The socialist urban theorist talks building and destroying, the crisis of the city, radical solutions, and the apocalypse.
Sterling Ruby I first read City of Quartz on my way out to Los Angeles more than fifteen years ago, and because I had no real idea of what to expect, I thought that Los Angeles would be as you’d described it. Your book was an apocalyptic vision, a fever dream, so compelling, but also a narrative, a fiction. The strange thing is that your book read like fiction to me. I have spent time in a lot of different cities, and I still find that Los Angeles, unlike any other place, continues to feel like a fiction, almost made up. Why do you think that is?
Mike Davis LA is ruled by Newton’s first law of real estate: build, destroy, build anew. If the landscape feels like fiction, it’s because so little of the past is ever spared to anchor memory and personal authenticity. “Home“ is a stage set where the narrative is changed and resold with each new generation, where the master myths ritually murder history. Even the flora, from the palms to the crabgrass, is entirely invented, originally to sell lots to Iowans who, as Ray Bradbury once pointed out, didn’t realize that they had moved to Mars. LA reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s famous story of Dorian Gray, where the secret of his deathless beauty reveals itself in his grotesque aging portrait. Perhaps this is the second law of real estate in a society of income extremes: what is turned into gold in one place dooms another place to become debris. The crisis of the inner city has been exported to the suburbs. Compare hipster renaissance Downtown and Venice to Southern Californian Detroits, like San Bernardino or El Cajon.
SR Your writing has been a big influence on me. I feel like I have tried to make artworks that have the same exegetic intensity that your writing has, but making an artwork that directly or indirectly addresses political subject matter, incarceration or homelessness, is to inevitably run the risk of being misunderstood or thought of as being exploitative. But I’ve always thought that art or writing that takes a stand and tries to improve things runs another risk: it loses its ability to be detached critically, to see things from all sides. Might I ask if you ever feel any regret or guilt associated with your work? In your 2009 interview with Bill Moyers, you mentioned that you have no trouble finding or seeing hope. Do you still feel that way? If so, where is that hope coming from for you? Do you ever consider writing a more hopeful lineage into the narrative, or do you feel that would weaken your criticality?
MD How can you be critical by seeing things “from all sides“? The “center,“ whether in politics or art, is a chicken shit place to live. It’s passive support for the status quo. City of Quartz, like all my books, squarely plants its feet on the side of what the young Frederick Engels once reported as “the deep wrath of the whole working class against the rich by whom they are systematically plundered and mercilessly left to their fate.” Did his description of the streets of Glasgow and London in 1845 apply with any validity to Los Angeles in 1990? Is it an absurd comparison? The answer is what ultimately separates me from my critics.
If, on the other hand, by “all sided,“ you mean a historical critique that addresses every important facet of a phenomenon, however unrecognized by past analysis, then my efforts in my LA books have been strenuous. I have written at length on such relatively novel themes as the secret affinity of “sunshine“ and “noir“ in LA narrative; the political and cultural role of the Catholic Church; subsistence crime as an adaptation to economic globalization; homeowners’ associations and middle-class rage; deindustrialization and working-class identity; the racial politics of the apocalyptic novel; Latino new urbanism; the criminalization of nature; and so on.
I feel a great responsibility in my work to be as self-critical and honest as possible, correcting mistakes and updating information, but no obligation to sugarcoat bitter pills with “hope.“ I call it like I see it—anything else would be dishonest. Sometimes when I’m asked, as I always am, whether I’m “optimistic or pessimistic“ about LA, or whether I love it or hate it, I feel like I’m being required to sign a loyalty oath whose premises are absurd. My Los Angeles is a megalopolitan universe of fifteen million people where one can find everything but answers to such binary questions. If I write a lot about chains, at the same time, I’m always looking for hammers. That’s my understanding of what a good socialist should do.
SR I read in another interview where you said that it is important to remember the true meaning of the apocalypse for the Abrahamic religions. Can you elaborate on the meaning and significance of this for you, and perhaps comment on your conception of the “Last Judgement”? I was also wondering, going on a psychological tangent, if you can see a connection to Freud’s “death drive”?
MD When I was 10 or 11, I stopped going to mass and became a godless heathen. Yet I have had a lifelong fascination with the deep roots of religion in the spiritual and imaginative labor of the poor. The apocalypse (and here I’ve been influenced by thinkers like Berdyaev and Lampert) is the revelation of the secret history of the world, of the mysterious pathways of evil. It establishes the narrative of the slave, the defeated Native American and the poor immigrant as the truth of history. And, taking the big picture view, the single most important event in the history of Los Angeles was surely an interracial prayer meeting in 1906. The Asuza Street Revival went on for almost a decade and laid the foundation for Pentecostalism, a global denomination which now has more than one hundred million adherents. It was the first major religious movement to be created by the urban poor, who continue to constitute its overwhelming constituency. So I’ve written a little about the armies of the Holy Ghost, as I have about the Ghost Dance, Brigham Young and Mormon socialism, and the admirable Aimee Semple McPherson.
The ”death drive,” I believe, is a flawed hypothesis that can be rejected without damage to Freud’s core theories. A much more useful tool in present circumstances is Freud’s theory of the organization of the libido, which was further elaborated by Karl Abraham and Melanie Klein. Thus, when you speak of ”infantile sadism”—that is to say, a personality frozen at the sucking, biting, rage stage—who doesn’t recognize Donald Trump immediately? And Dr. Shreber, one of Freud’s most famous cases, who believed that the sun rose out of his ass: surely, he was an ancestor of Ted Cruz.
SR I am constantly being asked to describe LA to outsiders, and most often, I wind up saying that LA is not a city like New York, London, Hong Kong or Beijing. Even though we have a downtown, it still does not have a thriving epicenter of tall buildings. LA is still a low-lying, sprawling suburb without a major center city. Do you agree?
MD I agree to the extent that downtown LA represents a kind of faux center, given the minimum of the corporate and bank headquarters that constitute real primacy in city centers. In the late 1980s, of course, when Japanese and Canadian investment was pouring into downtown, there were hallucinations that LA would soon rival New York as an economic power center. With the collapse of the ”super yen” and the 1990-93 recession, however, the Japanese bailed out and San Francisco resumed its traditional role as the financial center of the Pacific Coast. As a headquarters city, LA now plays ball in the same AAA league as Charlotte or Houston. Meanwhile, the gentrifiers downtown are merely recreating affluent suburbia in the shell of the 1920s business district. Big deal.
I should add that in contemporary LA, ”low rise” and ”low density” are no longer synonymous. For example, some of the tiny industrial cities along the LA River—such as Maywood and Cudahy—have the same population per square mile as New York City. The MacArthur Park area has a density comparable to Manhattan. The most perverse trend, of course, is that young, large families are being squeezed into smaller spaces while on the west side, where household size is shrinking, the square-footage of ”mansionized” residences has exploded.
SR There is a line that I love from Ecology of Fear: “I offer a symptomatic history of this strange choreography of the wild and the urban in Southern California.” You seem to be suggesting that Southern California conflates social problems with natural problems and vice versa. Can you explain this?
MD That’s the explicit theme of the book. It’s rooted in general ignorance of LA’s classical Mediterranean ecology. For the first Europeans—Catalan-speaking Franciscan friars from the Majorca—no hay ningun problema. The landscape was familiar, at times even intimately so: coastal scrub vegetation, majestic oak savannahs, dry rivers, wild fires, occasional biblical droughts and floods, earthquakes, and so on. Southern California was Andalusia, Sicily, Langueduc, the Maghreb. Euro-Americans, on the other hand, brought expectations about water, seasonal cycles and geological stability that were totally out of whack with local nature. If they succeeded by 1920 in creating an entirely artificial landscape over a vast area, eliminating much of native fauna and even more of the flora, they couldn’t change the climate or the underlying tectonics. Thus periodic ”ordinary disasters”—a 6.3 earthquake, for example, or an El Niño inundation—were greeted with incomprehension and a fear of the apocalyptic. Land-use practices, like developing the flood plains and building in the rugged foothills, magnified the vulnerability, although the rich, as I pointed out in the chapter ”The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” got concierge treatment when it came to fire fighting and insurance. By the 1980s, after suburbanization had pushed it way deep into the fire ecology of the mountains and back country, and as gang violence reached its peak in the inner city, you encountered everywhere a systematic conflation of the natural and social. Mountain lions became ”gangsters,” while street gangs were ”wilding packs.”
While nothing has changed in exurbia (my younger kids’ first memories are of the mega-fires that burned into the city limits of San Diego in the early 2000s), Latino immigration has made Los Angeles culturally more urban while revalorizing the importance of public space, especially parks. Moreover, people who grew up, say, in northern Mexico, don’t bring with them the kind of confusion about issues like water and wild animals that has traditionally vexed so many gringos.
SR As homelessness in Los Angeles tops the nation and Mayor Garcetti calls it an immediate emergency, how has the downtown shuffling, the younger demographic, rehabilitation for the mentally ill and the shelter situation for the homeless changed over the years?
In conjunction with that question, and I know that this is a big topic, I was wondering if you feel like there are any signs of reducing California’s prison population? Has Proposition 36 and the change in the “Three Strikes Law” had any impact on this?
MD For more than a generation, the official policy has been ”containment” of the homeless in downtown. Years ago, officials proposed allocating the unhoused to shelters and public spaces in each district, but the city council vetoed the idea. When a county supervisor proposed deporting Skid Row residents to the Mojave Desert, there was a predictable outroar. So by default, downtown east of Broadway (therefore east of redevelopment) became the city’s huge outdoor jail. Twenty years ago, the major opponents of ”containment” were the toy and flower merchants in Skid Row; now the forces, including landowners and hipsters, who want to reduce the footprint of homelessness exert a much more powerful influence on city hall, but the options are limited by the fact that virtually every other city in Los Angeles County has outlawed sleeping on the streets or in the parks. A radical solution would require literally grasping the problem by its roots and addressing the jobs, housing, addiction and mental health emergencies on a regional scale. It’s unlikely.
Nor do the actual and proposed criminal justice reforms in California really confront inhuman prison and jail conditions, or repair any of the damage that the drugs and the war on drugs have inflicted on neighborhoods. All reforms, of course, are welcome, but hundreds of thousands of incarcerated Californians, like their homeless sisters and brothers, still have no clear way home, back to a decent existence. What this state needs above all is a social and economic bill of rights.
SR As an artist, I am continuously asking myself what the value of art is, and whether it still has the power to move the masses. From a social theorist’s standpoint, I wonder what your take might be on the value of art in this day and age.
MD Years ago, in the early 1990s, I debated Mike Kelley on LA art at the Schindler House in West Hollywood. Distinguishing the role of individual artists from that of the arts community, I argued that the community had a responsibility to artistically engage with the social reality around it and was failing to do so, despite the fact that contemporary LA was a city being remade by immigrant struggles and heroic migrations. So far, this drama, worthy of Zola, had not been represented on any canvas west of the LA River, nor had barrio artists been fully admitted to the gallery scene and arts market. After the exciting rebellions of artists in the 1950s and early 1960s, from Kienholz and his backseat Dodge to Sister Corita versus Cardinal McIntyre, LA art was in danger of abandoning LA or simply seeing the city only from the Hollywood Hills, as the movie industry did after the black list. Kelley was, to say the least, indignant and accused me being a pint-sized Zhandov, a would-be commissar. Neither of us yielded a millimeter of ground, but I think this is still a debate worth having.
SR I am interested in civic monuments and public sculpture. I’m wondering, given your deep connection and knowledge of the city, its history and demographics, if I could ask you to envision or suggest a series of public artworks for Los Angeles. What might they look like? Where would they be placed?
MD Shortly before the fall of the Wall, I gave a lecture at the Free University of Berlin. Walking out of the hall, I noticed a plaque above the entrance that said something to the effect that ”Dr. Mengele had conducted infamous experiments on human beings here.” One of my hosts, a veteran of the German New Left, proudly explained that hundreds of students and faculty had been tear-gassed and arrested during the long campaign to erect the plaque. I was impressed.
Remembering ”bad history,” as well as commemorating those who resisted it, should be priorities in civic art as well as primary education. Boosters and bureaucrats, of course, rail against such counter-narratives, and arts institutions usually run for cover. But in LA, a rather brave start has been made by the Japanese American and Chinese American museums. The Chinese Massacre of 1871, I believe, is now officially acknowledged by the city.
The 1943 Zoot Suit Riots would be a future candidate (a proud bronze zoot suiter in front of the Million Dollar Theater?), as would be a major memorial in front of the Dept. of Water & Power to the victims of the Mulholland Flood, when criminally bad design led to the failure of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, killing 500 people, mostly Mexican harvest workers in the Santa Clara River Valley. Or at Union Station and Santa Anita Racetrack, to commemorate the internment of the city’s Japanese population. Or the Black Panther headquarters, bombed and shot to pieces by the LAPD in 1970.
Of good fights once waged, one of my favorites was the Artists’ Peace Protest Tower on Sunset Strip in 1965 (imagine one of the Watts Towers decorated like an Xmas tree with anti-war pieces by a stellar array of now-famous names, including most of the Ferus Gallery crew). Perhaps the city of West Hollywood should sponsor its temporary or permanent resurrection.
Mike Davis is a writer, urban theorist and historian. He teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and is an editor of the New Left Review. His books City of Quartz and Prisoners of the American Dream, among others, are considered important and controversial theoretical masterpieces investigating social class and power in Southern California.
Images by Sterling Ruby
Portrait by Tao Ruspoli