Apocalyptic Look at L.A. Sparks Literary Fistfight
Is author Mike Davis’ “Ecology of Fear” a brilliant book about L.A. “beautifully written, frequently contentious and always fascinating”? Is it “indispensable to any understanding of Los Angeles”?
Or is the same book an L.A.-hating perversion--”a work of fiction in which only the names are correct” and “self-promoting, city-trashing rot”?
This is the occasionally ugly literary screaming match that has broken out over “Ecology of Fear,” which describes Los Angeles as an “apocalypse theme park” besieged by class struggles and numerous natural disasters.
Davis, 52, is widely regarded as an urban prophet, a gloomy socialist who has become the preeminent analyst of Los Angeles’ soul. He refers to L.A. as a place “where the future has turned rancid.” He’s given to frosty distillations like: “Los Angeles, with its estimated 500 gated subdivisions, 2,000 street gangs, 20,000 sweatshops and 100,000 homeless residents, is a dystopian symbol of Dickensian inequalities and intractable racial contradictions.”
The trucker-turned-scholar’s reputation skyrocketed last spring when he received a $315,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. But recent commentaries have differed sharply over the accuracy of his work. This fall, an anti-Davis drumbeat began, with scholars and commentators questioning his research.
“A lot of writers are tired of Mike Davis being rewarded again and again, culminating in the MacArthur fellowship, for telling the world what a terrible place L.A. is,” said Kevin Starr, state librarian and a USC professor of policy, planning and development. “They have taken the tack of attacking his use of sources, his scholarly research, and have come up with quite a few embarrassing items. . . . This should be a wake-up call to him to smell the roses, to see L.A. as something other than a case study in apocalyptic meltdown.”
Davis says he stands behind his work and his worldview. “I don’t write books to have everybody agree; I write books to have serious debates,” he said. “But this seems to be an interminable tempest in a teapot.”
The mud fight has bordered on vicious, with one anti-Davis columnist bringing up Davis’ several marriages and quoting an ex-wife. (“What does the number of my marriages have to do with the book except to imply that I am some kind of degenerate?” Davis asked.)
Some of Davis’ critics hail from solid academic circles. Others come from unlikely corners, like Malibu real estate agent Ross Ernest Shockley, who uses the pseudonym Brady Westwater and has become a self-appointed fact checker of Davis.
Davis and his supporters say his mainstream success and his leftist politics--not his scholarship--prompted the firestorm.
“I understand having acquired a public stature and being someone with unpopular ideas that I’m going to get attacked--being a socialist in America today, you better have a thick skin,” Davis said. “There is a kind of intolerance in the city for people who say things that went wrong haven’t been fixed.”
History or Opinion?
It is the fact that Davis can write in a way that makes him accessible to the masses, unlike some of his academic colleagues, that prompts jealousy, supporters say. It is the fact that Davis--a latecomer to academia who attended UCLA at age 28--won the prestigious grant that has irked peers, they contend.
“Mike Davis is a really brilliant debater and he has a very vivid writing style,” said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), who has known Davis since they were both involved in Students for a Democratic Society in the early ‘60s.
Said RJ Smith, a staff writer with Spin magazine who was a Getty Fellow at the same time as Davis: “He’s one of the first writers brave enough to shed the mask of boosters and give a 360-degree view of L.A. It’s a harsh and great form of respect for the city that he has done it; and I think the city is far better off in a long run because of his work.
“It shows the effectiveness and power of Mike Davis’ work that it drives his critics nuts; it’s a tribute in a way. Mike Davis is a great storyteller--that is his strength and his weakness.”
But detractors say Davis cherry-picks facts to support his grim theories, omitting information that undermines his conclusions. Tales of sloppiness abound--he misspelled the last name of former Gov. George Deukmejian in his 1990 L.A. book, “City of Quartz.” He referred to savings and loan heir Howard Ahmanson, a Christian, as Jewish. (Davis acknowledges he’s a lousy speller and that Ahmanson wrote an angry letter demanding an apology.)
These objections have not seemed to matter. “City of Quartz” has become a mainstay of urban study courses nationwide. “Ecology of Fear” stayed firmly planted on The Times’ bestseller list for 14 weeks.
Davis’ friends concede that his enemies were handed a powerful weapon when it was revealed two months ago that he had concocted a conversation with environmentalist Lewis MacAdams for a 1989 cover story in L.A. Weekly.
Before Davis’ 1989 piece was printed, he ran it by MacAdams, both men have said. In a Nov. 27, 1998, article for the Weekly, MacAdams wrote, “I was amazed to discover that he’d fabricated an entire interview with me: We were standing together at the Fremont Gate entrance to Elysian Park, a place I’d never been.
“Though we’d never actually talked, the words he put in my mouth made me sound like I knew a lot more about the Los Angeles River than I actually did. I told him to go ahead with the piece just the way it was.”
Davis remembers the incident differently. He says he and MacAdams had talked before he wrote up his account of their conversation. In part, Davis said he fabricated their discussion because MacAdams “wasn’t very satisfactory as an interview.” In part, Davis said his action sprang from inexperience.
“I’d never done a big journalistic piece; I prepared what I told him was a shooting script,” Davis recalled. “I’m not a working journalist. Yeah, it was a mistake but should that discredit my writings as a historian? I think not.”
As the online magazine Salon pointed out, “unlike journalistic outcasts like [Stephen] Glass [of the New Republic] and Boston Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, whose fast and loose dealings with reality led to disgrace and dismissal, Davis has paid no price for his freewheeling ways.”
The problem, critics say, is that Davis presents his strident historical analysis as fact.
“If he wrote essays on L.A. and didn’t present it as history, no one could have any quibbles,” said Bryce Nelson, a USC professor of journalism who reviewed Davis’ first book for the New York Times.
As an example of Davis’ tendency toward hyperbole, Nelson pointed to a chapter in “Ecology of Fear,” called “Our Secret Kansas,” on tornadoes in Southern California.
Davis writes that tornadoes pummel Southern California and are under-reported: “For many decades, the existence of local tornadoes was essentially a trade secret of meteorologists and weather buffs.”
Davis says “more than 75 destructive tornadoes” have hit California’s southern coastal counties since 1918. The tornadoes caused structural damage and injuries but none claimed lives, he writes. His tornado statistics are derived from the work of UCLA experts who traced tornadoes back to the ‘50s, combined with his own reading of newspaper accounts going back to 1918. He also alleges that newspapers have engaged in a cover-up of negative events like tornadoes.
Says Nelson: “If we had real tornadoes, we would know about it.”
Davis says that this essay has been misunderstood.
“The tornado chapter is not an attempt to invoke tornadoes as a major hazard,” Davis said. “The chapter really is a study in environmental amnesia. The whole purpose is to say: Look, why is it we have trouble recognizing what’s before our faces? We live in a dynamic environment.”
Mistakes Offer Ammunition
Some critics say part of the problem is that Davis’ valid points become obscured by the same breathless tone that discusses tornadoes, disease-plagued squirrels, and the notion that Malibu wildfires claim an inequitable portion of money and manpower compared to inner-city tenements.
Other detractors, like Joel Kotkin, believe a pattern emerges in Davis’ work.
“We all make mistakes but these are gratuitous and, in some cases, obvious fabrications,” said Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institutes for Public Policy and a contributing editor to The Times’ Opinion section.
“It’s not like nothing he says makes sense, but he’s so full of exaggeration,” said Kotkin, also a research fellow at the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank. “He’s an ideological zealot who doesn’t want to hear any contradictory information.”
As an example, Kotkin points to Davis’ mention of Hancock Park, a pricey section west of downtown. Although Davis observes that home prices dropped by $200,000 the year after the 1992 riot, he neglects to mention that home prices also rebounded, Kotkin said. Nor does Davis note that home prices had dropped across Southern California, having peaked in 1991.
Gregory Rodriguez, a senior fellow with the Washington-based New America Foundation, says it’s Davis’ unrelentingly dark perspective--not his politics or his scholarship--that turns him off.
“This guy could be writing about cars and be apocalyptic; he’s apocalyptic no matter what,” he said. “This gloom and doom breeds defeatism.”
Rodriguez also believes that Davis’ view of Latinos and minorities as victims of Los Angeles’ white power structure is patronizing. “He and many other Los Angeles thinkers, white and nonwhite, have tended to underestimate the ability of poor people to overcome the obstacles they face,” Rodriguez said.
Philip Ethington, a USC associate professor of history, argues that Davis is not alone in bestowing various attributes to Los Angeles that, upon scrutiny, may seem unsubstantiated. “Before we rush to condemn Mike Davis’ scholarship, we ought to look at the larger body of scholarship on Los Angeles and see if it’s been too incautious in its claims for this city,” said Ethington. “I’ve been finding these kinds of errors in others.”
Ethington recently examined footnotes from various scholars’ essays, including one by Davis called “How Eden Lost Its Garden,” which became a chapter in “Ecology of Fear.”
Ethington found two of Davis’ footnotes problematic. The most significant one pertained to the claim that “by 1970, one-third of the surface area of the Los Angeles region was dedicated to the car: freeways, streets, parking lots, and driveways.”
In examining Davis’ footnote, Ethington discovered that his source actually referred to the surface area of far more urbanized Los Angeles city, an area that would be a small fraction of the vast region.
“It’s a scientific error; he grossly exaggerated a claim,” said Ethington. “It’d be possible to pave 100% of L.A. city, and it would still present less than half the region.”
Davis believes Ethington is “nit-picking and splitting hairs.”
Another unspoken agenda is at play, Davis said. “Some historians--not all historians--don’t want to give full recognition to work that’s not done by someone who doesn’t have a PhD and tenure, a paid-up member of the crowd.”
Davis, a Pasadena resident, is now considering leaving Los Angeles for reasons he says have nothing to do with the brouhaha over his work.
Several critics insist Davis’ worst enemy is common sense. Los Angeles, they say, is just not that bad.
“If this is hell,” says Nelson, “why is it so popular?”
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