‘City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles’ by Mike Davis

Alex Raskin is an Assistant Editor of the Book Review

The freeway has been a favorite metaphor for writers trying to fathom Los Angeles for so long that opinions about this town can be virtually divided into day and night views.

The night watchers tend to celebrate its long streams of pale yellow light, flowing over an intricate lacework of streets, as an elegant symbol of human accomplishment. Leading this school of thought is historian Kevin Starr, whose book “Material Dreams” showed how L.A.’s early leaders, or “boosters,” transformed a desert into a city with little more than dreams and derring-do.

Unfortunately, most writers seem inclined to view us in the less flattering light of day, when those long streams fade to reveal symbols of intractable problems, from isolated cars (separating classes and ethnicities in a city where dynamic public space is increasingly scarce) to snarled traffic (the consequence of a developer-dominated political Establishment that has set our collective sight on the short-term).


L.A.-bashing was a thriving industry, of course, long before Fred Allen dubbed this town “a nice place to live if you’re an orange.” But Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz” is the first major study to examine a broad range of “daytime” problems with consistent acuity.

An urban-history instructor at CalArts, Davis focuses on those less flattering realities that Starr passed over in pursuit of the dream: Where Starr hails the “Bismarckian municipal will” that created the mammoth Red Car transit system and San Pedro port virtually overnight, Davis reminds us that the same will also smashed L.A.’s labor movement; where Starr celebrates black leaders like Ralph Bunche, who saluted the “indomitable will and boundless optimism” of young African Americans, Davis reminds us that many more sympathized with Langston Hughes, who despaired that “so far as Negroes are concerned, Hollywood might just as well be controlled by Hitler.”

While Starr’s intent is to inspire the “dominant Establishment” of the present by focusing on the “courage and zest” of its predecessors, Davis’ approach ultimately proves more satisfying, for it forthrightly examines what increasing numbers of us secretly fear: the possibility that the bright future outlined by Starr and the Bradley Administration in the report “L.A. 2000” may be considerably less likely than the “Blade Runner” scenario.

The seeds for such a scenario are being sown, Davis writes, in local politicians’ financial dependence on wealthy developers like billionaire Donald Bren, which leads to an obsession about luring ever more capital into downtown that can eclipse other goals, such as bringing social programs into the inner city. Davis mounts a successful attack on the notion of growth-as-panacea in a brilliant exegesis on how cities cannot prosper by wealth alone.

They prosper, for example, because of a lively, home-grown culture that both reflects and shapes the local society. Our culture, on the other hand, has either been invented (the first “Los Angeles Fiesta,” which established the romantic “mission myth,” was actually an attempt to divert attention from a local Pullman strike) or imported.

Davis points out that while unprecedented billions of dollars in arts capital recently have poured in to establish high art institutions such as the Getty Center and MOCA, school-board financing for music and arts instruction has plummeted, key community arts workshops have closed, local jazz venues have folded one after another, black and Chicano film makers have lost much of their foundation support, and the East Los Angeles mural movement has virtually disappeared.


Local arts elites have begun to perceive this imbalance, Davis acknowledges, but he dismisses their intended correctives (e.g., Peter Sellars’ Los Angeles Festival, with its seductive motif of “Pacific Rim” culture) as merely attempts to “emphasize the glamorous upside of the current social polarization.”

Such sardonic phrases--vintage Davis--give us that pleasant feeling of savvy insiders contemplating the follies of others. But the same arch sensibility also leads Davis to rash conclusions, as when he suggests that our cultural Establishment is ignoring indigenous art as part of a conscious attempt to quell the underclass. In fact, arts leaders such as Sellars are merely anticipating that traditional festival and museum audiences, accustomed to contemplating the perfection of Greek sculpture in Malibu, might be taken aback by a popular indigenous group in Compton such as “N.W.A,” whose albums feature sirens and gunshots as backdrops to brutal tales of drug dealing, gang-banging and police confrontations.

Cities also prosper, Davis shows, when they have an abundance of inviting public space where different classes and ethnicities can intermix, if not interact. (Frederick Law Olmstead, “the father of Central Park,” saw these places as “the emollient of class struggle.”) Davis, however, offers countless examples of how this city is being hardened against the poor, either through walls that isolate buildings from streets, as in the “macho, menacing” architecture of Frank Gehry, or through a lack of social services. Because downtown east of Hill St. is devoid of public sources for drinking or washing, for instance, hundreds of homeless--many of them young Salvadoran refugees--are forced to drink and wash from the sewer effluent which flows down the Los Angeles River.

The fundamental danger of these literal and metaphorical walls is a kind of racism and indifference, which Davis captures well in a description, based on a Times article, of Nancy Reagan’s 1989 visit to an alleged rock-cocaine house in South Central Los Angeles.

While heavily armed SWAT commandos stormed the small stucco house, Reagan and Police Chief Daryl Gates sat across the street, nibbling fruit salad in a luxury motor home emblazoned “THE ESTABLISHMENT.” After “freshening her makeup,” Reagan visited the bungalow just long enough to frown at the tawdry wallpaper and drug-bust debris and declare: “These people in here are beyond the point of teaching and rehabilitating.”

Ultimately, neither a “daytime” nor a “nighttime” assessment of Los Angeles can be accurate in itself. Davis himself acknowledges the subjectivity of his impressions by beginning this study with Walter Benjamin’s observation that “a native’s book about his city will always be related to memoirs.”

Davis’ particular view of a city without community emerges largely from his expectation--nurtured by his socialism, his work in urban theory and his decade-long sabbatical in the dynamic public city of London--that community is to be found in parks, streets and other public places.

Many of us who grew up in L.A.’s comfortable suburbs, on the other hand, were exposed to another kind of community, to be found not in the streets but in the “plaza” of popular culture. Los Angeles might appear to have less civic discourse than other cities of its size, but in fact the ideals and aspirations of this community have been defined in countless novels, films and songs, from Raymond Chandler to Randy Newman.

It is a dreamy and romantic culture, longing for the distant past (the Old West of Ronald Reagan’s ranch, the lush jungle Eden of former Tarzana resident Edgar Rice Burroughs) or the distant future (the utopias of L.A.’s many science-fiction writers), but unsure of how to handle the civic present.

Our ambitious dreaming--made possible, as the writer Joan Didion has suggested, by a certain innocence about past defeats--might in fact motivate our unusually high economic productivity, which in 1989 enabled the GNP of Greater Los Angeles to exceed that of China.

Yet the value of losing our innocence and waking up to the “daytime” realities analyzed so well in “City of Quartz” appears to be rising as the very problems of growth--from water shortages to traffic bottlenecks--lead us further away from our imagined Eden.