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Reporting from the Scene of the Accident: Mike Davis on the American City
ntroduction Reading Mike Davis's work on Los Angeles 1 is like passing by a train wreck-it's too awful to look at, but you just can't tear your eyes away. That Davis has set out to examine the physical destruction of the city over time (due to, among other environmental and human forces, earthquakes, fires, mudslides, floods, droughts, tornadoes, vermin, plagues, riots, paramilitary policing, de-industrialization, public-sector disinvestment, and lots and lots of bulldozers) makes the train wreck analogy especially resonant; his exquisite accounts of the social and political destruction of Los Angeles, however, prove to be the far more unbearable attraction. This perverse fascination with the aftermath of catastrophe after catastrophe is not a function of how, or even whether, one is invested in Los Angeles. The preoccupation with details that dominates the denunciations of Davis's 1998 book on the city, Ecology of Fear, suggests that conservative cityboosters must be at least as caught up in the sight of blood and twisted metal as progressives who believe that everyone would benefit from gazing upon the ruins he has uncovered. Even without the scenes of disaster and mayhem Los Angeles would still be endlessly fascinating, if only because it is such a hyperactive producer of its own mythology. Prior to the 1990 publication of his first book on Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Davis was known in socialist quarters as a labour historian at New Left Review, and he continues to write about labour, environmental, and urban issues beyond Southern California's borders.2 Nevertheless, Davis is identified with, and has taken pains to identify himself
with, a city that has a special place in both the popular and
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Studies in Political Economy
scholarly imaginations. At this point, it is fair to say that Los Angeles's and Mike Davis's mystiques are intertwined. This association with Los Angeles has presumably been both a blessing and a burden for Davis who has been made famous, feted," and made infamous because of it (and who is presently migrating to New York). Naturally, Davis's popularity and notoriety are not equivalent to the scholarly or political significance of his three books and many dozens of articles. This body of writing can be evaluated in various ways, because Davis plays the cross-over role of critical popular scholar and because his interests range so widely. In this essay, I place his work, and the reaction to it, in the context of its boundary-spanning character. Davis has the most to say about Los Angeles, but he also comments presciently and perceptively on the larger picture of politics in the United States, and especially urban politics. He is a Marxist who does not necessarily privilege economic relations and he is a postmodernist (despite himselt), although gender is absent from his analyses. Ultimately, what makes Davis a significant intellectual force is that he has succeeded in entering into the public record critical accounts of the dynamics and origins of Los Angeles's compelling disasters, and placing them in the bigger picture of a quarter century of antiurbanism in American politics and political economy.
City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear Davis's epic books on
Southern California are the foundation of his work since his return to the United States from Britain in the late 1980s, and the heart of his work on urban matters. Intended as the first installments of a trilogy, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear take an encyclopaedic and etiological look at the panoply of maladies that have come to afflict the whole region, and the poorest parts of metropolitan Los Angeles above all. (Davis has promised that, in contrast, the third book "will be devoted to the radical, constructive forces in the city's future and past.t'<) City of Quartz is primarily a political economy of present-day Los Angeles, but it opens and closes in the early twentieth century, and far from the city's downtown. The book begins in the desert in a fleeting socialist commune whose ruins are perched on the edge of suburban development by the 1990s. It ends in Davis's hometown, where idyllic farmland for the middle classes became a steel town then a decrepit symptom of economic transformation 100
social justice. film." which manifests itself in outward movement to the edges of the metropolis and inward movement to defensible enclaves. and the identification in literature. and as distributing its costs and benefits in an unconscionably inequitable fashion. and ultimately carceral space. Two themes link the books: One is the hostility towards "otherness. Davis's attitude is also a powerful unifying theme. spatial.. He meticulously documents over time: the extreme tendencies of Southern California's natural ecology. 101 . policed. nearly unrestricted development that is increasingly divorced from the established urban core of Los Angeles) as environmentally untenable.Garber/American City and failed real estate schemes. and dystopian "nair" which abets the clamour for the fortified city. Political power constructed around property. always hovers in the background of his disappointment with the ways things have turned out thus far. Racial and ethnic inequality has taken two quantum leaps forward. and not without cause. In between is Los Angeles. Ecology of Fear explores a defining characteristic of Southern California-a social ecology built upon a fear of the wild. the culmination of the historical forces that wash over the whole metropolitan area. the attempt to thwart those tendencies by expanding the built environment and then to demonize them because they cannot be thwarted. Davis's striking attachment to Southern California's possibilities-for natural beauty. wealth. rapid. and pedigree defmes the physical and social landscape of Los Angeles. Los Angeles's image veers between utopian "sunshine" which ignores the devastation wrought by the economic changes. though the local founding elites now have rivals in foreign investors and activist middle-class property owners. and cultural richness-however. commodified. and politics of urbanity as nature's co-conspirator. Both books have regularly been called pessimistic and cynical. Davis presents this pattern of settlement (i. the other is the cultural and intellectual production of Los Angeles. with the evaporation of urban working-class jobs from the area's globally-integrated economy and with the production of (in Davis's most-cited words) "Fortress LA"-the triumph of privatized. and from factual to fictional dangers. which occurs in conjunction with the political. This fear gets transferred from natural to social threats.e. The vast human sprawl that takes up much of Southern California is a centrepiece of this ecology of fear. and economic processes shaping the city.
Davis and his supporters have publicly defended his facts as well as his (admittedly occasionally creative)? method of fact-gathering. and we can better approach it by asking this question: What is it exactly about Ecology of Fear that moved the Los Angeles cheerleaders to strike back? After all. in roughly that order. this aspect of the controversy is not terribly interesting for those who are not active participants in it."6) For their parts. and because they are not central to Davis's larger argument. Davis's allies have also been quick to point out that the real complaint against him is ideological. While I do not wish to downplay the importance of this ideological dispute. Westwater and company clearly have been motivated to act by Davis's unrelievedly bleak portraits of Los Angeles and his acid assessments of how it got to be that way-capitalism.t (Very few persons who consider themselves sympathetic to "Davis's overall project" have questioned his "gaffes.Studies in Political Economy L 'affaire Mike Davis The publication of Ecology of Fear touched off a furious conservative reaction. and ideology. It is probably not incidental to the reaction that Davis telegraphed draft sections of the book in magazine 102 . racism. political corruption. launched by a Malibu realtor writing under the name Brady Westwater. What is now ubiquitously called "the Mike Davis controversy" has been fought on the level of personality. Because many of the "factual" issues under dispute are actually matters of interpretation. " The controversy attending Ecology of Fear has thus far insinuated itself into and displaced more serious consideration of this book in particular and Davis's oeuvre in general. which in tum produced an outraged response from the left. African-American. Westwater's manifesto is a litany of disputed facts from the book and a broad attack on Davis's honesty. and young Angelenos. I believe that something subtler than either methodology or ideology is at issue.t One answer to this question is that Ecology of Fear can be seen as Davis's most provocative work because it has the audacity to question the very premise of Los Angeles. both sides of it are more or less predictable. and so this has also not been a very enlightening dimension of the "Mike Davis controversy. it is difficult to imagine a more serious indictment of the status quo than his early-1990s accounts of the mobilization of the local police state against poor. and hubris. Latino. Davis's previous writings can be every bit as subversive as Ecology of Fear-in the context of contemporary North American cities. methodology.
work.Garber/American City articles with such demure titles as "Let Malibu Burn"? and "Hell Factories in the Field. A second answer to the question about the timing of the attack on Davis is that Ecology of Fear. aims for exposure and political influence outside of the academy. regards as "the exception" Davis's "boundary-spanning contribution. especially compared with City of Quartz. though. has been too successful. Robert Beauregard."14 Los Angeles Writ Large Davis's detractors appear to comprehend the subversive possibilities contained within his critical popular scholarship. And Davis does not merely dabble in crossover writing. though erudite. the influence of Davis's crossover work must be judged from more than one perspective. he has been defined by it. Ecology of Fear has been widely received as a popular. whether because of its accessibility or the wide interest in environmental matters. as meatcutter-becomejournalist/professor of urban theory). that conjures up what must be one of the worst dreams of the right: that compelling leftist scholarship will be read by a substantial non-academic audience. through his writing and political activism. and their efforts to embarrass him publicly rather than engage with him on intellectual grounds reflect this understanding. The urbanist. as critical popular scholar (or. with Ecology of Fear Davis may now have come close enough to succeeding at the role of critical popular scholar within the Southern California milieu to require a concerted response. As I will discuss later in this article. his critics behave as if his 103 . Curiously. as his dust jacket biography would have it. From the perspective of those who feel moved to defend Los Angeles's virtue."12 Indeed. Davis is playing a role. as one professional Los Angeles-booster is reported to have despaired. which is rather like a collection of core samples taken at sites around greater Los Angeles. the argument of Ecology of Fear is relatively overt and consistent. By placing what he says specifically about Los Angeles under a microscope. who has lamented how few contemporary scholars are producing work that "arous[es] passionate urban debate"l1 within the public sphere. since publishing the theory-driven. "We'd like to ban that book. since he is attempting to reach multiple audiences in a variety of fashions. Or. in certain ways they also underestimate the force of Davis's work. Davis is the archetypal public intellectual who. rather dense Prisoners of the American Dream's in 1986."!" Furthermore.
ls in which the federal government (assisted by the State of California. and as a city whose character is increasingly defined by Mexican. It is not the case that this governing experiment lacks the assent of some portion of Los Angeles's citizenry and officialdom. Davis's Los Angeles is not. and quasi-governmental 104 . If they were taken as seriously as they deserve to be. to the contrary. In fact. if the city is read as a frequent recipient or site of national. and the disrespect of a climate and geology prone to cataclysm-is woven throughout these stories. the criminal appropriation of water in the service of capital. the American political logic of the day fairly demands negative state attention. it has been received all too enthusiastically by too many people. rather than simply as a generator of what is different and new. and Asian immigrants. This is.and state-level experiments in public policy and politics.t> Davis's portraits of Los Angeles are most powerful. Central American."!" Los Angeles is a temptation. particularly true with respect to urban matters (in the scheme of which Los Angeles is not as distinctive as we might like to believe). people. This is not to deny that the primary lure of Davis's work is his magnetic stories about a collection of specific places. but it is also true at a higher level. and relations that make up something called "Los Angeles. meant to be sui generis. of course. localities. staged mostly by poor African-Americans and Latinos. Davis's work leaves little room for doubt that Los Angeles is a laboratory for American politics and social relations.Studies in Political Economy insights and observations apply only to Los Angeles. what is important is that it uses Los Angeles-and specific groups of Angelenos-to advance more general types of goals whose interests are determinedly anti-urban and that "prefigur[ e] the ultimate absorption of the welfare state by the police state. 16 Los Angeles has been the proving ground for a portfolio of policy initiatives aimed at locating the repressive functions of the state at the level of the city. however. Davis's insights about the bankruptcy of American social values and political practices-not the possibility that he is defaming Los Angeles-ought to be at the forefront of conservative resentments. Davis sums up this attention as the New Urban Order. Rather. ultimately. As the host in a single generation of two historic urban rebellions." or that his respect for the distinctive Southern California historical contexta context rooted in the colonial-mission project of domination.
urban riot preparedness across the United States has involved military-model local policing and the military itself. Tobacco. complemented and encouraged by moves at the federal level. Undergirding this is the creation of a societal "consensus"-whether based on retribution. gangs. criminal law. This interest entails greater presence in traditional areas oflocal (and state) prerogative (primarily policing. and surveillance techniques. These include: the siting of penitentiaries and immigrant detention centres around the city. and community development) and the intensification. and in favour of local autonomy but not necessarily for older. a stepped-up and more broadly-construed federal interest in law enforcement in American inner cities. especially for urban use. agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration. which Davis calls "federalized and federally-driven. poorer cities. incarceration. they were. and Federal Bureau of Investigation were inserted into the African-American South Central and Latino MidCity areas of the city. at expelling families of drug offenders from public housing. Bureau of Alcohol. to test out and refine-a treasure chest of repressive governing strategies.2o Recent years have seen. and Army anti-terrorist manoeuvres conducted over downtown21 and miscellaneous policies aimed. The New Urban Order revolves around the control of immigrants (legal and undocumented). Border Patrol. Immigration and Nationalization Service."22 The federal presence was indeed extensive and multifaceted: the Marines and Army were deployed. This strategy was perfected in the reaction to Los Angeles's "Rodney King" riot of 1992. bias. and the poor. as well as the contraction of public space and public services available to the larger populace. however. of powers in existing areas of federal jurisdiction. education. Los Angeles serves as a model for what can be achieved with this governing strategy. one that is not reserved for crisis situations. street gangs.23 and United States Attorneys were set to work searching for crimes to prosecute under federal statutes.Garber/American City bodies) avails itself of all opportunities to practise-that is. or fear19-in favour of "big government" but for the purposes of social control instead of social welfare.a 105 . Davis documents draconian campaigns in the late 1980s against drugs. and immigrants. This degree of control requires advanced law-enforcement. however. for example. criminals. Since the Watts uprising of 1965. Again. and Firearms. These were carried out by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Measured in terms of superfluous punitiveness (more. to the South and West) has meant more representation in state legislatures and Congress for these places and their residents' interests. by joint agreement of both political parties. The shift in population on a local scale to wealthy. Because the people attached to untolerated immigration. under the assumption that such natural disasters must actually be the work of an "incendiary Other. and younger. even if Southern California is among the places that are most receptive to these politics.29 but early on he understood the forces animating what was becoming a bipartisan electoral majority in the United States.w In this geographical reconfiguration of urban politics. these policies are. crime. It goes beyond even what Davis predicted in the grim year after the urban riots of 1992-the historic abolition of welfare entitlements would not come until 1996-although it is in essence a flourish on the story of anti-urbanism that Davis has been narrating since the 1980s.27 This experiment is founded. Davis was not the first to point out the shrinking representation of central city concerns in national politics. the leading edge of American urban policy. people in prison serving harsh sentences. more illegal immigrants stripped of due process rights and public services). politically.st Such a political foundation is not unique to Los Angeles. Davis argued that this was a "broad right" of the professional and entrepreneurial beneficiaries of post-Fordism. Since the mid-1990s. and welfare has figured conspicuously in the business of the federal government. In Prisoners of the American Dream.Studies in Political Economy Southern California's wildfires since 1992 have also attracted a federal police presence. this legislation represents the noncrisis version of the federalization described above. more citizens and legal immigrants without social assistance. largely white localities (and on a national scale. and welfare-at least as these categories are conceptualized in the dominant political discourse-are concentrated in central cities26 and inner-ring suburbs. "25 Los Angeles must be seen as part of a more extensive pattern of governance. in practice if not in name. the passage and enforcement of a network of laws against immigration. on the large cache of electoral resources embedded in newer suburbs and in the "edge cities" where high-end post-industrial economic activities are increasingly concentrated. built at the expense of refugees from the declining industrial economy. location within metropolitan areas correlates with a set of variables 106 . crime.
Garber/American City including economic positioning. and cultures of cities. These tradeoffs occur because Republicans and Democrats follow easy electoral resources. parks. though. disaster relief following the series of grand-scale fires. environments. in California's case. first. explicit policy tradeoffs follow that are traumatic for central cities and close-in suburbs. rich or poor. years-or. and they adhere to a common. no "either/or" framework can capture the tremendously complex relationships that are at issue in the politics. At the national level. 107 . the prevailing political configurations meant that there would be less money for poor urban (and rural) communities. against regular social programs. white or black. tertiary-sector jobs for Latino(a) and African-American residents-it let slip away to white suburbs and "edge cities" the "back-office jobs" that provide an entree into the information economy for people in cities "hard-hit by plant closings. decades-of massive withdrawal of public-sector funding have very literally destroyed streets. and political resources. economies.P The Urban and the City These tales of Los Angeles's recent history. and hurricanes in the mid-1990s was framed by Congress and the Administration as a trade-off. For example. even. developer or environmentalist. after the Los Angeles 1992 riot. "the governor and legislature in Sacramento figuratively burned down the city a second time with billions of dollars of school and public-sector cutbacks. second. While Americans have con- sistently resisted facing up to the relational aspects of urbanity. Davis offers that. power and wealth flow outward from the old urban centres to the peripheries of the metropolises. floods. earthquakes. to exacerbate their cities' disaster scenarios. racial and ethnic composition. Davis reports that whereas Los Angeles officials cultivated shopping and hotel development downtown-and thus low-end."32 In fact. and buildings in whole cities or parts of cities. are revealing and compelling. post-industrial economic logic that sorts cities and neighbourhoods into winners and losers. As Davis points out in the Southern California context. Clearly. In short. ideology. among affected communities and. and of the war on American cities."3l Politicians are willing. They may also be problematic because they encourage the inclination to frame urban issues in the United States in terms of mutually exclusive propositions-suburb or city. geographies. Inevitably. either in the form of disaster relief or social spending.
." For the purposes of broader considerations of urban form. in combination with the irreconcilable interests at play in the scenarios described above. In some senses Southern California is all urban. distributed impacts on cost and quality of living. and wildlife. and it sets in motion the creeping political disempowerment of older suburbs.g. it also catalyzes the very social tensions that drive movement outward}? This is one aspect of the "ecology of fear. armed communities and the reduction ofunmediated. this approach is conceptually and analytically sloppy. settling upon fault lines where catastrophic earthquakes-maybe even the Big One-are destined to occur) or interfering with the natural environment in ways that increase its danger (e. significantly spread-out development diminishes livability. by enticing us to conflate them. Even for those who choose to live and work farther from the city and its problems. Davis's taking for granted the relational qualities of urbanity must be a major contributing factor to his unnerving tendency to treat everything from the Mexican border to northern Los Angeles County as Los Angeles. to contemplate the crucial point that "the urban" is not equivalent to "the city. On the one hand. When Southern Californians are not expressing outright "malice towards the landscape. Davis clearly knows the difference between Los Angeles and the whole of Southern California. though certainly not evenly. and it misses (or at least does not examine) the experience of many Southern Californians who do not consider themselves within Los Angeles's orbit. Los Angeles also exists within a regional economy encompassing at least the Southwest United States. Sprawl itself has widely. Latin America."36 they are becoming inured to the inevitable cycles of nature (e. so shrinking the natural habitat of mountain lions and cougars that they end up roaming suburban neighbourhoods). paradoxically. Significantly. On the other hand..Studies in Political Economy Davis is always aware that they exist. uncorporatized public space. water. and 108 . because sprawl increases social segmentation. or perhaps part of its logic. even formerly remote desert and mountain areas (now urban) are part of a reaction to Los Angeles.g." and it takes various forms-besides the regulation of those who are fearedamong which are self-incarceration in fortified.v A primary message of Ecology of Fear is that an entire regional ecosystem is implicated in Los Angeles's profligate attitude towards the land. Los Angeles can stand for Southern Califomiatbecause what is urban spills out far over its city limits. Davis draws us.
It is impossible. Stated somewhat differently thanks to CNN and the rappers NWA. for wealthy white homeowners to completely seal themselves off from the implications of unfettered development in places that perhaps ought to have been left alone. the importation of fmance capital from Japan and Hong Kong to West Coast cities.s? Here. the logical starting point for a discussion about a regional consciousness might be how to mitigate future disasters through such undramatic measures as prudent land-use planning and attention to environmental needs. Davis's insights about the relationship between the city and the urban go well beyond "we're all in it together. and however much his panoramic outlook is crucial to adequately capturing as 109 .Garber/American City the Pacific Rim. the exchange of goods. and casual workers from Central America and China. This economic system requires the importation to Southern California of domestic. In other urban settings in North America. The fact that the wealthy try to insulate themselves. and even the movement of workers between cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. and are significantly more successful at it than undocumented Guatemalans. and policing. too. or at least treated gently. he comes to question the sustainability ofthe basic ethic of Southern California. Instead. the urban and the city are not equivalent-Los Angeles owes its "world city" status directly to this large urban economy and the role and status differentiation within it. or any laid-off defense workers. and believes it cries out to be examined even by those who have benefitted from it or have attempted to escape it. and economic viability. Malibu and Beverly Hills are not pretty sights either. where geological and climatic catastrophes are not what is implicated in overdevelopment.s! The Reluctant Postmodernist However impressively broad Davis's scope of interests and knowledge may be. poverty. does not negate the ultimate futility of the project. sweatshop. as Davis suggests. environmental protection. and culture across all borders. economic exchanges also entail a densely woven fabric of households. similar discussions are beginning to take place around regional quality of life.38 At the cities and maquiladoras on the United StatesMexican border. pollution. Given the evident pattern of "natural" disasters that Davis documents." not surprisingly. we might be able to envision brutal landscapes in South Central Los Angeles and Compton.sv but when the wildfires rage and the earth shifts. tourists. poor African-Americans.
determinant view of class gives him some postmodern credibility. This. depending on where you look and what you are looking for." the reality he reports 110 . because he is so deeply ensconced in the task of bringing to the fore the symbolic value and political significance of popular cultural (novels. of culture-because it celebrates the theme park inclinations of the postmodern era as if they were inevitable and inviting." 46A case can be made that Davis's methodology-which Chernaik characterizes nicely as "a thick description. and levels of frustration and anger that culminate in group violence. explanator. "by hyping Los Angeles as the paradigm of the future (even in a dystopian vein). . it remains difficult to resist the temptation to pigeonhole him. of social arrangements.glamorize the very reality they would deconstruct"45 and deny "the rebellious subject..O As Laura Chernaik has commented. and explained. merely indicates that Davis's work encompasses patently Marxist and postmodern elements. Two components of restructuring-the absence of living-wage jobs and government cutbacks-account for the geo-political shifts discussed above. etc. Davis plays with. the tum of inner-city African-American and Latino youths to the global business of drug-dealing. It is easiest to see Davis as a socialist because those are his roots and what he wears on his sleeve. most evidently beginning with City of Quartz. Davis is declared "postmodernist" somewhat less often than he is called "Marxist. Class started out as and remains the constant in Davis's work-it plays a starring role in the American political economy as topic of inquiry. whether appreciatively or disparagingly. film.w Whether he wants this credibility is another issue. music. Davis is contemptuous of postmodernism as a style---of architecture. This non-monolithic and non..Studies in Political Economy complex an entity as Los Angeles. uses those labels. I think. Similarly. but few feel the need to justify them. not a meta-theory'<t-i-also is postmodem. of spatial governance and design.) and urban spatial forms. Davis also refuses to privilege class over spatial relations and practices.42 Davis's Marxism operates in the foreground but it is quite permissive in that it takes race and ethnicity as parallel and in some senses co-equal to class as producers of injustice. he is cool to postmodern critiques that. and thus "problematizes. art. Central to his analysis of Los Angeles is the devastating impact ofpost-Fordist restructuring on male members of what was formerly the urban working class." Nearly everyone who reviews his work.
his perspective on them is enriched by his analysis of narrative. Of all of Davis's publications.ts Gender in the City of Quartz The stylistically postmodern elements in Davis's writing are also reminiscent of feminist and queer scholarly forms. As a consequence of discriminatory unions.female clerical proletariat and to Southern workers in general. Davis argues that because of the "failure to extend union organization to the . and gender remains. they serve on city council. not the biological category) has not until very recently entered into Davis's calculus. though it is in fact slight. for the city is a fruitful source of research on relationships between gender. and political discourse. Prisoners of the American Dream and his recent article on the "Latinization" of big cities-? grant the most attention to the possible importance of gender. an enigma at best and a wrench in the labour movement at worst. and political power in Los Angeles.Garber/American City on. they choose pets over maids when evacuating their burning neighbourhoods. and myth in popular culture. welfare. labour solidarity was broken and women and African-Americans were not fully integrated into the mass consumption economy. his work could never be taken seriously as feminist or queer. housing. religion. Davis's hopes for a kind of "rainbow 111 . 52 He does not go beyond this observation. transportation. though he has undeniable attachments to such concrete modernist signposts as land and political action. Davis may be a postmodernist despite himself. The presence of this vacuum in such comprehensive accounts of Los Angeles as Davis's has been vexing. they perish in tenement fires.s? as well as other aspects of gender and of sexuality at the local level. they ride buses to their jobs in suburban houses. Still. and geography.. space. In the book. Because Davis has been notably inattentive both to gender and to the significant body of gender-based urban theory and analysis. Women (though nobody identified as lesbian or gay) figure in his tales: they are labour organizers at Las Vegas and Los Angeles hotels. economic restructuring. however. Finally. they make activist art. however. immigration.. and so we are left in the dark about the meaning of the gendered division of access to employment. as in classical Marxist analysis. they write apocalyptic books about Los Angeles. gender (the social relationship. symbol." by the postwar period "racial and sexual divisions in the workforce"51 came to dominate.
for example. and hospitality industries changed the complexion of union organizing. Societal antipathy towards female heads of households. factoring in gender would more completely explain the particular kinds of punitive policies such as "welfare reform" and cuts to publicly-assisted housing that are directed broadly at the poor and urban-dwellers. armed. but whose impact falls sharply and disproportionately on women and children. local circumstances of Latina immigrant communities. immigrant. In Davis's urban analysis. what are the consequences of cities composed increasingly of poor women and children? As women become a majority of Latin American and Asian immigrants to some United States cities.v The role that these female immigrants might play in coalitional progressive politics remains unexplored.56 how does their economic and geographic concentration shape their potential political power? How has the feminization of service workers in the textile. and how should it? Questions like these are meaningful because taking gender seriously (or taking it into account at all) would enrich or perhaps even shift Davis's analytical and normative frameworks. branch of 112 . compared with both immigrant men and white non-immigrant women. garment. Davis refers briefly to the particular. however. or poor.w echoing the criticism expressed in Prisoners of the American Dream. and privatized. 53 In the article. would also help account for the movement of such policies to their present extremes. First. they face disadvantages in the labour force and at home. Davis goes beyond that observation to a recognition that Latinas constitute a significant immigrant group in and of themselves and that. These policies make even more sense if we pay heed to the electoral power of the neo-conservative.Studies in Political Economy coalition" of labour and civil rights social movements defines the latter exclusively in racial and ethnic terms. but how open was it ever to women and gays? Was the previous division between public and private in the city even relevant to those groups? As African-American men disappear from their nuclear families because of imprisonment or premature death. that Puerto Rican immigrant and African-American women in New York remain in economic ghettos because of the exclusionary practices of unions. as opposed to the neo-liberal. the absence of any sustained or full consideration of gender begs a number of questions: space was more democratic in Los Angeles when it was not gated. especially if they are AfricanAmerican. He notes.
City of Quartz does lend itself to being christened a "classic. Beauregard doubted (before the publication of Ecology of Fear) that Davis's work had migrated far enough outside academia to effectively stimulate widespread debate.. to public debate.w Though it is perhaps early in the game for such judgements. 59 If citations and book reviews are any indication of scholarly impact. Websites from several European countries are among the dozens where Davis shows up. he grants interviews in on-line 113 . space and design disciplines. Analyses emerging from these frameworks could make more explicit the possibilities contained in coalition-building across an array of intertwining interests. By more local standards.e. regional studies.62 It is true that books as challenging as Davis's are unlikely to provoke the kind of national discussion about the state of American cities that Beauregard would desire.s? seems to have internalized more deeply than Davis58 the current importance to labour of solidarity around lesbian. gay. law. Davis seems to have his credentials there.Garber/American City the "new right. and to political and social causes. criminology. whether for the purposes of labour-union organizing or for more general political goals. Ironically and unfortunately. for he attempts to make three distinct kinds of contributions-to intellectual discourses. one of Davis's hardest-line conservative critics. and cultural studies. furthermore." The importance of feminist or queer frameworks may also lie in the solutions they suggest (for political action).s! In terms of influence in the public sphere. there is reason to say that Davis has made an impact beyond academia. and popular culture. fiction. and feminist issues. but also in the literature on ethnicity studies. urban studies and ideologically left journals). Davis's Influence To return to the matter of Davis's critical popular scholarship. what is its influence? This is a difficult question." which at least one commentator has already done. Joel Kotkin. References to Davis's work on the city show up not only in the expected places (i. its success revived interest in City of Quartzst If penetration into the channels of popular culture and electronic communication signifies recognition and respect outside academia. Davis's writings on Los Angeles appear to have made a big impression on left-leaning academics across the social sciences. stirring heated (if sometimes uninspiring) debate. Ecology of Fear has reached farther into the public realm than City of Quartz.
of no academic or journalist writing on the contemporary United States who has better peripheral vision than Mike Davis. Davis is. the media. however. His tabloid-style intellectualism reaches the educated left whether in the academy. however. including the Internet. His writing. a historian. But we should be clear that this is a particular. The originality of Davis's work emanates from the fact that he weighs in compellingly on perhaps a couple of dozen subject areas. The latter function is especially significant because it speaks to many readers who might only hear the news of the politics of gang truces or disaster relief from Davis. beginning with Westwater's tract and accompanying e-mail messages to joumalists. and his renown increasingly flows from his interest in environmental and cultural issues. is not at all populist in terms of style or the venues in which it appears. where he both participates in and provides accounts of the action. though. nuanced kind of popularity. Neither does the breadth of his vision trump or diminish the work of any of the many other astute students of Los Angeles. and that he can convincingly demonstrate why they cannot reasonably be viewed in isolation from each other. Davis's politics are firmly embedded in the grassroots and in the radical. Davis is not the definitive historian of Southern California nor the most sophisticated theorist of the urban manifestations of globalization. is neither to join with his conservative critics in denigrating his disaster-scene focus (as overly-negative.for his influence on musicians-no minor sign of mainstream popular cultural cachet. or the larger public. and he has received mentions in Rolling Stone and Billboards. A dubious distinction along these lines is the fact that a significant portion of the campaign against him has also been conducted via the Internet. and elitist) nor to make any assumptions about the audience for vivid accounts of shootings and firestorms. false. Yet for my money-and I confess my disciplinary bias here-he is frequently most impressive as a political observer and analyst.66 I am aware. Davis's reportage is sensational. His 1993 two-part postmortem for New Left Review of the political response (or lack thereot) to the Los Angeles riot is among Davis's 114 . some of whom are tilling the same patches of ground as Davis. To point that out. It most often takes the form of dispatches from the front.s> and including many articles in electronic publications like Salon Magazine. by training.Studies in Political Economy magazines.
social segregation. It is difficult to overstate the centrality of land and physical space to the business of cities. citizenship privileges. perceptive. Davis is also an obsessive chronicler of the politics of control over land. Disneyland. such as colonialism. then Canadian. and punishments. Davis places the riot and repressive response upon the late twentieth century American tripod of antiurbanism (the key component of which is racism). as well as the geographic distribution of people and "nature. in which he foresaw the implications of the post-industrial and neo-liberal context of the Reagan era for cities. In this pair of articles. and wry-it is less mannered than related discussions in other writings. it is certainly among his most theoretically developed work and can be read as a disheartening coda to Prisoners of the American Dream. and the neutering of both the Democratic Party and labour unions as political forces for progress. and how it insinuates itself into the nooks and crannies of local issues. The 1992 presidential primaries were already vacuous by the time of the April riots. left politics. This is not to deny that. Although still signature Davis-angry. it is difficult to escape the conclusion from his accounts of the politics of Southern California's land that the compulsion to develop-to master the 115 . although it is easy to lose that point within the urge to focus on urban "spatiality" and the metaphorical "spaces" of the city. land use policy may well be the agent of other. physical. and accumulation (Davis would certainly emphasize the latter). political control. Davis provides copious detail about the influence of hometown. it remains a vitally important observation. Moreover. to figure cities into their campaign was especially despicable given the enormity of Los Angeles's need for economic. Nevertheless. this oldest story of North American local government retains its instructional value. He also confides that "[a]ffiuent homeowners are the secret power in Los Angeles. within Southern California. political power. and now East Asian real estate interests on downtown Los Angeles. the outcomes of struggles to define images and discourses increasingly determine the distribution of wealth.Garber/American City very best writing. distinct compulsions. economic globalization. and racial justice in the United States." Moreover."67 and although this is actually not a secret. and social rebuilding. Davis is as devastating as anybody when it comes to his urbanist's-eye view of Bill Clinton. Even in the shadow of postmodernism's poster child. including candidate Clinton. but the profound unwillingness of the Democrats.
"Who Killed LA? A Political Autopsy. He writes: "No city. Davis's characteristically pungent images of Los Angeles help create the "spectacle" that even he admits is "difficult to resist. and that localities are the primary vehicles for fulfilling such compulsions."72 His Los Angeles-like every other Los Angeles. apolitical. Conclusion Mike Davis is not unaware of Los Angeles's "propensity for spectacular disaster"68-whether actual or imagined-and its ability to draw gawkers for just that reason. I. natural Los Angeles." New Left Review 197 (1993). and made the case that this condition is not preordained. Mike Davis. although they probably help sell the book. for example. including that of its boosters-is interpreted and sensationalized. or separable from the bigger picture of American cities. 29-54. Notes I thank Glenn Burger. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books. What makes Davis's work so useful is that he has produced for public consumption critical accounts of Los Angeles's tendency towards destruction. I am responsible for any errors of interpretation or fact. Davis notes: "Some people like [Ecology of Fear] because they like the glamour of decay and apocalypse. Sue Hamilton. "How Eden Lost Its Garden: A Political History of the Los Angeles 116 ." New Left Review 199 (1993). Lesley Cormack. 1998)."69 He is suspicious of the hostile. in fiction or film."70 and about the marketability of that status. anti-urban sentiments that lie behind "Los Angeles's reigning status as Doom City. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (New York: Vintage Books. and Bruce Cockburn also provided very helpful comments.Studies in Political Economy land and everything that lives on it-is not necessarily reducible to anything else. But neither is it a figment of the imaginations of those with unsavoury motives towards the city. Laurie Adkin. "Who Killed Los Angeles? Part Two: The Verdict is Given. Caroline Andrew."7l The train wreck that we feel compelled to look at is not some real. 1992) [London and New York: Verso. pp. for that matter). and this is the greatest accomplishment of his work so far. and Susan Smith for a fruitful discussion of a draft of this article. The momentum of Davis's scholarship has drawn people in both the academic and public spheres to pay attention to Los Angeles in new ways. Those people aren't the people I write for. has been more likely to figure as the icon of a really bad future (or present. 1990]. pp 3-28. Also see.
pp. "Runaway Train Crushes Buses. Socialism 7/2 (1996). Nature." in Diane Ghirardo. 36-42. Lewis MacAdams. "Water Pirates and the Infinite Suburb.com /mdavis/letrnalibubum. <http://www. Sex. pp.html>.html>. 3.shtml>." The Nation 259 (19 September 1994). pp. "Jeremiah Among the Palms: The Lives and Dark Prophecies of Mike Davis. 117 .html> . <http://www.coagula.A. (ed. 7. Out of Site: A Social Criticism of Architecture (Seattle: Bay Press. 2. 160-185. MGM Grand: Armageddon at the Emerald City." The Mining Company (17 August 1998). pp 3-43. Robert A. 77-113." H-Urban Discussion Network (12 December 1998). pp. 222.com/mike_davis. <http://www. pp.miningco . (ed." The Locus." in Reid.). p. 31-36. "The Sky Falls on Compton.edu. 19-53. pp. 3. "The Infinite Game: Redeveloping Downtown L." as well as to some articles about and by Davis. "French Kisses and Virtual Nukes.A. "Let Malibu Bum. for example.To search for H-Urban discussion threads about Davis. "Chinatown. A Web site sympathetic to Davis contains an annotated set of links to contributions on all sides of the "controversy." in David Reid. Beauregard." Capitalism. Mike Davis. See "The Davis 'Controversy'. "Re: Mike Davis 'controversy'." see <http://www." that are awarded by the MacArthur Foundation in the United States Quoted in James Chandler.? The 'Internationalization' of Downtown Los Angeles.htm?pid=2746&cob=home>. 81-84. It has been widely publicized that in 1998 Davis won one of the coveted and lucrative fellowships. 1991). (eds. Ecology of Fear. 9. 268-271. (New York: Pantheon Books. 10. pp. 4. pp. "Kajima's Throne of Blood. Chs. "Interview: Mike Davis-Author of Ecology of Fear." LA Weekly(26 November-3 December 1998). "Why Passion for the City Has Been Lost. See.laweekly. "NASA's Manna from Heaven. 5. Socialism 7/4 (1996). City of Quartz." Journal of Urban Affairs 18/3 (1996)." LA Weekly (1996).thelocus." in Allen 1. Scott and Edward W.com/LNdavis. pp. gave him permission to publish as if it had actually occurred. 8. Ethington places himself in this category. 1996).. pp.aulinfoserv/ urban/hma/hurban/current/0238. Philip Ethington. 270-274." The Nation 259 (II July 1994). p." The Nation 262 (12 February 1996). For example.. 54-71. <http://www. "House of Cards." Coagula Art Journal <www. 6.com/ink/99/0 l/news-macadams. Davis wrote a fictional interview whose ostensible subject. 229-233.). "Research Exposes Getty Fellow. II. Nature.A." Mike Davis. McArthur [sic] Recipient Mike Davis as Purposefully Misleading Liar." Sierra 80/6 (NovemberlDecember 1995). 46-50. especially. "Local 226 vs.). The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press.html>. 18-20. 1992).unimelb." New Left Review 234 (March/April 1999). Death and God in L. Mike Davis. "Hell Factories in the Field: A Prison-Industrial Complex. Davis. 5561. 3-4.com/library/weekly/aa081798. and the "Mike Davis controversy." Capitalism.edu.unimelb. "Who Killed Los Angeles? Part Two. See. Sex. pp." The Nation 261 (18 September 1995). officially intended to reward individual creativity but commonly called "genius grants.au/infoserv/ urban/hma/hurban/index. <http://usnews. Revisited. "Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City. See Lewis MacAdams. Brady Westwater. pp. Soja. "The Empty Quarter.rut." The Nation 260 (20 February 1995).html>. Death and God in L. pp. Socialism 7/1 (1996)." Capitalism.Garber/American City Landscape. Nature.
See John Mollenkopf. "Who Killed LA?". Davis identifies more than fear of nature as a motive force in Southern Californians' antipathy towards its own climate. too." in Robert Gooding-Williams. 28. 5 118 . CovertAction Bulletin. Ibid. a complex fractal geometry of housing. and action are clearly contributing to urban affairs. 26. 20. Steven P.Studies in Political Economy 12. 145 Davis. 31-73. 32. 240." p. Robert Warren categorizes Davis as someone "whose 13." Davis." whose encroachment into the city presages the region's destruction. Beauregard. pp. "Who Killed LA?. Davis. 1991)."Journal of Urban Affairs 12/3 (1996). 405-411. Quoted in Jim Newton. 84-85. See Carl Abbott. "Uprising and Repression in LA. 1993). 130-136. Working Class (New York and London: Verso Books. Ecology of Fear. p." Washington Monthly 30/10 (1998). Davis." p. 23. Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the us. 27. pp. Davis. "The Infinite Game. a polycentric urban tissue at the regional scale. (ed. "Who Killed LA?. Davis. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (New York: Doubleday. Also see Davis. His examination of Los Angeles disaster literature and film reveals.52. geology. and was trained as. pp. p. City of Quartz. 16. a historian. Davis. pp. p. 39.). Joel Garreau." p." New York Times (6 June 1999). outlying employment and entertainment centres ("edge cities") have developed. transport infrastructure. Erie. 31. "Los Angeles Past Imperfect. Prisoners of the American Dream. "Reading Urban History. but aspects of his historical analysis of Southern California have been questioned by some scholars. Davis. "LA Exposed. 95. pp. the FBI also came in response to a rash of racist hate crimes that were not being vigorously investigated and prosecuted by the city or county. p.. See. for example." Antipode 3111 (1999). 1983). "The Poverty of Paleo-Leftism: A Response to Curry and Kenney. writing. 150. "As Welfare Rolls Shrink. A new edition of this book is forthcoming in 1999. 17. Ecology of Fear. 227. and wildlife. 177-183. 14. Davis. 301-307. "Alternatives to Celebrity in the Rescue of the City. 30. But Davis does have a high standing among some urban historians. now. City of Quartz." Journal of Urban History 2111(1994). 22. I use this term to signify the older cities. speaking... 7. "An Interview with Mike Davis. The Contested City (Princeton: Princeton University Press. "Who Killed Los Angeles? Part Two. Davis is. 24. "Uprising and Repression in LA: An Interview with Mike Davis. 250-260. On the other hand. 1986). including people who are generally sympathetic to his work. 15. 37-41. a running fear of "others. 263 note 33. Quoted in CovertAction Information Bulletin. 18." pp. 19. Ibid." Michael Storper. This is one way in which Davis parts company with the "LA School" of urban scholars. Cities Shoulder Bigger Load. pp. Robert Pear. industry. 22. of any size. See. for example. p. Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising (New York and London: Routledge. around which residential communities (suburbs) and. pp. p. for whom a central tenet is that Los Angeles "is paradigmatic because its economy is based increasingly on technology-based and/or flexibly organized activities" and "as an urban form. 206-221. Mike Davis." p. pp." Robert Warren. p. 25. 29. 275-355. Ibid." Urban Affairs Quarterly 2911 (1993). 21. Similarly. a Reply to RobertA.
EBSCO Publishing. 1996).htrnl>. 45.and ethnicity-related terms. 65-81.com/markdery/ESCAPE NELOCITY lauthor/davis. "Urban Renaissance and the Spirit ofPostrnodernism. do not contain much public space. See. 39. see "The Sky Falls on Compton. "Spatial Displacements: Transnationalism and the New Social Movements. Rebecca Morales and Paul Ong. 489494. "Book Review: City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles." Escape Velocity.seen as an essential part standing for the whole of capitalism. 34. 45-47. are overly consumption-oriented. Quoted in Mark Dery." in Anthony D. "Is Urban Sprawl Back on the Political Agenda?" Urban Affairs Review 34/2 (1998)." Sharon Zukin would disagree with this interpretation of Davis as a postmodernist. 43." For Davis on Compton politics.epnet. pp. Davis. City of Quartz." Sharon Zukin. pp. (ed." Journal of Urban Affairs 18/1 (1996).. Davis." Gender." Economic and Industrial Democracy 12 (1991). It is a home of "gangsta rap" and was immortalized in NWA's 1989 hit recording. and are not democratically governed. Inattention to gender is not by any means Davis's problem alone. pp. 41. however.html>. <http://www." Gender Issues 16/4 (1998). "Me(trope)olis: Or Hayden White Among the Urbanists. 179-211." Christopher Leo. "Downsizing the Future: Beyond Blade Runner with Mike Davis. pp. Capital and Culture in the 21st-Century Metropolis (New York: New York University Press. into account as an explanation of the social dynamics of Los Angeles. "Magical Urbanism. "Who Killed Los Angeles? Part Two. 25-51. criticized City of Quartz for not taking culture. Laura Chernaik. "The Postrnodern Invasion. 36. <http://www." James A. City of Quartz. et aI. 40.com/ehost/login. "House of Cards. 42. 77-78. 302-316. Re-Presenting the City: Ethnicity.). by Mike Davis. and in particular immigrant cultures.. In a review of City of Quartz. Incredibly." whereby "the city is. Ecology of Fear. 46. the nineteen-page index to Allen Scott and Edward Soja's 1996 edited volume on "Los Angeles and urban theory at the end of the twentieth century" contains entries for race. King.levity. 86. 259. Davis. 251-275." Compton is a deeply distressed suburb bordering Los Angeles (just beyond Watts). This general approach to Los Angeles has also drawn attention in other contexts. and Culture 3/3 (1996). 37. Davis. p. "Gender and Citizenship in the Restructuring of Janitorial Work in Los Angeles. also see Davis. Duncan. p. 48. 38. "Spatial Displacements. Ali Modarres has.. Chernaik. Place. pp. they are not genuinely urban because they are often not diverse. pp. This approach to "the urban" and "the city" should be distinguished from the frequent critique of edge cities and other new city-like forms-that is." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 1613 (1992). Cynthia Cranford. 6. but no main entry for 119 . 47. Davis." pp. City 35."Straight Outta Compton. 47-52. "Immigrant Women in Los Angeles. pp.Garber/American 33. she acknowledges that Davis is part of the "rapprochement between cultural studies and urban political economy" but "return[s] to old-fashioned narrative traditions" and "tells a story of modernization and modernism. for example." New Left Review 151 (1985). and Davis has been criticized for his '''master trope' of synechdoche. 49. Ali Modarres. pp." Ibid. City of Quartz. pp. 44. p. 106·113. Davis.
and so I will confine my discussion to the influence of his work in the public and academic spheres. Gold.E. pp. Davis." "homophobia. 55. Sumi Cho." The Nation 265 (15 December 1997). "Magical Urbanism." International Review of Law. 65." "lesbian. p." Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39/2 (1997)." "sexism." "Armageddon at the Emerald City. "From the Dockyards to the Disney Store: Surveillance. Quoted in Todd S. Jennifer Wolch. The City. Mark Baldassare. Margaret Crawford. p. Raymond Rocco. p. Don Mitchell." (There are sub-entries for "employment and income: changes in gender and racial composition of workforce" and "Latinos: gender roles. 52." p. 54. but this is not necessarily distinct from any of the other three goals." p. "The Political Economy of Violence: The War-System in Colombia. Ibid." Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 16 (1997). Roy Coleman and Joe Sim. "Review: The Politics of Diversity. Ibid. 68.. 58. Davis. pp. See." Davis. Cranford. Evan McKenzie. Steven J.Studies in Political Economy 50. Ibid. "Why Passion for the City Has Been Lost. <http://www. and Brenda Jo Bright." 120 ." New York Times (27 January 1999). 56. Dolores Hayden." "gay. 25. Prisoners of the American Dream. Computers and Technology. Davis. 465-483. 57.. Raphael Sonenshein. Chris Heath. Davis." "sexual orientation. p. "The New Left Takes Over American Unions. "American Finds Deconstruction Addictive. for example. 27-45. Susan Ruddick. Nazih Richani. "R. Ibid. 72. 51." or "(wo)men. 58-61." "sex.htm>. Risk and Security in Liverpool City Centre. but the work on postWorld War II Los Angeles is voluminous." "feminist. and Saskia Sassen. 108. Purdum. 222. 22. Jon Wiener. for example. Quoted in Dery. Michael Sorkin. "Downsizing the Future. pp. p. p.") See Scott and Soja. 278. During the months that Ecology of Fear was a local (Los Angeles) bestseller. 53. 70." Billboard 106123 (4 June 1994). p. AlO. 69. I am thinking of. 37-81. Gary Miller. 95. "Nightmares in the New Metropolis: The Cinematic Poetics of Low Riders. 66." Rolling Stone 745 (17 October 1996). Brett Atwood. Davis also aims to educate students. Roger Waldinger. in addition to authors cited earlier in this article: Michael Dear. "Magical Urbanism.theamericanenterprise. 94. Mike Davis. Ruben Martinez. "LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters. Harvey Molotch. Ibid. 52." Journal of Asian American Studies 1/1 (1998). 63. pp.M. Also. 13-29." p. 62. 59. 71. pp. See.orgl kotkin. 67.. "(fe)male." "gender. 19-22. 60. Beauregard. "Kajima's Throne of Blood. 12/1 (1998). "Best-Selling Author's Gloomy Future for Los Angeles Meets Resistance. pp. Joel Kotkin." I am not in a position to gauge the success of Davis's more direct political interventions. 64." The American Enterprise 8/3 (1997). "Serene and Sterile.37.p. City of Quartz also joined the paperback best-sellers list. 32." The Nation 267 (2 February 1999). pp. 61. 41. 34. Ecology of Fear. "Gender and Citizenship.
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