By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Marx and Engels never wrote about the consequences of environmental change on human history, but Davis does. He’s the first to link what Susan Faludi describes as "social injustice and ecological distress." "Without trying to sound pretentious," Davis says with a shrug and a sideward glance, "I’m trying to take Marxism into a more nonlinear, chaotic terrain."
he first time I met Mike Davis was in the summer of 1989, when he called to say he was doing an L.A. Weekly cover story on the Los Angeles River. Since it was going to be the biggest piece anybody had done yet about the river, and I was running Friends of the Los Angeles River, I suggested we get together down by the river for a talk. He said he wanted to work on the story a little first. A few weeks later, he called to tell me he’d written the story and wanted me to take a look at it.
I was amazed to discover he’d fabricated an entire interview with me: We were standing together at the Fremont Gate entrance to Elysian Park, a place I’d never been, and I showed him a "dog-eared 1890s topographical map prepared for City Engineer J.H. Dockweiler," a document that I’d never heard of at the time. Though we’d never actually talked, the words he put in my mouth made me sound like I knew a lot more about the Los Angeles River than I actually did. I told him to go ahead with the piece just the way it was.
I was still nonplused at Davis’ audacity when, a few years later, I finally saw one of the four 11-foot-long sections of the Dockweiler Map at the Huntington Library. The map was rich in detail, composed by a team of researchers operating before suburban sprawl would permanently obscure the river’s riparian roots. I realized that what Davis had unearthed from dusty obscurity was the single document that might, on the strength of science, allow us to reverse the bureaucratic inevitability of ill-conceived flood control. I was the expert and the activist, but it was Davis who had put in my hands the blueprint for the restoration of the wetlands of the Los Angeles River.
Davis is the first to admit that he won’t let a fact get in the way of a good story. "I was stunned," I’ve heard him say twice lately, "to find out that something I said turned out to be true." And that is the point with Davis: more theoretician than historian, more instinct than research. The point is less what he discovers than which parts of the record he chooses to look at. Everybody knows that Malibu burns; it was not until Davis that anyone said, "Let it." Those who argue with his facts must still grapple with his argument.
hough his family goes back at least 140 years in Ohio’s Western Reserve, Davis chalks up to Irishness his sense that you get at the deepest truth through stories. "My ethnicity is Midwestern," he says, "but I’ve got some kind of Irish meshugaas." His mother was a garrulous, religious Irish Catholic who’d drag her son back into the street if he tried to duck a fight, which he’s rarely ever done. Two of his wives have been Irish, and both his kids — Jack, 5, who lives with his mother in Dublin (Davis flies to see him every two or three months), and Roisin, a teenage daughter now living in L.A. — are Irish-American.
The family moved west during the Depression, and Davis was born in Fontana, City of Quartz’s "Junkyard of Dreams," in 1946 — around the time that a band of local Harley-Davidson enthusiasts formed the original Hell’s Angels. Davis admits, "A radical absence of personal security has always been a condition of my life." The family moved around eastern San Diego County, eventually settling in the backcountry town of El Cajon.
Davis rebelled against his father by becoming a reactionary and joining the Marine Corps "Devil-Pups," a jarhead version of the Boy Scouts. Until he was 15 he had a picture of Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, on ä his bedroom wall. He first got interested in history from teachers who regaled him with their World War II adventures in the Pacific. Then he read Hiroshima, John Hersey’s graphic report from ground zero, and it "upset and challenged all my ideas on patriotism and the U.S."
When Davis was 16 his father had a massive coronary, and Davis had to quit school to go to work as a meat cutter. It was, for him, a brooding, troubled time. He read On the Road and took bullfighting lessons. He plowed his ’54 Ford into a brick wall in a drag race — his thigh still carries a foot-and-a-half-long scar. In 1962, Davis’ cousin Carol and her husband, a black warehouseman named Jim Stone, took Davis to his first CORE demonstration. The Congress of Racial Equality was one of the most action-oriented of the militantly nonviolent civil rights groups of the early ’60s, its members unsung circuit riders who thought they could change the world, and Davis’ life was transformed. "It was my burning-bush experience . . . I saw things that must’ve been like the early Christians."