
His parents hitchhiked to San Diego from Ohio during the Depression. They came with nothing and within a year had a little house on an acre of avocados. “Nobody ever loved Southern California more than my dad did,” Davis said.
Born during his parents’ stint in Fontana, birthplace of the Hells Angels, he moved with his family to Seattle, where his parents ran a hot-dog stand on Skid Row. The business failed, instilling the roots of Davis’ skepticism of “the mythology of messianic entrepreneurialism"--the widely held belief that mom-and-pop business creation is the cure for L.A.'s woes.
“Communities hollowed out by the loss of automobile and aircraft plants,” Davis writes, “will not be re-industrialized by more nail parlors, barbecue chicken franchises or greeting card shops.”
From Seattle, the Davises moved back to San Diego County, to Bostonia, a dusty hamlet next to El Cajon. Davis’ father, a meat cutter, was a good-natured man. Davis seems to have picked up more of his Irish mother’s feistiness. When he writes of Mayor Richard Riordan as “a 63-year-old Irish American robber baron with GOP monogrammed on his Jockey shorts,” Davis admits he may be showing his mother’s prejudices against “lace curtain” Irish.
(To Starr, the mayor is merely familiar and benign: “Riordan looks like a thousand other freckle-faced guys in rumpled suits at the 40th reunion of a Jesuit high school.”)
Most of Davis’ friends--"sons and daughters of the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ "--knew as teen-agers what the rest of their lives would look like: They would be truckers or meat cutters or hairdressers. Davis was into drag-racing, stealing cars and being vaguely angry and aimless--"pretty much your average redneck 16-year-old,” he said.
It is no surprise that the Utopia with which he opens up “City of Quartz” is the quirky, short-lived LLano del Rio commune in the Antelope Valley: socialism with drag strips. Even today, Davis is drawn to inland Southern California and the West: Vernon and Cudahy, Fontana and Ontario, Las Vegas and Butte, Mont.
By contrast, Starr is essentially an urban, coastal Californian. His Los Angeles faces the ocean--a great trading power that willed its port out of a swamp and touts itself as “capital of the Pacific Rim.”
To see California clearly, both men had to leave. In the 1960s they headed in wildly different directions, members of profoundly different generations even though close in age. “We were total products of the late ‘40s, early ‘50s,” said John Stein, a lawyer and Starr’s classmate at the Catholic University of San Francisco, from which they graduated in 1962. “We bought everything they told us.”
Starr married a doctor’s daughter who attended the genteel Catholic women’s college next door. He spent two years in the Army in Germany, then headed to Harvard University for graduate studies in English and American literature.
Davis, meanwhile, was going through the rites of passage of a teen-age radical.
At 16, while working as a meat cutter, he quit high school to support his family when his father was temporarily disabled by a heart attack. His fate might have been set. But then his cousin, who had married a black man, invited Davis to a civil rights demonstration in 1962.
For “a lost, you know, confused, teen-ager . . . coming out of the boondocks of eastern San Diego County . . . (the civil rights movement) was an incredibly beautiful, stirring thing to be involved in,” Davis said. It made him feel connected to a larger world. By 1964, he was on a Greyhound bus for New York, headquarters of Students for a Democratic Society.
While Starr was tutoring students in a Harvard office he decorated with an American flag and a portrait of radical-buster S.I. Hayakawa, Davis was filling a 100-page FBI record, spraying anti-war graffiti on USC frat houses, traveling from Oakland to Texas as an organizer for SDS, and getting married for the first of four times.
While Starr was writing the dissertation that became his acclaimed book “Americans and the California Dream,” Davis was running the Communist Party bookstore in Los Angeles.
For five years, Davis drove trucks across the country. As he delivered tons of Barbies working for a toy wholesaler in Los Angeles, he amassed an intimate knowledge of industrial Los Angeles that serves him well on his now-famous tours, in which he drives busloads of urban planners up the bed of the Los Angeles River and treats European social theorists to the scenic route through Huntington Park.
Davis spent the 1970s and ‘80s in and out of college and graduate school on union scholarships at UCLA and in exile in Belfast and London, where he was an editor for the New Left Review and for Verso, a leftist book publisher. He penned “Prisoners of the American Dream,” a unionist, anti-Reagan polemic, dense as a Marxist poundcake.
Meanwhile, Starr had left academia for a life as a peripatetic public intellectual. He churned out columns for the San Francisco Examiner. He was city librarian of San Francisco and executive director of the San Francisco Taxicab Assn. He taught college and worked in public relations. He ran unsuccessfully for San Francisco County supervisor and wrote a massive novel.
He joined the elite circles in San Francisco he had admired as a boy--the all-male Bohemian Club and the Olympic Club, whose cathedral-like swimming pool he had first encountered in an eighth-grade swim meet. He was much in demand as a dinner party guest, a rollicking storyteller with a prodigious appetite for good food and wine and intellectual debate.
But by the late 1980s, Starr was disillusioned with what he saw as his economically sleepy and culturally “alternative” city. He wrote a telling Op-Ed piece for The Times in 1986 describing the passing of the flame to Los Angeles as the leading city of California.
When USC offered him a job in 1989, he took it. Starr is that rare being, a native San Franciscan who loves Los Angeles. He seems to see something of the gung-ho spirit of turn-of-the-century San Francisco in the L.A. of today.
In his five years in this city, (where he has always lived Downtown,) Starr has re-created his role as a public man of letters, expounding on politics and gang violence in Times opinion pieces, broadcasting his views on public radio, advising Republican Mayor Riordan and recent Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown and lecturing at business luncheons. He is a proud capitalist but excoriates “the Adam Smith gang” who would let the weak perish in the name of free markets, and cites the papal encyclical of 1891--which demands social justice in any economic system--as his standard for judging modern society.
He is completing the next volume in his magisterial history of California, “The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression,” and a book about being Catholic in America.
This fall, Starr was appointed state librarian by Gov. Pete Wilson, a move that will take him to Sacramento on a mission he describes as fostering literacy and civic-mindedness, especially among young people as bad off as he once was.
Davis returned to Los Angeles from Europe in 1987, but saw something very different than Starr did. The country, he said, “had changed beyond recognition"--and for the worse. He tried driving a truck again, but the good wages of the early 1970s were gone.
Angry, Davis focused his writing on Los Angeles. Published in London, “City of Quartz” managed to turn local zoning battles into revolutionary high drama and gritty Fontana into a lyrical paradise lost. Then came the riots, which made the book seem eerily prophetic. That turned it into a bestseller with more than 60,000 copies in print--phenomenal for a social history book--and Davis into a hot property.
Davis looks nothing like the promotional photo on his book cover. There, a crew-cut, blue-jeaned hoodlum glares at the camera, simultaneously thuggish and righteous. In person he is unassuming, courteous, even gentle--more mischievous than defiant. The fire-breathing revolutionary, now married with a baby son, a 12-year-old daughter and a mortgage, greets a visitor to his Pasadena bungalow with the baby drooling copiously on his shirt.
He still thinks of himself as an activist, not just an auteur. He walks picket lines for restaurant and hotel workers unions, works with Friends of the L.A. River, deploys local college students on inner-city research projects, nurtures young writers, is researching a book on the Western environment, and lectures at urban issues seminars.
Inevitably, Davis and Starr crossed paths.
They met when they were invited to debate each other a couple of years ago at a Westside public affairs forum. “I came in my usually pugnacious mood,” Davis said. “I came to fight him because I thought he was this kind of corporate apologist.”
Instead, Davis said, “I found somebody who was just incredibly kind and complimentary to me. Warm-hearted. A lot more liberal than I had suspected. And I was absolutely charmed by Kevin.”
They have become fast friends. When it comes down to it, Davis says, “we’re just a couple of middle-aged Irish American guys.”
The two came together in Nick Patsaouras’ oddball, visionary campaign for mayor last year. The three huddled to create a template for a pedestrian-friendly city united by buses and trains, graced with greenbelts and bustling with urban energy and new jobs.
There is a pathos to Davis and Starr, old-fashioned idealists both, looking to Teamsters and popes for guidance, refusing to believe their visions are pipe dreams. Both are acutely aware of being part of a generation that enjoyed the incredible opportunities of a California now vanished.
Says Davis: “When I graduated from school in 1964 there was this magnificent education system all for free. And there were plenty of jobs. Well now I look out and it’s appalling. All the advantages I had have not been passed on.”
One afternoon, the two men take a walk around Los Angeles, Starr’s generous middle swelling his seersucker jacket under a red bow tie as he gesticulates toward the wiry Davis. They’re not arguing. They’re laughing. Commiserating over editors. Exchanging bibliographical tips on their shared hero, the late L.A. chronicler Carey McWilliams. Tugging at each other’s sleeves to point out hidden historic treasures. Finishing each other’s sentences.
Starr does try to get Davis to see the bright side of things, taking him to the recently restored 1926 Central Library. “Look at the dignity of this!” says Starr, knocking on the beautiful, solid wood carrels--available free, he noted, for any poor kid to use.
Davis allows that the murals and atriums of the library are impressive. “This is great public space,” he says. But he cannot help noting the stark contrast with the impoverished county library system.
Davis takes Starr to his Los Angeles. On the way, ever protective of social order, Starr dissuades Davis from making a left turn against a light. They arrive at Belmont Tunnel, the graffiti-encrusted urban ruin at Beverly and Glendale boulevards, a standard stop on Davis’ tours.
In the foreground is a weed-filled lot embraced by two thickly spray-painted walls, leading into the black hole that burrows underneath Bunker Hill, designed to serve a subway plan deserted long ago. A colony of homeless that ebbs and flows with the recession inhabits the area. Above the tunnel creeps a bald hill scraped clear years ago of its crumbling Victorian mansions--including the one where Davis and his SDS cohorts lived--in an aborted program of urban renewal.
Spiking up immediately behind the hill are the sparkling skyscrapers of Downtown, symbols, in Davis’ view, of the “spatial apartheid” that separates the towers of high finance from the impoverished streets of Skid Row.
Today, as is often the case, a movie crew is filming in the mouth of the tunnel, taking advantage of its picturesque decay and air of impending urban violence.
That this is where Davis often takes visitors disturbs many people. “If you are out there propagating this view of L.A . . . you won’t get social reform. People will leave and you’ll get Detroit,” says rival L.A. pundit Joel Kotkin.
Starr takes Davis to the Old Plaza, next to Olvera Street, and describes how the power of cities is close to sacred. “The Spanish colonial notion of cities (was) cross-fertilized with Christian thought on the City of God. This (city) is a vehicle for our salvation, not just our religious salvation but our salvation in this world as well--that there be enough work for people, enough to eat, the possibilities of decent family life and education.”
Typically, Davis has a more Machiavellian view of the Old Plaza. He believes that the Spanish bureaucracy set up a secular pueblo here with a garrison to counter the growing power of the Franciscan missions nearby.
And yet, Davis’ hopes for the city are no less Oz-like than Starr’s.
“This is crazy,” Davis says as they sit outside the Church of Our Lady Queen of Angels across from the Old Plaza, “but I kinda have this idea that what we should be organizing for right now is to end the 20th Century with a World’s Fair in L.A.--have a world exposition devoted to the ecologically and humanly sustainable city. And what better place to do it than L.A. with all of its environmental problems, and maybe do it along the L.A. River and make real environmental restoration. A green city!”
“The potential to be a wonderful and unprecedented kind of civilization,” Davis insists, “exists here.”