I first read Mike Davis in an Urban Sociology course at Pasadena City College. For the course the professor assigned a chapter from Davis’ monumental City of Quartz (1990), “Fortress L.A.” I have spent most of my life living in and absorbing Los Angeles, and assumed at the time that I knew everything there was to know about this city. I was wrong, and thank God. Suddenly, like Roddy Piper’s Nada in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), I was putting on the sunglasses and seeing the world for what it truly was. Instead of the world, it was Los Angeles, and instead of the sunglasses, it was Mike Davis.
Since that fateful course I have read most of his work, and his influence on my own thinking has been transformative. There is no writer and thinker that I would rather emulate than Davis. I’m not going to attempt to describe the indelible impact he had on the way we think about Los Angeles, or Southern California, or urban theory. Better writers already have, and with more gravitas.
Recently I decided to dedicate some time to volunteering at the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights. In May 2020, David Kipen, the founder of Libros, interviewed Davis for the Libros Schmibros podcast following the release of his and Jon Weiner’s Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties. What follows is a brief excerpt transcribed from this 2020 interview, in which Davis touches on the legacy of City of Quartz, as well as the housing crisis in Los Angeles and its connection to gentrification. He ends by offering a few book recommendations, and, as a bookseller in Southern California, I was particularly interested in this section. I encourage you to listen to the full interview here. Godspeed, Mike Davis.
— Derek Mejía
DAVID KIPEN: How does the LA of the present compare to the LA you were predicting, or at least suggesting, in the 1990s?
MIKE DAVIS: In City of Quartz what I was trying to argue is that both the Gidget-at-the-Beach, Downtown, Hollywood, Mulholland Drive images of LA on one side, and Godzilla stomping on the city and volcanoes erupting under Melrose, form a kind of unity, and neither, of course, accurately characterize this great working-class city at all. In terms of the changes I’ve seen, the most fundamental, important change has been the success of labor crusades of the late 1980s and 1990s … It has transformed city politics.
Another thing that amazed me when I came back after I came back to Los Angeles from Ireland and England at the end of the ’80s was the grassroots gentrification. If you go to what were once the tired, working-class, flatlined neighborhoods of this city, they were suddenly springing back to life. People were painting their houses. They were planting corn and tomatoes … When Latinos come to the United States, whether from Mexico, Central America, or South America, they bring a different urbanism.
You wrote a book called Magical Urbanism, didn’t you, with this for a thesis?
Yes indeed, trying to argue that they had given an importance to public space, to the outdoors and sharing community life. Which of course wasn’t entirely missing in this city, by any means, in the Old Eastside and Black Los Angeles. But the way they added to that and the creative energies they brought was infinitely more important than anything that my former colleagues at the Southern California Institute of Architecture have designed or built. It’s not a critique of them, but it was a huge fact that was very little commented on at the time.
On the other side, all the social conditions, all the economic precariousness that produced the explosion in 1992, remember, wasn’t just a reaction to Rodney King. It was a reaction to recession that was cutting right through the heart of the poorest immigrant communities of Los Angeles. All those conditions remained, and of course they’ve been greatly exacerbated by the unaffordability of housing, which has reached almost an impossible stage. Which is why, in some ways, the urban crisis in Southern California has migrated from the central city to the older 1940s & ’50s suburbs.
You’re thinking now of neighborhoods like … ?
The Eastern San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire. The town I was born in, Fontana, ended up being one-half Orange County commuter suburbs. and the other half inner city people who came out, got jobs in warehouses, and tried to find what was the suburban dream to them — good schools and safer neighborhoods.
Of course the Inland Empire was one of the two national epicenters of the housing meltdown of 2008, and tens and tens of thousands of people lost their homes and any little savings they may have accumulated. Again, this is a story that has hardly ever been touched on. It’s been this great migration to the suburbs and the tragedy that so many people, instead of finding the thing that they’re looking for — those better schools, those better jobs, those safer neighborhoods — have found the opposite, and now find themselves a hundred miles away from the old neighborhood that they left, and many of those old neighborhoods now have property values that are so unimaginable and so surreal … We live in a period where no neighborhood has been off-limits to this, so it’ll be very interesting to see as we move back in history to the Great Depression what will happen then. Will it force more people out of their homes and neighborhood? Will it slow the expansion of developers and flippers and all those different species of people that we wish some great white shark would gobble up?
Do you see another depression on the horizon?
It’s not on the horizon, it’s here. We’ve returned to a state of mass immiseration in this country. Which isn’t surprising given that most studies show that about half of Americans have about $500 or less in the bank to get them through. This is an extinction event. The good news I think in Los Angeles, but all over the country, is that this event has not only radicalized health workers, some of whom like the Nurses Union have been in the forefront of progressive movement for some years now, but it’s gonna lead to a general upsurge of labor, at least by people who still have their jobs. And I foresee Jeff Bezos being there in his castle, or wherever he is, surrounded by angry warehouse people and delivery drivers wielding pitchforks.
What is the potential impact of the COVID-19 virus on social movements and housing and homelessness? I wonder, since you’ve outlined some of these potential consequences and maybe even the reaction against them, do you see more sunshine or noir, as these forces come into collision over the next months and years?
I see alternative outcomes. In other words, I see one set of possibilities and I see another. This is a battlefield, and it’s definitely, in a socio-economic sense, a new age. It generates great opportunities …
I should ask you, as a former bookseller, do you have any parting advice for those of us who are still putting books into people’s hands in Boyle Heights?
Well, I have very esoteric advice about two books that you won’t be able to find.
That sounds like a challenge.
One of them is called Greener Than You Think. It was written by Ward Moore, who’s one of the great Bohemian radicals of all time, and is mainly known for this 1953 novel called Bring the Jubilee … his first book, 1942’s Breathe the Air Again, is a Jewish version of On the Road — in fact, I’ve always wondered if Kerouac cribbed part of it — all set against the background of what became an apocalyptic department store strike at the beginning of the war …
The second book was written in 1933 and it’s called The Flutter of an Eyelid by Myron Brinig. Brinig was the first out-of-the-closet, and also very successful, gay writer. I’ve always loved The Loved One, which is a hilarious novel, but this one is way beyond that. It’s in a different and more eccentric orbit. One of the opening scenes: The protagonist is a kind of tired, very aristocratic New York writer, kind of in a Henry James mode. His publisher sends him to Los Angeles to rejuvenate himself, and he goes to a cocktail party at a beach community — which is actually about a real group that existed and was headed by Jacob Zeitlin, who was one of LA’s great book dealers of the ’20s and ’30s. The first person he meets is this beautiful but somewhat dour woman, and she says, “What do you do?” He says, “I’m a novelist. What do you do?” She says, “I give and receive pain.” It’s a fabulous book.