Navigating Through L.A.'s Shadowy Present, Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the late '80s, Mike Davis would drive a truck for a week, come in off the road to deliver a college lecture, and go back out again.

Recently, Davis--the author of "City of Quartz" and "Ecology of Fear," quirky, noir histories of Los Angeles--won a MacArthur grant of $315,000. Fondly referred to by the jealous and the awed as "genius grants," they are intended to help exceptionally creative individuals "break away, work freely, do what could not otherwise be done."

A trucker friend called to ask whether he'd be spending the money on that state-of-the-art rig he always had wanted.

Davis said no, and while it appears that he will not have to drive a truck in the near future, he still cannot believe that a college professor makes more for delivering a lecture a week than a trucker who drives back and forth across the country in the same seven days.

It is this continuing disbelief that motivates much of his writing.

The genius is standing out on his street in a sweet part of Pasadena late on a summer morning, exhibiting certain genius-related physiological characteristics. One, shockingly bad posture, probably from too much research. Two, a hefty forelock of hair that keeps sweeping down over the eyes, obscuring earthly vision. Three, hands in empty pockets. Four, bad hearing, probably the result of nutritional deficiencies and overall inattention to the body's needs, or maybe loud rock 'n' roll. Five, eyes that swivel, dart, then focus with alarming speed and acuity. X-ray eyes.

Davis, 52, looks Irish but says his ethnicity is Midwestern. His mother was Irish American; his father grew up in the last Welsh-speaking community in Ohio. They moved to Southern California during the Depression, and Davis spent his childhood in El Cajon, Fontana and San Diego County.

His father was a meat cutter and a founding member of the local union. "The most average, patriotic American I've ever met," Davis says. "He believed that the essence of American history is human progress," Davis says. "By the end of his life, he'd seen his union destroyed and his pension plan taken away. It's hard to see your parents lose their beliefs."

What he calls the dark side of California suburban life in the '50s and '60s--alcoholism, domestic violence--left its mark on Davis' personality and is very much a part of his books.

"On warm summer evenings," he recalls, "you could almost always hear someone being beaten."

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He says he's a socialist ("I'm a socialist the way Billy Graham is a Baptist"). He talks like a Marxist. Pretty much everything he describes has a mass-based, working-class analysis underneath the surface.

And he talks fast. Within the first hour of breakfast, he has described the terrifying wit of Irish women and the effect of the Troubles on development in Belfast (where he lived in the early '80s after writing his thesis for UCLA on the working class in Northern Ireland). He talks about the Pony Kids in Dublin (housing project children who buy ponies and horses from traveling tinkers, singers and tinsmiths who live in caravans.

He tells a brief history of the Los Angeles Times, complete with ghosts and generals and civil unrest. He admits to a fascination for Greenland and offers a brief history of the plight of the Inuits in Denmark since home rule. Ask him something personal, however, and he leans back, exasperated.

"The idea of privacy," he says, "is an invention of the bourgeoisie. . . . I don't think there's anything intrinsically interesting in my life that bears repeating. I've had significant defeats in marriage [he has been married six times] and a hard time finding stability in life."

Yet he concedes that personal experience can determine a life's direction. When he was 16, reading the beats and Gandhi, a cousin dragged him out to a civil rights rally organized by the Congress of Racial Equality in San Diego, which was, Davis says, "practically a Southern town."

"This rally was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," Davis says. (He calls it his "burning bush.") "The courage and moral beauty of what these ordinary human beings were fighting for struck me, and I have never forgotten it."

He joined Students for a Democratic Society. When he was in his teens, his father got sick and Davis had to quit school to work as a meat cutter. He joined a program for disadvantaged youths organized by the Teamsters and learned how to drive a truck. In 1974, at 28, he received a scholarship from the meat cutters' union and went to UCLA, where he studied economics and history.

The idealism of that rally stuck with him. His father's patriotism also stuck with him. After graduation, Davis became the managing editor of the New Left Review and wrote a book on the American labor movement called "Prisoners of the American Dream." In 1986, he began teaching urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Marina del Rey, where he still teaches.

Trucker, union man, writer, professor. In 1990, "City of Quartz," a book that has been called the definitive "shadow history" of Los Angeles, was published. People started calling him a prophet of doom, accusing him of being obsessed with darkness. Yet the book hit bestseller lists across the country and is now considered required reading for anyone trying to get a fix on Southern California.

Davis says he is "frankly astonished by how mild criticism of my work has been and by how many people seem to miss the political punch line."

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"I incubate 15 or 20 projects at one time," he continues, now on his fifth cup of coffee. "I generally harvest them in some form later."

A few years ago, he was asked by Knopf to write a book on the L.A. riots. It was to be a series of community-level stories that would show the buildup to the riots. It was to include many personal stories, such as that of Damian Williams, whose televised beating of trucker Reginald Denny was a flash point in that episode of history.

Davis got to know Williams but was reluctant to tell his stories for him.

"I found myself facing huge moral contradictions," Davis says. "What right did I have, for example, to represent his experience? I believe that you have to constantly ask yourself what it is that you really know. I have a great difficulty with documentary journalism, with telling people's stories when there is no larger social context for reform."

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He moved into a different scale and perspective and chose to write a different kind of history of L.A., which became his newest book, "Ecology of Fear," a "political history of disaster, real and imaginary, in Southern California" from Henry Holt.

"I took flight into environmental history," he admits. "I chose a perspective I can enjoy. As a child, I always wanted to be a scientist but was completely put off by the association of science at that time with the Cold War. At age 52, I can retreat into science and Earth history."

Yes and no. The new book includes chapters on natural disasters, fires, earthquakes and tornadoes but also includes chapters on recent vigorous violence by the Aryan brotherhood in Los Angeles and on why everyone likes to destroy L.A. so much in books and movies.

It is the second in a trilogy, and while Davis says the third book will be about environmental history and war, he confesses that he would like to write a big book on the Latino working class.

"The last chapter of 'City of Quartz' is about how the things that ordinary people build are not allowed to last. The thing I hate most about Southern California is the terrorism against everyday experience." He calls it "a war against history, in which the real heroes are ordinary people."

He argues frequently and publicly with fellow historian Kevin Starr, who tends to focus more on extraordinary individuals.

"It is essential," Davis says, "to stay close to the experience of real people."

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