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Jeremiah Among the Palms

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.

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.

 

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."

A scholarship got him to Reed College in Portland, where he lasted for about two weeks before getting kicked out for living in his girlfriend’s dorm room. During his brief Oregon sojourn, however, he met a guy who turned him on to the Port Huron Statement, the primal visionary political analysis by the 1960s New Left. "It was like Paul on the road to Damascus," Davis remembers. "I caught a Greyhound bus to New York and went to work for SDS."

With Students for a Democratic Society, Davis became a full-time revolutionary. Dispatched to his home turf as SDS’s first Southern California regional organizer, he put together demonstrations against Dow Chemical in Torrance, which manufactured incendiary napalm to use against the Vietnamese. Carl Oglesby, who was president of SDS at the time, told Davis he was the organization’s most "meat-and-potatoes" guy, the epitome of the revolutionary foot soldier. Davis met his first wife in SDS, with which she’d just spent the 1964 Mississippi "Freedom Summer" trying to organize tugboat crews on the lower Mississippi.

State Senator Tom Hayden, the main author of the Port Huron Statement, says that in the early ’60s, most Americans viewed SDS members as "little better than gangbangers" and dealt with them accordingly. SDS never espoused nonviolence, and Davis was no longer reading Gandhi. He suffered the first of what would become five politically connected arrests, this one for unlawful assembly. He’s also faced charges of battery, armed robbery and carrying a concealed weapon, none of which ever stuck.

As the Vietnam War grew increasingly insane, SDS strove to "bring the war home." After the 1968 Chicago "Days of Rage," which saw a few hundred SDS members rampaging through the Loop, smashing windshields and trashing storefronts, before splintering into various above- and below-ground cadres, Davis left the group, and he remains ambivalent about its accomplishments. "The New Left weren’t heroes," Davis now believes. "We lost. The civil rights guys were the real heroes. The ’30s guys were the real heroes." For Davis, the ’70s — when the ’60s radicals began to infiltrate the organized-labor movement — was a far more important time.

At the end of 1967, Davis joined the Communist Party. Especially during the years that it was led by Dorothy Healey, the Southern California District of the Communist Party was the U.S.’s most rebellious party local, breaking with the national party over the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Davis, however, was too radical even for Healey, who fired him from the party-owned Progressive Bookstore in 1969 for bum’s-rushing a Soviet consul who Davis thought was spying on the store. Davis makes no apology for his anti-Soviet bias: "My heroes were the Bolsheviks who had been killed by Stalin."

A Teamsters Union program taught him to drive an 18-wheeler, and he spent the next three years in a 240-foot tractor-trailer ferrying Barbie dolls all over Southern California. Ron Schneck, an over-the-road trucker for 25 years and now a teacher at Dorsey High School in L.A., met Davis in a C.P.-sponsored Workers and Peasants Club in early 1968, right after Schneck got back from Vietnam. "Mike always had this tremendously powerful analytical mind," Schneck recalls. "People listened to him wherever he went. He was a sharp dude, but he was no different than thousands of others of us at the time who were working to make a more egalitarian, nonracist world."

s yet there was nothing to indicate that Davis would emerge as L.A.’s dark prophet. Since the days of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Arroyo Set, mainstream Los Angeles intellectuals, with a few honorable exceptions — Louis Adamic, Carey McWilliams and Richard Lillard — have generally functioned as cheerleaders for capital and boosters of Southern California as a White Man’s Paradise. For an unreconstructed left-winger, an activist committed to a wide range of radical causes, to assume the status of the city’s most influential intellectual required an organic, almost tortuous evolution.

 

Davis traces his obsession with Los Angeles back to the late ’60s. He was living in communal squalor in a decrepit mansion on Crown Hill, a neighborhood just west of downtown in the final stages of being redeveloped out of existence, when he met "a character out of a John Fante novel," a smalltime gambler who told him endless stories of downtown and Bunker Hill before the freeway era. In the early ’70s, he got a job driving a Gray Line tour bus, which required him to talk his charges through the SoCal fantasy-scape of Disneyland, the Farmers Market and "Hollywood by Night." The gig tapped into the performer in Davis but offended his sense of social reality; he soon responded by supplementing the commercial tours with unofficial, underground group explorations of local sites of labor violence, such as the McNamara Brothers’ 1910 bombing of the L.A. Times, and of culture collision, stopping at the site of the 1870 massacre of scores of Chinese by white mobs. He wouldn’t begin to write his first piece about Los Angeles, "Sunshine and the Open Shop: Ford and Darwin in 1920s Los Angeles," until 1979.

In ’73, when the Teamsters tried to organize the tour-bus drivers, a bitter strike ensued. One day, a scab drove a bus through a picket line and knocked down one of the strikers. Davis got arrested for beating up the driver. As part of the strike settlement, he was fired and charges against him were dropped. He decided to go back to school. Attracted by the radical teachers he’d met during the strike, Davis enrolled at UCLA as a 28-year-old freshman on a scholarship from the butchers union to study economics and history.

At UCLA, Davis was part of a group of older students and younger faculty that included Jan Breidenbach, now the director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, then in her late 20s and returning to school from years abroad. "All of us," she recalls, "were involved in larger political projects, against the war and for social change." She says Davis "was probably the smartest person I’d ever met. He couldn’t remember to buy mayonnaise, but he had a photographic memory for great blocks of information, and an ability to connect them up, that was amazing." Breidenbach became Davis’ second wife. I asked her why she thought Davis has been married so many times. She paused, wanting to say something that might sum up Davis, with whom she is still friendly: "It’s the triumph of hope over experience."

Until he was almost 30, Davis says, he never thought about writing. "When I was a little kid, I talked too fast and slurred my speech. They thought I was mentally retarded." Robert Gottlieb, who now teaches urban studies at Occidental College, says that when he first met Davis in 1967, in SDS, it never occurred to him that Davis would become a writer. Davis claims he was functionally illiterate when he arrived at UCLA, but he soon began to write. His first successful paper was a comparison of Richard Nixon and Watergate with the 18th Brumaire, the coup that brought Napoleon III to power. The first paper he published was about sabotage and the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), whose dream of "One Big Union" flared briefly across the American West during the widespread labor violence around the time of World War I.

Three years after arriving in Westwood, the marriage was over and Davis was gone, to study Irish history at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. During the 1970s, anybody in the U.S. who wanted to pursue a serious study of Marxism had to go to Great Britain, with its powerful trade-union movement and Labor government. Suzi Weissman, who now teaches Russian politics at St. Mary’s College and hosts the KPFK current-events show Beneath the Surface, was in graduate school at the University of Glasgow in 1973 when a letter arrived out of the blue from Mike Davis, explaining himself. She laughs: "We felt we’d discovered a working-class hero."

Davis and Weissman became flatmates, huddling around the fireplace in their freezing living room all night, reading. Alone among that highly politicized coterie, Weissman remembers, Davis was already deep into the study of the natural sciences. Davis began spending more and more time in Belfast, as he became gradually more caught up in the Irish nationalist cause. He came back to UCLA, finished his bachelor and graduate course work, and passed his Ph.D. exams. He returned to Belfast in time for the 1981 hunger strikes protesting the presence of English troops. He married an Irishwoman, lived in a row house and fathered his first child, Roisin.

Later in 1981, Davis moved to London to join the editorial committee at the New Left Review, an intellectually rigorous, independent Marxist periodical written and edited by and for people who, in the words of UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener, "take Kapital, Volume 1, very seriously." Davis started the Haymarket Series at Verso, the New Left Review’s publishing arm, specializing in radical studies of North American politics and culture, where he published major works by younger, nonwhite L.A. journalist-essayists, such as Lynell George’s No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of the Angels and Rubén Martínez’s The Other Side: Notes From the New L.A. He also ä published his own first book, Prisoners of the American Dream, a bleak look at the future of the American working class in the era of Ronald Reagan.

 

When he came home in 1987 to finish his Ph.D., UCLA, he says, wouldn’t let him submit the manuscript that became City of Quartz as his thesis, and informed him he’d have to do his classwork all over again. With that, he gave up pursuing his doctorate. He went back to driving trucks for a year, then joined the local migrant-professor circuit, piloting a beat-up Toyota between his home in Echo Park and Pitzer College at Claremont, where he taught the history of urban gangs; the Cesar Chavez Center at UCLA, where he lectured in Chicano studies; Cal State Northridge; Pomona; USC; and SCI-Arc, the vanguard Southern California Institute of Architecture. For the last 10 years, he says, "I’ve been trying as hard as I can to get an ordinary academic job."

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.


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