It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Mike Davis, who died Tuesday at age 76 from complications related to esophageal cancer. For nearly all of us who write and think about Los Angeles, he was not just a touchstone but a star, the city’s most important and original thinker since Carey McWilliams defected to New York in 1951.
Davis would write 20 books, including “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World” and “Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Working Class.” But for me, his legacy is built on what I’ve come to imagine as his Los Angeles trilogy: “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” (Verso, 512 pp., $21.95 paper) , “Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster” (Verso, 496 pp., $24.95 paper) and “Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties” (Verso, 800 pp., 24.95 $ paper). The first of these volumes changed everything when it came out in late 1990, six months before the beating of black motorist Rodney King by four white LAPD officers exposed the city’s hypocrisies. If you’re looking for a way to read and think about Davis, you could do a lot worse than start with these three works.
It wasn’t Davis’ first book but his second, although in all the ways that matter it’s where his career begins. It’s because the arguments he puts forward are so intertwined, it’s as if he’s revealing the city to us anew. By this I do not mean that his writing here was sui generis; his background includes McWilliams’ “Southern California Country: An Island on the Land” (1946) and Louis Adamic’s “Laughing in the Jungle” (1932). But while Davis was, in many ways, their heir, he was also staking his own territory. “City of Quartz” is steeped in history; it begins with a visit to the Lost Colony of Llano, the short-lived utopian settlement built in Antelope Valley in 1914. At the same time, it seeks to use this story both to describe the city of the moment and to project what that the city could become. Within its pages, Davis takes the enduring narratives of the place — the Booster myth, the Mission myth, the framing of Southern California as somehow Edenic — to explore a more complex set of realities. Central to his argument is the notion of Los Angeles as a contradictory landscape, marked by both sun and darkness. He described this as a “master dialectic”, in which dominant legends are circumscribed, or undermined, by the experience of city life, in which economic and other disparities create inequalities that cannot be reconciled.
“The Ecology of Fear”
Published in 1998 – the same year Davis won a MacArthur – it is the sequel to ‘City of Quartz’, a book that examines the relationship between disaster, real and imagined, and the way the city sees itself. . In part, this has to do with real estate; in a chapter titled “How Eden Lost Its Garden”, Davis deconstructs the ways in which “hazard zoning” (which limits development on floodplains and near earthquake faults) has been undermined or ignored, leading to what he calls “disaster inflation”. As always with Davis, the problem is not just greed but also denial, an issue he highlights when he contrasts federal disaster aid with Malibu homes destroyed by a blaze of forest to the neglect of urban neighborhoods where there is most often no relief, federal or otherwise, when old apartment buildings burn. Davis was criticized following the publication of the book for playing quickly and freely with some of the facts, but the argument he made is compelling, and never more so than in his discussion of how the disaster and the city More than 100 films and novels are treated, which portray the apocalypse as inevitable, even romantic, rather than a devastation to people’s lives.
“Setting the Night on Fire”
Co-authored with UC Irvine Professor Emeritus Jon Wiener, this massive survey, published in 2020, marked Davis’ return to Los Angeles as a subject, albeit through a different filter. Like his previous books, “Setting the Night on Fire” approached the city through a contrarian lens, puncturing old beliefs and shibboleths, particularly about the nature of 1960s activism on the West Coast. . In part, it was geographic: southern rather than northern California as the seat of social change. Partly it was racial, the idea that the city’s liberation movements were largely brown and black. Through it all, Davis and Wiener explored the notion of Los Angeles as a center of social justice efforts, including the Chicano Moratorium and the gay rights movement, which arguably grew out of the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 in Southern California by activist Harry Hay. . As Davis’ latest book, “Setting the Night on Fire” is a fitting coda to an essential career.
Ulin is a former book editor and book reviewer for The Times.