Los Angeles and the Apocalyptic Temptation

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<i> Thomas S. Hines is professor of history and architecture at UCLA. His books include the forthcoming "Irving Gill and the Architecture of Reform."</i>

“The San Andreas,” runs the old gag, “is not L.A.’s only fault.” Indeed, “the city that everyone loves to hate” has achieved its mythic aura despite and because of its natural and man-made faults. While the region’s boosters have justly celebrated its sunny, temperate climate, its diverse cultural riches, its natural beauty “from the mountains to the sea” and its almost “anything goes” tradition of individual freedom, the prophets of doom have bemoaned its tragic self-indulgence and its noir urge toward willful self-destruction.

Among the critics of Los Angeles mores, Mike Davis is the undisputed champion, the ultimate scourge of regional misbehavior. Yet his apocalyptic lamentations contain disturbingly large chunks of truth. “Ecology of Fear” will not likely appear on tourist bureau or Chamber of Commerce reading lists, but it must be read by anyone who cares about Los Angeles, particularly by public officials who make and enforce environmental law. If its arguments are heeded, the book may become even more influential than the author’s popular “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles,” published in 1990. “Ecology of Fear” is a collection of essays, some of which have appeared in other media, which argue that Southern Californians have been, for the most part, ignorant and disrespectful of nature’s ways and have thus weakened their chances of surviving its retributions.

Though he is surely the most outspoken, Davis is not the first critic to rebuke L.A. for environmental negligence. As early as 1930, a volunteer Citizens Committee of distinguished Angelenos, including actress Mary Pickford and attorney John O’Melveny, published the warnings of planner Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. that the area’s open space, “the foundation of an economy based on climate, sports, and outdoor leisure,” was being eroded “by rampant, unregulated private development.” The beaches, for example, “which are pictured in the magazines to attract Eastern visitors, are suffering from the rapid encroachment of private use; the wild canyons are fast being subjected to subdivision and cheek by jowl cabin construction; the forests suffer annually from devastating fires; the roadsides are more and more disfigured. . . .” (And that was in 1930.)


It perplexed the planners that while Los Angeles spent lavishly to advertise its charms, it did precious little to enhance and preserve them. The report thus called for a system of “hazard zoning” to curtail development in such vulnerable environments as flood plains, hillsides, chronic wildfire corridors and known earthquake faults. But in the ‘30s, as later, the L.A. power structure resisted such reforms.

Denouncing the call for tripling public beach frontage, the Los Angeles Times opposed the establishment of a metropolitan park district to carry out the Olmsted plan, tarring it instead as the greatest combination of “taxation and bonding burden in history.” Even before the plan reached the printer, 27 prominent members of the sponsoring Citizens Committee were pressured to withdraw their support. In the seven decades since the plan was aborted, ecological atrocities have, of course, proliferated--a depressing history that Davis trenchantly explicates.

The consequences of the steady engorgement of natural open space, particularly areas most susceptible to fire, are mordantly explored in two related chapters: “How Eden Lost Its Garden” and “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” While the area’s richest and poorest districts have suffered almost equally from incendiary disasters, the responses in money and manpower have been chronically inequitable. In May 1993, for example, a Westlake-area tenement fire killed seven children and three mothers, while five months later in the Malibu hills, 21 wildfires caused an inferno that forced the evacuation of most of the area. Defended by “the largest army of firefighters in American history, wealthy Malibu homeowners benefited as well from an extraordinary range of insurance, land use, and disaster relief subsidies,” Davis argues, despite the fact that “periodic firestorms of this magnitude are inevitable as long as residential development is tolerated in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas.”

On the other hand, he is certain that the fire deaths in the Westlake district of central L.A. “might have been prevented had slumlords been held to even minimal standards of building safety. If enormous resources have been allocated, quixotically, to fight irresistible forces of nature on the Malibu coast, then scandalously little attention has been paid to the man-made and remediable fire crisis of the inner city.” Protecting the naturally vulnerable coastal mountains, Davis argues, “as well as hundreds of other luxury enclaves and gated hilltop suburbs is becoming one of the state’s major social expenditures, although--unlike welfare and immigration--it is almost never debated in terms of trade-offs or alternatives.”

However disturbing his analysis of incendiary hazards, Davis is even more convincing in his critique of L.A.’s inadequate preparations for the Big One(s). Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the combination of loss, shock and terrified repression discouraged both discussion of the Next One and the costly steps necessary to withstand it. And with each passing year since 1994, it has become gradually easier to forget the pain and to postpone sustained, systematic planning for seismic safety. The greatest potential benefit of “Ecology of Fear” should be to provide a grim reminder of the horrors of ’94 and to jolt the collective consciousness of Angelenos into action.

Davis supports the seismological predictions that major, multiple earthquakes are long overdue and will shatter a woefully vulnerable megalopolis. Paleoseismic studies of active faults confirm, in fact, “an earthquake frequency in the Los Angeles region over the past several millenniums that is dramatically higher than the record of the past two centuries.” There have, in fact, been “too few quakes to relieve the accumulation of stress generated by plate tectonic motion as Los Angeles hitchhikes northward on the Pacific Plate.”


Caltech seismologist James Dolan confirms that Los Angeles has developed in two relatively quiet centuries a condition that cannot last forever. Shockingly, he posits that 17 Northridge-size temblors “should have occurred during the past 195 years, but we have experienced only two.”

Of the potential nightmares to come, Davis argues that “nothing could bolster the confidence of residents and investors as much as dramatic improvement in the stability and safety of the built environment.” Yet he is pessimistic that such retrofitting will occur. While the public has long been assured that steel-frame skyscrapers are virtually earthquake-proof, the Northridge quake “fractured critical joints in at least 150 steel-frame buildings: some of them brand new, some nearly 20 miles from the epicenter. Later laboratory tests showed that metal alloy used for welded joints failed at stress levels far below design specifications.” Following the quake, the recommendation of Thomas Heaton, a seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, for an immediate moratorium on high-rise construction and a 1% seismic research tax on all new development received “a glacial reception from local officials desperately hoping for a revival in office construction.”

Had the Northridge quake occurred at midday, thousands would have died in caved-in parking structures, shopping malls, offices and schools. The destruction of Bullock’s Northridge department store was described officially as “the type of collapse where no one survives.” The dismaying assessment of structural engineers was that large precast concrete department stores, parking structures, warehouses, factories, offices, schools, apartment houses and hospitals are “particularly prone to catastrophic failure.” Another expert bemoaned the “dangerous combination of inadequacies in building codes and an increasing drive to cut costs by designing for the minimum.” On a different scale, damages to one-third of the single family homes were “directly attributable to shoddy construction.”

Davis admits that diagnosis is easier than the necessary commitment to a multibillion-dollar cure, the magnitude of which has discouraged serious debate about the issue. “In the face of landlord protests,” he laments, “City Hall even retreated from a modest proposal for a mandatory inspection of vulnerable buildings.” By 1995, even after the grim reminder of the Kobe earthquake, public discussion of seismic safety reform had virtually ceased “as lobbyists dug in their heels and politicians moved on to happier agendas.” Los Angeles, Davis insists, must “spend billions in mitigation in order to prevent hundreds of billions in damages. But nothing is less politically realistic in the present climate, and the ostrich-like consensus is to ignore problems that are too big to fix.”

Beyond the nightmares of structural collapse lie the post-quake horrors of fire containment and treatment of the injured. Too often, developers have been allowed to use plastics in construction and wiring that will quickly combust. Sprinkler systems will fail in a major temblor, but because such systems have encouraged large open work spaces instead of the more fire-retardant closed offices, fires will spread more quickly and easily. Davis also says that the Northridge experience was not “exactly reassuring about the ability of the understaffed and underfunded Los Angeles Fire Department--Cinderella to its greedy big sister, the LAPD--to deal with the 500-plus major fires predicted to erupt simultaneously during a Newport-Inglewood, San Andreas, or thrust fault ‘direct hit.’ ” Although he gratefully acknowledges that “crews responded with traditional heroism . . . [t]hey faced a near breakdown in lifeline services: 35 firehouses were damaged, the entire power grid was blacked out, older gas pipelines ruptured, six freeways went down, and so many water mains were broken that crews had to pump water from swimming pools (providentially abundant in the Valley).” The inner city has far fewer pools.

In 1994, moreover, 14 local hospitals were put out of commission by the main shock, which was not surprising because barely 20% of L.A.’s hospital buildings had been brought up to the standards of the 1973 Seismic Safety Act, enacted after 47 patients died in the collapse of the San Fernando VA Hospital in the 1971 earthquake. Los Angeles County’s two largest medical units, UCLA and County-USC, somehow continued to function, despite sustaining staggering hits of $2.3 billion in combined structural damage.


Will L.A. be obliterated by future Big Ones? Well, not totally. Davis concludes with the cheerful thought that “mega-cities like Los Angeles will never simply collapse and disappear. Rather they will stagger on, with higher body counts and greater distress . . . while vital parts of the region’s high-tech and tourist economies eventually emigrate to safer ground, together with hundreds of thousands of its more affluent residents.”

Following such unsettling ruminations, Davis’ subsequent chapters pale by comparison. Though they might have been compelling in other, less highly charged contexts, the author’s anxious explications of regional windstorms (“Our Secret Kansas”) and backyard encounters with rattlers and mountain lions (“Maneaters of the Sierra Madre”) seem unduly hyped. Compared with other regions of the country, the dangers from these scourges seem somehow less ominous in L.A., an assumption that Davis inadvertently confirms with such lines as: “Californians, most of whom had never seen a tornado watched [one local twister] with no thought of danger, while more experienced [expatriate] Kansans and Iowans were casting about for convenient shelters into which to dive if the whirl came closer.” Though he acknowledges “a decade-long tornado ‘drought,’ ” he cannot resist fantasizing darker possibilities: “But what if a tornado someday decided to track the morning commute right into the heart of downtown, toward, say, the Convention Center when a big show was in progress?”

Of predatory inhabitants in the ever-expanding suburbs, Davis insists that, next to Miami, L.A. has the “longest wild edge . . . of any major nontropical city.” Therefore, encounters with snakes, bears, cougars, coyotes, killer bees and plague-carrying squirrels must be seen as a symptom of the crisis in the relationship of the city with its larger environment. Yet some of the author’s examples seem forced. While indeed it is wise to be vigilant in the canyons, the problem with the “Maneaters” and “Kansas” chapters is that Davis pitches them at the same high decibel he uses to describe the far more ominous earthquake syndrome. His tactical savvy should have told him to modulate his warnings and to make greater distinctions between types of regional dangers.

Another chapter near the end of the book, “The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles,” skillfully analyzes novels and films from “The Day of the Locust” to “Blade Runner.” Though highly provocative and darkly entertaining, it competes with the author’s tense treatment of L.A.’s actual disaster syndrome. Scared and exhausted from worry over the Big One, most readers will find Davis’ analysis of the city’s fictive destruction to be anti-climactic. It might, in fact, have been more effective to place this chapter at the beginning of the book and to focus on the question: Why has Los Angeles seemed so tempting, so logical and so “deserving” a target of destruction? The answer is suggested in the book’s historical chapters, which could then have unfolded with even greater impact.

L.A.’s reluctance to deal realistically with its ecological future frustrates Davis to the point that at times he seems to agree that the metropolis deserves a calamitous fate. Still he is careful to disassociate himself from prophets of the political and religious right who believe that Los Angeles should go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. Davis quotes, for example, Santa Barbara Republican Congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, who insists that “we probably have the most adulterers living here in California, child pornographers and molesters . . . and divorce, family breakups, all of that evil.” As biblical authority for divine retribution, Seastrand cites passages from 2 Chronicles. “California has been given so many signs,” she argues, “floods, drought, fires, earthquakes lifting mountains two feet high in Northridge. Yet people turn from His ways.”

Instead, Davis aligns himself with another tradition in American political and environmental history: the critics and journalists from the turn of the last century whose books and articles calling for reform earned them the name of “muckraker.” Of the many crusaders who claimed this vaunted moniker, probably the best known was Upton Sinclair, whose novel “The Jungle” (1906) graphically depicted unsanitary practices in the Chicago meat-packing industry. The novel’s revelations so unsettled its readers, including President Theodore Roosevelt, that it led in the same year to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, a model of Progressive Era reform.


“Ecology of Fear” is equally unsettling and should, indeed must, arouse Southern Californians to confront the somber imperatives of our fabulous region’s environmental future.