When it was published in 1990, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz grabbed national attention by cutting against the grain of an increasingly upbeat conventional wisdom about Los Angeles. The 1984 Summer Olympics had sparked an optimism about—and global interest in—the city, leading to a boom that lasted through the end of the decade. Ambitious architecture was rising across L.A.: Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art had just opened, and plans were underway for Richard Meier’s Getty Center and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The city was becoming a magnet not just for artists, designers and filmmakers, as had been the case for most of the 20th century, but for growing numbers of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, who brought a cultural dynamism to Southern California that enlivened everything from its public spaces to its restaurant and literary scenes.
On nearly every one of its 512 pages, City of Quartz was eager to pierce what its author saw as the thin veneer of that seeming civic renaissance. Davis, who died last week at 76, of esophageal cancer, wrote that the Olympics had relied on a heavily militarized security apparatus that gave the L.A. Police Department not just an injection of funding but a dangerous sense of political invincibility. He implicated, too, the city’s urban planners and architects in a broad campaign to protect the interests of wealthy Angelenos and uphold what he called L.A.’s “spatial apartheid,” producing a city where “genuinely democratic space is all but extinct.”
“A triumphal gloss…is laid over the brutalization of inner-city neighborhoods,” he wrote. “Even as walls have come down in Eastern Europe, they are being erected all over Los Angeles.”
Gehry came in for particular scorn for his Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which opened in 1986: “Celebrity architect Frank Gehry, known for his ‘humanism,’ apotheosizes the siege look in a library designed to look like a foreign-legion fort.” The damning quotes around humanism, the shoehorning of apotheosis into verb form, the architecture criticism that was on firmer sociopolitical than aesthetic footing: this was all classic Davis.
City of Quartz’s deep pessimism about Los Angeles made for a hammeringly relentless read. “It’s all a bit much,” sniffed Bryce Nelson in the New York Times, in a review that carried the headline “If This Is Hell, Why Is It So Popular?” Salon described Davis as a writer who “sifts and picks his facts to fit his dark Marxist vision.”
Yet the book’s bleak outlook seemed thoroughly justified, even redeemed, less than two years later, when the white police officers accused of beating (and nearly killing) the Black motorist Rodney King after a traffic stop were acquitted of all but minor charges, leading to days of violence and upheaval across the city. Davis was feted as a truth-teller in a buzz cut–the man who’d predicted the L.A. riots. He won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998.
Davis, born in 1946 in Fontana, about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles, came by his blue-collar, left wing politics honestly. In his twenties, he earned a pair of degrees from UCLA but also spent time as a meat cutter, union organizer and truck driver, hauling furniture up and down California. He returned to academia a few years later, he told me in a 2015 email, after “some friends decided to rescue me, and I began to teach part-time at SCI-Arc and then UCLA. In a few hours of blathering in a classroom, I earned almost as much as a 60-hour week unloading oak desks and fighting [the] fog on I-5.”
His prescience—a gift for spotting storm clouds on the political, cultural or scientific horizon that verged on the uncanny—didn’t end with Quartz. His book on L.A.’s destructive relationship with the natural world, published in 1998 as Ecology of Fear, was, among other things, his attempt to sound the alarm on climate change. (A chapter called “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” made a devastating comparative study of tenement fires near downtown Los Angeles, whose victims were often uninsured immigrant families, and coastal homeowners often flush enough with insurance payouts after wildfires to rebuild giant estates in dry canyons that, as Davis pointed out, have been regularly burning for thousands of years.) Similarly ahead of the curve was The Monster at Our Door, from 2005, on the risks of a global pandemic.
In recent years, Davis was discovered anew by a rising generation of young leftists and labor activists. Part of his continuing appeal was his basic kindness and intellectual generosity – fans were always surprised to discover that in person he was a far softer touch than his barbed prose suggested – as well as his willingness to poke fun at his own persona. As part of our 2015 email exchange, conducted ahead of an event I was organizing to mark the book’s 25th anniversary, I asked him what he thought of the reception to City of Quartz as well as his reputation “as a sort of Cassandra for L.A.”
“To show I have a sense of humor,” he replied, “Cassandra is the name of my youngest daughter.”
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