Seer of L.A. or Blinded by Its Light?


Mike Davis isn’t so bad.

Los Angeles’ most provocative social critic has stretched, bent and broken more than a few facts in “Ecology of Fear,” his latest, darkly themed work on the urban area he claims to love.

But if there were such a thing as a court of literary crimes, Davis probably would be convicted only of minor ones.

Most of his stretchers appear to be the result of haste, wishful thinking and a taste for entertaining hyperbole rather than malice.


And they are not central to his main theme that inhabitants of the Los Angeles region have repeatedly botched opportunities to make the area more sustainable as an ecosystem.

That still leaves the big question:

Can the best-selling author who has become one of the best-known explainers of Los Angeles to the world be believed?

The short answer is maybe yes, if he is seen as a polemicist, who makes cogent, incisive arguments on big themes; no, if he is seen as a historian who is expected to be reliable, even on details.

Davis’ current trip to the bar of literary justice grows out of the confusion he has caused by trying to be both.

Davis’ footnotes have been turned against him. Footnotes are an author’s vehicle for telling readers where he gets his facts without cluttering up the main text. They are, in the words of master researcher Jacques Barzun, a way of proclaiming that an “author is intellectually honest . . . and . . . democratically unassuming: The first comer can challenge him.”

The first comer in Davis’ case was Brady Westwater, an amateur historian who told journalists via a blizzard of e-mails that Davis’ scholarly methods were so shoddy they rated an expose.


Many of those to whom Westwater wrote dismissed him as an adversary too ironic to be true because he earns his living as a Malibu real estate agent and Davis, in one of his more provocative swipes, urges that Malibu be allowed to burn the next time Santa Ana winds blow a firestorm its way.

But Westwater’s accusations attracted the attention of other writers--some of them civic boosters who were upset with what they saw as the negative way Davis portrays Los Angeles--and resulted in critical articles in the Downtown News, New Times, the Internet magazine Salon, and the British magazine the Economist, among others.

They also attracted the attention of the editor of the Los Angeles Times, who asked whether there was anything to them; thus, this article, an attempt to find out.

In probing a controversy that has as much to do with Los Angeles’ reputation as Davis’, a reporter read Davis’ book twice, arbitrarily selected 45 of his assertions and tried to verify them through a combination of checking footnotes and, in many cases, doing interviews and other research.

Some of the assertions were in support of Davis’ major themes: That Angelenos lull themselves into a false sense of security about their disaster-prone locale by focusing on its often balmy clime, and that they emphasize fulfillment of private dreams at the expense of the public good, which, in real estate terms, leads to unchecked sprawl that magnifies the impacts of disasters when they occur. Others were more or less stray facts or were suggested by Westwater or other critics.

The review showed Davis to be a prodigious researcher with a remarkable ability to piece together sometimes highly technical information from a wide variety of sources, report it faithfully and use it as a building block for logical argument.

It also showed that more than a third of the time there were factual problems with his work.

In an interview, Davis acknowledged having made most of the mistakes that were brought to his attention and promised to correct them.

But he also suggested that he has been unfairly singled out for intense scrutiny that no popular writer could pass through unscathed. He said negative publicity has already cost him one job, at Rutgers University.

Why, he claimed to wonder, was he getting all this attention? “When has a critic or a gadfly ever done damage to anything?” he asked.

His questions suggested a naivete that was a little hard to swallow for a public intellectual with a long enemies list that includes civic boosters who are upset that his dark visions hurt the local economy, capitalists who are offended by his socialist political philosophy, and those who are just jealous of a former trucker-turned-acclaimed-author who has received a $315,000 MacArthur grant.

‘City of Quartz’ Highly Acclaimed

Davis’ 422-page book is a sequel to his 1990 “City of Quartz.” That book made his international reputation as a seer of Los Angeles and was recently cited as among the 100 best works of 20th century American journalism in a list compiled under the auspices of New York University’s journalism department.

The review of the sequel--and, by extension, of the quality of light Davis sheds on Los Angeles--was necessarily specific.

For starters, here are some simple factual errors it turned up:

* In arguing that Los Angeles public schools have come to resemble prisons, Davis wrote that the Los Angeles Unified School District board adopted a policy in which “kids who become informers on fellow students’ drug habits are rewarded with concert tickets, CDs and new clothes.”

He cites a Times article as the source of his information. But the article says only that such a policy was being considered. According to Shel Erlich, the school district’s public information officer, and Dan Isaacs, its assistant superintendent of school operations, the plan died in a school board committee.

Davis concedes the error. “I thought this was implemented,” he said.

* In reporting that Los Angeles represses its homeless population, Davis wrote that the City Council, in 1996, formally declared “a portion of skid row’s sidewalks an official ‘sleeping zone.’ ”

Davis does not say where he got this piece of information. But interviews with homeless advocates, city lawyers and police officials in charge of patrolling skid row, as well as a review of summaries of all City Council actions concerning the homeless in 1996, failed to turn up any evidence of such an action.

“I honestly don’t know what I’m referring to,” Davis said.

* In discussing the scope of gang lawlessness, Davis reports that “MacArthur Park, once the jewel in the crown of the city’s park system, is now a free-fire zone where crack dealers and street gangs settle their scores with shotguns and Uzis. In a single bad year, 30 or more corpses were found crumpled on the grass, stuffed in park trash cans or half-buried in the muck at the bottom of the lake.”

But Los Angeles police say that from 1980 to 1998--a span that brackets the crack wars by healthy margins--there were never more than five homicides in the park in a single year.

“I don’t know where I got this [figure],” Davis said.

Mischievously Unrepentant

Some of Davis’ mistakes involve mergers of fact and fiction, including making up a quote.

In discussing the real and imagined consequences of pushing development into the wilds, Davis quotes mountain lion expert Maurice Hornocker as having written in a 1992 National Geographic magazine article: “There are more mountain lions in the Los Angeles area than in Yellowstone.”

But as Westwater was the first to note, the article does not contain that statement. Hornocker wrote about Yellowstone, observing that lions, once driven from the national park, have returned. He estimates that there are 18 adults in the Yellowstone region, which has a relatively small range suitable for the solitary cats. Concerning California, he wrote that “perhaps as many as 5,000 lions range up and down the coastal mountains as well as the Sierra Nevada and southeastern deserts.” But he does not mention Los Angeles.

Davis attributes the false quote to a mix-up. He says that while reading the article, he jotted down his own thought, based on his knowledge from other sources that mountain ranges in the Los Angeles area are home to more than 18 lions, then later misconstrued his note to himself as a Hornocker quote. Hornocker did not respond to requests for comment.

Davis intentionally veers off the nonfiction path while arguing that society exploits the inner-city poor to subsidize Malibu’s wealthy.

His serious argument focuses on the high cost of providing firefighting services to Malibu whenever winds blow a chaparral firestorm down predictable canyon corridors toward the sea. He contrasts this with what he says are cutbacks in the number of inner-city fire inspections. Then he takes readers on a partial flight of fantasy involving a real Malibu Times article that chronicled adventures during 1993’s firestorm.

“The Malibu Times,” he wrote, “celebrated the case of two intrepid housewives from the Big Rock area who loaded their jewels and dogs into kayaks and took to the sea, where they were eventually rescued by blond hulks from Baywatch Redondo. Only the fine print revealed that, in saving their pets, they had left their Latina maids behind. (The abandoned maids made a narrow escape down the beach to Topanga.)”

An examination of the Malibu Times article shows that Davis made up the parts about the jewels, the hair color, the kayakers’ occupations, the evidence of their callous classism and the ethnicity of their maids. The article, which had no accompanying photographs, also had no fine print. It listed as its principal source one of the women Davis called a housewife who was quoted as saying that she had been “at work in town” when she returned home through a roadblock and then, with a neighbor, elected to paddle out to sea. She told the paper that her maid and the neighbor’s maid “were afraid to go out on the water and walked down to Topanga, where a stranger picked them up and drove them” to the home of a relative of one of their employers.

Davis is mischievously unrepentant. “I stand my ground on my interpretation of this article. . . . It really sounds to me that they deserted their maids.” He insists that it was reasonable of him to conclude that the maids would have been Latinas; that because the article mentioned that the women took unspecified treasures with them, it was reasonable to assume they had taken jewels and that it was reasonable to assume that their rescuers would have been blond. “I read between the lines,” he said.

Davis also merges fact and literary fiction, without acknowledgment, while arguing that Pomona, like other older, outer suburbs, is dying.

He wrote: “Now its nearly abandoned downtown is surrounded by acres of vacant lots and derelict homes. (‘Eventually the only shoppers in sight were the winos lined up in the early morning liquor line in front of Thrifty’s drugstore.’).”

Davis’ footnote about the winos quote cites a 1992 book, “Pomona Queen.” But he does not say that “Pomona Queen,” as first noted by the weekly New Times, is a novel.

Its author, Kem Nunn, contacted by The Times, said his observation about the winos was real but made many years ago in the wake of a failed downtown mall project. When he revisited some years later in the company of a film director who was interested in making a movie from the book, he said: “To my horror, I discovered things were better.”

Cal State Northridge history professor Gloria Ricci Lothrop, author of a late-1980s book on Pomona’s centennial, said that Davis telescopes decades of the city’s history in the passage--she places the failed downtown mall project in the 1960s--and “ignores the city’s more recent success in attracting mid-size businesses.”

Davis said: “I really thought it was obvious that ‘Pomona Queen’ [by] Kem Nunn was fiction. . . . I don’t think my characterization of Pomona is otherwise inaccurate.”

Charting Changes in Downtown L.A.

In discussing power and racism in Los Angeles, Davis also appears to engage in a partial flight of fantasy, distorting and oversimplifying key events in the history of downtown.

His key point is that a group of high-powered, white downtown business leaders abandoned their efforts to revitalize the city’s “aging financial and retail core” along Spring Street and 7th Street, respectively, because they were fearful after the Watts riots that downtown would be “inundated” by angry blacks. They “instead . . . persuaded City Hall to subsidize the transplanting of banks and corporate front offices to a new financial district atop” a more remote and fortress-like Bunker Hill.

Davis is correct about the subsidies; they are part of the way urban renewal generally works in California. But his analysis that plans for Bunker Hill’s redevelopment took a hard right turn after the Watts riots is not true, according to former city planners who were active in that era.

By the time of the Watts riots in 1965, said Yukio Kawaratani, who worked on Bunker Hill issues from 1962 until his retirement in 1993 as a planner for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, the basic plan for redeveloping Bunker Hill as a regional office center had been set for several years. “There was no change in Bunker Hill related to the Watts riots,” he said.

John Pastier, a city planner in Watts just after the riots, later followed the Bunker Hill redevelopment story as the Los Angeles Times’ first architecture critic from 1969 to 1975. He confirmed Kawaratani’s recollections that plans for Bunker Hill “didn’t make any sharp changes,” although they evolved to include more commercial and less residential development over time.

Pastier bemoaned Davis’ assessment of the impact of the Watts riots as evidence of “paranoia. . . . There is some basis to some of it. But if one had to do a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, it’s not accurate.”

Now a Seattle-based architectural writer and baseball stadium design consultant, he added: “My point of view overlaps Mike Davis’ in some regards. But I’m aghast at how he overstates and fabricates so much to make his points. It basically ruins the case of anybody who would like to improve things the way he would.”

Pastier traced the demise of the old Spring Street financial center, controlled by a “cohort [of] old-family WASPs living in Pasadena and San Marino,” to changing market conditions set in motion before the riots by the decision of a Beverly Hills bank to build outside the traditional financial district in a westerly section of downtown. This weakened the resolve of the Spring Street group to hold its ground despite its proximity to skid row. “There were always fears of skid row. . . . I never heard anything racial. . . . It was economic,” Pastier said.

Davis says he stands by his story.

Is It Really ‘Fortress Downtown’?

Davis also wrote hyperbolically about the degree of security provided by the redeveloped Bunker Hill, which he refers to as “Fortress Downtown.”

The 1992 riots “vindicated the foresight of Fortress Downtown’s designers,” he wrote. “While windows were being smashed throughout the old business district, Bunker Hill lived up to its name. By flicking a few switches on their command consoles, the security staffs of the great bank towers were able to cut off all access to their expensive real estate. Bulletproof steel doors rolled down over street-level entrances, escalators instantly froze, and electronic locks sealed off pedestrian passageways.”

Bunker Hill strikes many people who approach it from the east as relatively inaccessible and cold and Davis’ conception of it as a fortress may not be unreasonable in a symbolic sense. In addition, a man whom Davis identified as one of his sources, Kurt Meyer, the architect and CRA chairman in the 1970s, once told a Times reporter disapprovingly that “the people building Bunker Hill wanted a kind of moat along Hill Street to protect this new office district from the poor and the minorities down below.”

But when a reporter showed Davis’ literal description to security guards working the front consoles of Bunker Hill buildings, they took issue with his account.

“He’s wrong,” said Richard McLeod, who works in the Wells Fargo Center. “The only place they have steel doors is down at the loading dock.”

“It’s an exaggeration,” said Baron Strickland, a security supervisor at the World Trade Center, where, he said, doors to pedestrian passageways that connect to other buildings have no locks.

Davis says that he based the Bunker Hill description on his own observation the first night of the 1992 riots when, while driving on Figueroa Street, he saw that metal doors on street-level garages at the World Trade Center were closed. He says he also relied on a report in the Los Angeles Business Journal, which quoted a security official of another downtown building as saying that steel doors were rolled down to secure entrances and exits to the parking garage and that escalators taking motorists from the parking level to the mezzanine level had been shut down.

A check of that article disclosed a problem for Davis. The building it discussed, at 707 Wilshire Blvd., is not part of Bunker Hill.

Frequent Use of Writerly Steroids

Davis repeatedly exaggerates, even when he does not need to, to make his points.

Not content to recount the Los Angeles area’s genuinely huge problems as merely huge, Davis repeatedly injects them with writerly steroids until they become the biggest or the worst in the country, in the Northern Hemisphere or, sometimes, on the planet.

In the very first paragraph of his book (as noted by Westwater) he claims that the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles sometimes experience “rainfall of a ferocity unrivaled anywhere on Earth, even in the tropical monsoon belts.”

But mainstream references such as the New Encyclopedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia Americana, the World Book, the Guinness Book of World Records and the California Almanac show that although a very hard rain does fall sometimes in the San Gabriels, the area does not hold any world records.

Similarly, in Davis’ hands, Malibu becomes not just an area with a severe wildfire problem, but, without specifically stated criteria, “the wildfire capital of North America and possibly the world.”

Criteria could be important in such an evaluation if it were meant to be taken literally. According to Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Jerry Meehan, his department’s unofficial wildfire historian and author of an article Davis cites, a grassy area near Chatsworth on the other side of the Ventura Freeway from Malibu’s canyons burns far more frequently (though less consequentially in terms of property damage than Malibu). Could that make Chatsworth the wildfire capital?

Likewise, an area in and around downtown Los Angeles with a deadly tenement fire problem becomes, “according to recent estimates,” the area with “the highest urban fire incidence in the nation.”

However, Davis conceded in the interview a point made by a number of government and private fire professionals and researchers: No database exists with which meaningful, cross-city, much less neighborhood to neighborhood comparisons can be made.

And so it goes.

The Los Angeles area’s huge flood and debris problem--masked by concrete channels that keep rivers from meandering and basins to catch debris in the mouths of San Gabriel Mountain canyons--becomes “the worst flood and debris problem of any major city in the Northern Hemisphere . . . as the Army Corps of Engineers has often reminded its critics.”

But efforts to confirm the supposed corps characterization with corps public information officers in Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with corps historians in Washington and Los Angeles, and with a corps geologist in Los Angeles found no one embracing it. “You could say, ‘one of the worst,’ ” said Anthony Turhollow, a former history professor at Loyola Marymount University who now serves as the corps’ part-time historian in Los Angeles.

Davis also exaggerates Los Angeles’ preeminence when it comes to wildlife hazards, declaring it “the first great Northern Hemisphere city to be colonized by the Africanized honeybee.”

But UC Davis entomology professor Robert Page, a specialist in so-called killer bees who headed a research program on them near Mexico City, said that the Mexican capital, which is located in the Northern Hemisphere and whose population exceeds that of Los Angeles, “is full of Africanized bees.”

Davis says that he had not realized this was so.

Nor are Davis’ exaggerations restricted to natural phenomena.

In writing about Los Angeles’ housing crisis, Davis observes that a campaign in the early 1950s that branded public housing “creeping socialism” resulted in “not a single unit of new public housing [being] built anywhere in Los Angeles County since 1953.”

But public housing officials in Los Angeles County say they have built thousands of units since 1953.

UCLA architecture and urban design professor Dana Cuff, who is writing a book on housing in post-World War II Los Angeles, says Davis is “right in principle. . . . That period meant the demise of [big] public housing [projects]. . . . On the other hand, that doesn’t mean there were no more units of public housing built.”

“I’m abashed,” Davis said. “I didn’t realize this.”

A Dramatic Flair for Disasters

Given a choice between a measured view of a threat and a dramatic one, Davis seems inexorably drawn to the dramatic.

In discussing the earthquake hazard in Los Angeles, for example, Davis focuses on scientific research of the early 1990s suggesting that Southern California faces an earthquake deficit. Scientists had inferred the existence of a deficit, which would have to be made up with more or bigger earthquakes, through calculations comparing the amount of seismic energy thought to have been built up versus the amount thought to have been vented.

But later research by some of the same scientists revised these findings early last year just as Davis’ book was ready to go to press.

How Davis handled the late-breaking contradictory information put his intellectual flexibility on display.

He says that he consulted with one seismologist who advised him not to change his point of view.

Then he inserted two paragraphs. One described but downplayed the significance of the new findings and criticized The Times for allegedly overplaying them in a news account of their release at a scientific conference.

The second summed them up dismissively: “Regardless of the differences in calculation and scenario, there is a growing scientific consensus that Southern California is awakening from its long seismic siesta, and that the Northridge disaster--God help us--was little more than a yawn.”

Asked to evaluate Davis’ summation, Lucile Jones, the scientist in charge of Southern California for the U.S. Geological Survey, commented: “If [he is saying] that [1994’s] Northridge [earthquake] is not as bad as it’s going to get, you wouldn’t find a seismologist in the world that would dispute that statement. . . . That’s obvious. . . . If the statement is, ‘We’re sure about this whole thing of the deficit,’ I’d say, ‘Not at all.’ . . . I’d say most people at this point are pretty convinced that the deficit [idea] is overstated.”

The bottom line, she said, is that nobody knows.

‘Amnesia’ Over Tornado Threat

Davis is at his best--and near his worst--in a chapter on tornadoes. He argues, in what at first seems to be one of his biggest whoppers, that a kind of social amnesia emblematic of the area’s attitude toward disasters in general has erased memories of tornadoes in particular.

In a chapter he calls “Our Secret Kansas,” Davis persuasively cites published work of scientists such as Warren Blier, who supplemented the National Weather Service’s official record of tornadoes in the Los Angeles area with newspaper and journal accounts, and found that he could document 99 tornadoes in the area from 1950 through 1992.

Blier, then an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at UCLA and now a science officer with the Weather Service, concluded in his 1994 study that the incidence of tornadoes touching down per square mile in highly populated areas of northern Orange County and Los Angeles County, roughly west of Whittier, was on a par with the official incidence per square mile for an acknowledged tornado hot spot, the state of Oklahoma.

In his account of Blier’s research, Davis omits Blier’s caveat that a similar study in Iowa had tripled the number of official tornadoes there and that the same might be true if a similar study were done for Oklahoma.

But as Blier said in an interview, that caveat, in a way, is beside the point: “It might well be that the ratio is 2 to 1, 3 to 1 or 4 to 1, rather than 1 to 1. But that’s still extraordinary. The general perception is probably along the lines of 100 to 1.”

Davis acknowledges Blier’s main caution: That Southern California’s twisters, which are usually associated with winter storms, are generally weaker than those in the Midwest.

Nearly 4 out of 10 tornadoes around the country are rated F2 or higher on the Fujita scale of destructive force, meaning that they have wind speeds of 113 to 157 mph or more. By contrast, most tornadoes here are F0s with winds of 40 to 72 mph or F1s with winds of 73 to 112 mph.

There have been occasional F2s in Southern California, such as the 1983 tornado that plowed a rush-hour path one-third of a mile wide alongside the Harbor Freeway from 51st Street to the southern edge of downtown, tearing roofs off houses, snapping large trees and utility poles, turning debris into missiles and even damaging a portion of the Convention Center’s roof.

But no one has yet been killed. Because the area is so heavily populated, National Weather Service tornado experts credit luck.

With some justification, Davis blames The Times for the public’s “amnesia” about tornadoes. The Times has neither reported the small tornado threat prominently nor in detail.

The newspaper regularly reports on tornadoes when they occur but sometimes refers to them as “apparent tornadoes,” reflecting initial, cautious, official assessments of whether a windstorm meets the technical definition of a tornado as a column of violently rotating air in touch with the ground and associated with a thunderstorm.

Coverage of the 1983 tornado downtown led the paper, but The Times referred to that twister on its editorial pages as a “freak.”

A search of the newspaper’s electronic database showed that Blier’s research has only been mentioned once and in passing in a 1996 article headlined “Twisters in Orange County? Say It Isn’t So, Toto,” that ran at modest length inside the metropolitan news section in the Orange County edition only.

But in making a case that The Times, at least in its early days, downplayed news of tornadoes deliberately out of concern for preserving real estate values, Davis makes a flimsy case.

As evidence, he cites headlines from The Times and two other Los Angeles dailies after a 1930 twister. The other two dailies, the Examiner and the Record, used the word “Tornado” or “Twister” in a banner headline. The Times did not. Its more demure headline was “High Winds Batter Los Angeles Suburbs; Several Slightly Injured as Roofs Go Flying in Hawthorne Area; Rain Total at 1929 Mark.”

Davis does not mention, however, (as Westwater first noted) that the word “tornado” appeared twice in the first paragraph of The Times account, which led the paper, and 13 times all told, including once in a small headline on the article’s continuation page. Not exactly a cover-up.

Davis sets himself up as a major critic and foil for The Times, which he portrays, with historical accuracy, as a right-wing booster for Southern California in the first half of the century.

However, Davis, whose own articles have appeared many times on The Times’ commentary pages, is hardly evenhanded. He does not acknowledge the paper’s nearly four-decade-old efforts to be a reliable news source for all--except indirectly, in that he frequently and uncritically draws upon its reporting as the basis for his own.

In his chapter on tornadoes, Davis is so zealous about The Times’ culpability that he ignores an alternative explanation for the “amnesia,” advanced in a report commissioned by the National Research Council after the 1983 twister.

That report fingered the National Weather Service, not the local news media, as the cause of public ignorance about a tornado threat. It said that the Weather Service historically had “refused to acknowledge the possibility of tornadoes in the Los Angeles area. Thus citizens and city personnel had little general understanding of any potential tornado problem. It was believed by most people that tornadoes only occur in the Midwest.”

The report contrasted the Weather Service’s resistance to using the word “tornado” with attitudes of “the popular press [which] has used that term for years.”

Davis was aware of the National Research Council report. But he wrote about it as if it were some sort of a whitewash.

He claimed that its authors recommended ignoring the threat.

“[T]hey acknowledged the absence of engineering standards for tornadoes in the building code but reassured the public (without further explanation) that proposed earthquake safety ordinances would deal with the tornado as well,” he wrote.

Actually, they specifically recommended that “a set of guidelines for tornado-resistant design should be developed.”

Shown a copy of the report, Davis says he missed this section, along with the part that blamed the National Weather Service.

Portrayal of Deadly 1982 Fire

Davis hits bottom when he applies similarly careless standards to an individual rather than an institution.

In writing about one of Los Angeles’ deadliest fires, a blaze that killed 24 people and a fetus at the Dorothy Mae Apartment Hotel near downtown in the summer of 1982, Davis identifies the lead landlord by name, then points a finger at him. Davis accuses him of having deliberately ignored fire safety laws at the building, which he describes as a “rent plantation.”

“Although the Dorothy Mae was equipped with fireproof ‘Ponet doors,’ ” Davis wrote in his only comment on culpability, “these were illegally propped open. The absentee owners had pointedly ignored repeated citations from fire inspectors.”

Davis based the assessment on a news account about the co-owners settling a civil lawsuit brought by 130 survivors for more than $2 million.

But Fire Department and court records show a much more complicated situation.

They show that:

* After repeated citations, the owners made all the repairs that were required of them and passed their last two inspections with no problems.

* One of the fire doors had indeed been propped open at the time of the blaze, causing the fire to flash from a hallway to a stairwell, where it engulfed people trying to flee.

* Propped open fire doors, which had been the subject of repeated citations, were a continuing problem; the building manager told an investigator that he regularly found them propped open by tenants seeking better ventilation in hot weather and that he regularly closed them.

* The building manager’s teenage nephew is now serving a sentence of 625 years to life for setting the blaze by drunkenly pouring 98 cents worth of gasoline in a second floor hallway in the middle of the night, then igniting it with a match. In his murder confession, he said he was angry at his uncle for kicking him and some gang friends out of the building.

“Maybe I should have mentioned the arson,” Davis says when it is called to his attention as possibly relevant to a discussion of culpability. “But I’m not too much interested in arbitrating guilt. . . . What really matters are the conditions that transform the inevitable spark into a conflagration. . . . The problem is the inadequate codes and inadequate enforcement.”

He added: “This is not a Marxist thing where the landlord is always to blame.”

It’s All in the Eye of the Beholder

When all is said and done, whether Davis’ factual problems are perceived as tolerable foibles or unforgivable flaws depends largely on which part of his persona is given greater weight.

That a polemicist would use hyperbole and be more wedded to making a persuasive argument than sticking scrupulously to facts is not particularly surprising. But Davis also calls himself a historian (he says he has accepted an appointment in the history department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook) and factual problems in a historian’s work invite attack.

Davis’ main point in “Ecology of Fear” is, in its way, highly civic-minded.

Natural--and by extension, social--disasters here are viewed by most people preoccupied with day-to-day existence as extraordinary occurrences.

Davis argues that this is a serious flaw given the history of a region in which recurring riots, floods, debris flows, droughts, earthquakes and even tornadoes can be looked at as rather ordinary events.

Although he once described his book as having an “utterly radical political agenda, no holds barred,” many of his assessments seem quite restrained, even common-sensical. For example:

Short-term cost-saving considerations have influenced decisions not to make structures as safe as they could be from earthquakes and other dangers;

Local cultural norms have prized private spaces over public;

Developers and their allies have allowed relatively unregulated sprawl to trump planning;

Wealthy people have gotten better treatment than poor people;

Racism has been a factor in important public policy decisions.

Davis adds up these not-hard-to-believe observations to argue that they make Los Angeles an unsafe and unfriendly place.

This kind of assertion can’t be fact-checked. It is a relative judgment--a way of looking at the world.

Davis, of course, shares the same vantage point as everyone else. He is just one of those rare individuals down among the trees, who is curious, bright and audacious enough to put together clues about the overall shape of the forest.

He may be right about what the forest looks like, but he is not consistently reliable in describing the trees.


Times reference librarian Peg Eby-Jager contributed to this story.