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
After City of Quartz came out, Bob Gott lieb, who was teaching in the Urban Planning Program at UCLA, tried to get Davis a job there teaching environmental history, but "I never could convince anybody that he should be considered, because he was not a ‘true academic.’" In the spring of ’97, Davis was one of three finalists for an endowed chair at USC teaching American history. He didn’t get that gig either.
At the more cutting-edge SCI-Arc, Davis remains not only a crown jewel but a thorn in its avant-garde ass. Davis’ constantly evolving urban-theory class — which has studied everything from "the social architecture of food in Los Angeles," to environmental histories of Tijuana and Las Vegas, to "the city as theater of the people" — is one of SCI-Arc’s national and international calling cards. Still, Davis carries with him a certain amount of administrative stress.
A recent attempt by Davis to prove to his urban-theory class that they could feel safe in the middle of the night in any neighborhood in L.A. ended up with a student being stabbed by a gang member downtown. Though the student, a Fijian prince, told Davis that the incident was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him, Davis says that after that incident he was forced to "lay low for a while." Davis admits he has "a long history of being a bad camper," but Susan Faludi suggests that it might be a good thing: "What some might read as self-sabotage, I would read as self-preservation. There must be some part of him that knows that the academic route leads to intellectual death."
As a writer, Davis takes a very utilitarian approach to his craft, telling students that chaining yourself to a typewriter day after day after day is like going to the coal face. "In terms of writing style, nothing has influenced me as much as Mencken’s The American Language. While an internationalist in politics, I became a rabid nationalist in terms of language." For Davis, the literary journey has long been toward greater clarity and accessibility. "My mother looked at my first book and said, ‘You think anybody in the working class could possibly understand this?’" In the 15 years since, Davis has made himself into a superb storyteller. The success of his approach speaks for itself. The week it was published, Ecology of Fear entered the L.A. Times Book Review nonfiction hardcover chart at No. 2, and has remained near the top of the list ever since. As of this writing, the 8-year-old City of Quartz is the top-rated nonfiction paperback.
Davis has used the success of his books to further his social goals. When DeWayne Holmes, a former member of a Crips set who’d put together a post-uprising armistice with the Bloods at the Imperial Courts housing project, was sentenced to seven years in prison on what Davis believed was a trumped-up robbery charge, Davis went to bat for him. When Holmes got out of prison, Davis got him a job in Tom Hayden’s district office. "Without Mike," says Theresa Allison, Holmes’ mom, "I don’t know how I could have gone through the pain I’ve gone through."
Davis was teaching at Claremont during the campaign to stop the anti-immigration Proposition 187. Angel Cervantes, who was organizing student walkouts, says Davis spoke frequently at their political meetings. "He would come with so much information, so many stories." Davis has become, in Tom Hayden’s words, "an oppositional figure, a counterpoint to the bullshit that passes for intellectual discussion in this town."
Along with Caltech historian Bill Deverell, Davis organized a pair of landmark "Southern California Environment and History Conferences" at Cal State Northridge, which brought together — for the first time ever — Southern California’s geographers, historians, ecologists, geologists and water experts to share their expertise. "He strikes me as the most generous of intellectuals," says Deverell. "That, in and of itself, can draw communities together."
Tom Hayden cautions that because of Davis’ politics, attempts will be made to marginalize him by focusing on his lifestyle rather than his ideas. "Mike understands," Hayden says, "that if he can be the forerunner of a new intellectual counterculture and become understood in the mainstream, then political change will follow." As much as he wants to change the world, though, Davis is wary, wondering when he’ll find time to write books. "I spent most of my life thinking I was an organizer," he muses, "but looking back soberly, I see I was a rotten organizer, and I’m still a rotten organizer. It’s been nice in the last seven or eight years to find some competence in something."Davis remains an occasional contributor to the Weekly.