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Jeremiah Among the Palms 

The lives and dark prophecies of Mike Davis

Wednesday, Nov 25 1998
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Photo by Anne Fishbein
Beneath a print of Robert Capa’s famous 1937 Spanish Civil War photo of a grief-stricken International Brigade soldier listening to the communist orator "La Passionaria" on the eve of their retreat from Barcelona, Mike Davis, 52, is perched on a chair in the middle of the living room of his cozy bungalow on a quiet, magnolia-lined Pasadena street, ruefully explaining "the chaos that is my life."

There is something protean, if not downright manic, about the author of 1990’s City of Quartz and the new Ecology of Fear, as he leaps from idea to idea, tale to tale, in an exhilarating idea-slalom that can flow for hours. In a Greek restaurant one night I saw him talk his way through an entire dinner, from the spanakopita to the baklava, without taking a bite. The phone rings again and again, but Davis never picks it up. On the answering machine, a University of São Paulo professor begs plaintively for Davis to come to Brazil and speak.

As we talk, Davis jumps up and disappears to check his e-mail, or to rummage for a book or a Baaba Maal CD, or to confer with his fifth wife, Mexico City–born, West L.A.–raised painter Alessandra Moctezuma, 31. At one point, I spot Davis through the front window chatting with his gray-crew-cutted next-door neighbor, who is watering the lawn. Davis comes back a few minutes later bursting with the guy’s Korean War stories. Davis sees this as the most stable living situation he’s ever been in.

Davis doesn’t seem to be settling down, however; it may simply be that his reputation is finally catching up with him. No longer an obscure iconoclast pushing a contrarian view of the social state, Davis has emerged as the single voice able to capture and articulate the darker weaves behind the glass curtains of modern Los Angeles. Following a century of boosters and civic cheerleaders, City of Quartz redefined L.A. almost overnight. Davis’ thoughts on Frank Gehry and the "architecture of control" — his jeremiads against the extinction of public spaces — have influenced almost everybody working to create a more livable city. Davis’ chronicling of SoCal from a left-labor, multiracial, pop-culture point of view made nationwide best-seller lists, was translated into six languages, and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. City of Quartz has become a standard text for contemporary urban studies.

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Published two years before the uprising that followed Rodney King’s beating, City of Quartz became prophetic. "Is there any other historian," wonders Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Susan Faludi, author of Backlash, "who’s focused on L.A. and then blown that out into an entire theory of America?" This spring, Davis was awarded a $315,000 MacArthur Foundation genius grant for "exceptionally creative individuals." While he was grateful to be able to pay off a dangerously overdue second mortgage, he says he was "far more excited to address 4,000 socialist workers five years ago in [London’s] Alexander Palace."

Volume 2 of Davis’ projected L.A. trilogy, Ecology of Fear (which also features dozens of icy, deadpan photos by Robert Morrow), covers the mid-’90s. L.A. has been brought nearly to its knees by a series of what Davis views as natural disasters: the ’92 riots, the ’93 Halloween fires that charred the 22-mile-long Malibu coastline, and the ’94 Northridge earthquake — the most expensive civic disaster in the history of the U.S. With its 500 gated subdivisions, 2,000 street gangs, 4,000 mini-malls, 20,000 sweatshops and 100,000 homeless residents, the Los Angeles of Ecology of Fear is an "apocalypse theme park," a symbol of everything gone wrong in urban America.

Ecology of Fear argues that we bring many of our problems on ourselves. We build in floodplains, and on "firecoasts" where, on an average, every year and a half major conflagrations break out. Or we don’t get the bigger picture, the larger cycles. Lake sediments and pollen cores, he argues convincingly, show that over the last 150 years, L.A. has been unusually damp. In the last millennium, Southern California has suffered two droughts, each of which lasted up to 200 years. Davis quotes new seismological research indicating we may be living through a sort of "seismic siesta," and that thousands of feet below downtown, "killer pulse" earthquakes lurk.

But Davis isn’t seeking just to catalog the counterintuitive, to list the minutiae of disasters real and imagined. He’s searching for a deeper truth, trying to understand "the power that bad dreams now wield over the public landscape." After examining every disaster movie about L.A. ever made, every apocalyptic paperback ever written, and hundreds of religious pamphlets and survivalist tracts, Davis comes to the conclusion that most Americans look on the destruction of Los Angeles as a way to save civilization. After a grotesque recitation of man-eating mountain lions, bloodsucking chupacabras, the "tornado alley" from Santa Monica to Newport Bay, "surfing snakes" off Malibu, and even a "downpour of poultry" from a Lawndale waterspout, Davis proposes that we are living in a "neo-catastrophic" universe where things are changed less by human will than by natural processes.

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