The unfulfilled American dream stalks Mike Davis’s dystopian Los Angeles in his masterful City of Quartz

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In an occasional series, we look at books that have become cultural touchstones.

The death of the radical historian Mike Davis, on October 25 in San Diego, brings back memories of Los Angeles, and of Davis’s landmark book on that city.

When I first picked up City of Quartz (1990), I wondered at the title, which was left unexplained in the text. Davis later explained it to London Review of Books’ US editor, Adam Shatz. Quartz is

something that looks like diamond but is really cheap, translucent but nothing can be seen in it.

This was the essence of the Los Angeles Davis had excavated.

City of Quartz explores political and economic power in 20th-century Los Angeles. It shows how the contest of power shaped, under the promise of progress through endless growth, the city’s spatial and social development in ways that presaged a dystopian future.

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Land, power and ‘Fortress LA’

An acerbic and brilliant dissection of that city’s urban history, City of Quartz is an interdisciplinary work of magnitude and significance. Davis’s second book, it propelled his career to juggernaut status, as a cultural critic and environmental historian. By the time of his death, he had written or edited more than a dozen books on urban, environmental and global history.

The remarkable oeuvre of Mike Davis is worth remembering for its sheer size, audacity, and conceptual innovation. And City of Quartz provided the point of take-off. It remains relevant to American history, environmental history, Marxism, political science, urban geography, landscape and architectural studies, and cultural studies. It is especially valuable for anyone who wants to understand Los Angeles.

The unstated, underlying theme of the unfulfilled American Dream stalks the text. Yet it is the political economy of the city’s organisation that takes centre stage as motor force.

City of Quartz can be read as a series of interesting overlapping chapters in Los Angeles history, which Davis weaves into a story of political ambition, landscape transformation and consequent discontents.

The book’s critical insight is that in Los Angeles, land was the key resource – available, in seemingly endless quantities, for “commodification”. Land could be restlessly reshaped in the 20th century for the reproduction of capital, at the behest of rambunctious competing forces. These included old and new investors, rival groups of local and state politicians, regional boosters, defenders of upper-middle-class neighbourhoods.

Even the Roman Catholic hierarchy of Los Angeles had a role, as it responded to resurgent Latino importance in the city’s politics and culture. The church tried to contain radical initiatives from Hispanic parishioners (intended to empower Latinos politically) and played “an important, if discreet, role in city politics and land-use decision-making”.

Through this ever-changing power structure, the reader better understands one of the world’s most influential 20th-century cities. This developmental process drew in and spat out ordinary people, with their hopes and dreams, as readily as it bulldozed farms and ranches to turn land into space, producing residential lots, industry, skyscrapers, shopping malls and freeways.

Opposition to business-led growth came mostly from the city’s Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) protesters. In Davis’s analysis, these residents came from well-to-do, upper-middle-class communities. They were concerned to prevent intrusion of high-rise buildings in their neighbourhoods, and the conversion of inflated land prices into inflated land taxes.

But the tendency by the 1980s was for the plucky homeowners’ associations fighting excessive urban “growth” to unite with developers to control the increasingly diverse populations coming into the formerly White Anglo Saxon Protestant city and its more affluent neighbourhoods.

(After its early Spanish Empire and Mexican origins before 1848, the city had become an Anglo-Saxon Protestant stronghold by 1900. By the 1960s, Mexican immigration, both legal and non-legal, became joined with African American, Central American, other Hispanics, and East Asian immigration to reverse that homogenisation and produce the current mix.)

Truly rich and middle-class whites could unite around “Fortress LA”. This strategy kept the poor out by zoning land to protect areas of single family homes from apartment construction. Or it controlled the poor – through measures such as security cameras, reducing the number of public toilets, and installing uncomfortable seating at public transport shelters. All of this was designed to deter the poor and homeless from congregating in the vicinity of better neighbourhoods, or downtown commercial districts.

The system functionally segregated its population in places where mixing might occur – such as shopping malls – by privately policing those spaces. This concern with the design of social space, the marginalisation of public space by redevelopment, and the imposition of security systems all marked the changing city by the end of the 1980s boom.

Labour was not a success story within this larger narrative – as revealed in the book’s concluding chapter. Southern California labour history is summed up in the decline of Davis’s birthplace, Fontana, in San Bernardino County to the east of Los Angeles. In Davis’s opinion, that city went from blue-collar success as a steel mill town in the 1940s to a “junkyard of dreams” by the mid-1980s.

This is no sunny-side history, no American redemption story. As in Davis’s later work, catastrophe and impending doom are stressed more than humanity’s sometimes noble attempts to do better.

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City of loss, as well as dreams

Though he was an almost exact contemporary of mine as an American historian, I never met Mike Davis, and I was not an avid early reader of City of Quartz. This was partly due to my first encounter with the city. In assessing the book – and Davis – memory and history merge in my own experience of Los Angeles as the 20th-century home of the American Dream.

I first saw the city 41 years ago. For three days, I trod the largely soulless streets of a then-dilapidated section of downtown, without realising the City of Angels was partly fringed by mountains. On the third day, like some Biblical revelation, the blanket of fog and smog lifted to expose the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. The city was bounded by mountain majesty to the north and northeast. But, to the south and southeast, there stretched an immense grid of streets as far as the eye could see. To the west, only the ocean (which also distantly laps Australia) curbed the city’s ambition.

With not a skerrick of the plain seemingly “undeveloped”, and its unrelenting grid of houses, highways and streets, I judged the city the most geometrical behemoth I had ever encountered. A city of loss as much as of dreams, Los Angeles was (I thought) best viewed from the windows of a departing 747.

Looking at Davis’s oeuvre, I now see that all roads lead back to City of Quartz. In pride of place, for me, is his 2001 book, Late Victorian Holocausts, on climate variability, famine and the injustices of British imperial power in South Asia, China and Brazil.

But I can also see rich, seminal insights from City of Quartz reflected in other vintage Davis works. Planet of Slums (2006) further developed the idea of social stratification of populations displaced into a spatial form. That is, the patterns of slums internationally represented the phenomenon of spatial commodification of labour.

Davis proudly wore the title of a Marxist, but the theory of Marxism is lightly worn in most of his books (though he directly explores it in his 2018 book, Old Gods, New Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory). His style of exposition is one of radical homespun journalism. He follows a venerable tradition running back to the progressives of the turn of the 20th-century, the California noir recalled in Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown (1974), and writers from Depression-era America, represented by Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Fields (1939).

Simple twists of fate

Davis’s style of critical writing for a wider public is the book’s most riveting feature. He wrote like an investigative journalist, armed with passion and dark humour. At the same time, he could master the intricate and prodigious detail of a particular place and the movement of its political economy through time – the machinations of politics, the exertion of state power, the relentless accumulation of capital in the remaking of landscapes. But City of Quartz had more than bold insights and dramatic flair. It had luck on its side.

The role of serendipity is not sufficiently appreciated in historical analysis. Simple twists of fate may determine the meaning of a history book. Sometimes, writers get lucky. For all its panache and derring-do prose, the book might never had made a wider impact. Too long and detailed, it also presumes a certain familiarity with local southern Californian politics in the 20th century that many foreign readers would not have, nor care to have.

The book’s judgements are sharp: on the failings of government, the venality of capitalists, the racism of privileged homeowners in high-end or gated communities, the neglect of the poor, and the failure of working people to organise effectively. Davis’s treatment of the city’s racial politics is frank. He shows that the surveillance and brutal policing of the city’s underclass of African Americans and Hispanic immigrants is a critical aspect of its spatial organisation.

Consequently, there is little hope professed in this book – whereas audiences normally look for hope. It differs in this respect from much of the American left’s attempts to depict working people making their own history in ultimately noble stories of struggle and uplift. (See, for example, the school of historiography associated with the late Herbert Gutman, author of Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America and The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom.)

City of Quartz might not have prospered without the videoed police beating of Rodney King, just two years after its publication. The subsequent civil rights movement against Los Angeles police violence and persecution of racial minorities made City of Quartz seem awfully prescient.

Interest in City of Quartz was also propelled by the growing idea of the United States as an “incarceration nation” par excellence. Black Lives Matter protests have further emphasised the underlying racial structures of American power and thought that Davis probed and denounced. These are urban history themes of relevance not only to the whole of the United States, but also to Australia and other countries with a settler-colonial history.

The book benefited from the momentum that public discourse can generate. Mistakes in Davis’s text were later exposed: often in the service of the contemporary city’s establishment politics of economic progress. Brady Westwater, one of Davis’s most assiduous critics (who checked the accuracy of the book’s footnotes), was associated with Californian real estate interests.

But these criticisms only helped the book, by generating further conversation about Davis’s ideas. Davis’s reputation grew, as a fearless radical writer whose larger truths eclipsed minor factual errors and the book’s simplifications of the city’s complex history. His critics argued, though, that he exaggerated the repressive aspects of urban design strategies.

This publicity opened many doors. Further work by Davis on the environmental history of Los Angeles followed. His next major book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998), met a similar mixture of acclaim and criticism. In other words, City of Quartz became part of the subject of Los Angeles’ peculiarity and particularity – part of its very own myth of the city’s splendour, which Davis had contested. The myth lives on, even as Davis wanted to hold out a vision of an alternative, community-based ethic for Los Angeles – like the one he found in Fontana, the place of his birth.

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Continuing relevance

Davis’s themes and arguments continue to resonate with present-day Los Angeles. An urban water crisis looms as the Hoover Dam’s levels sink during an unprecedented drought, and wildfires routinely threaten housing on the margins of an ever-expanding metropolitan area.

All these things (and others) make relevant Davis’s critique of unrelenting urban economic development that attempts to override physical constraints. Meanwhile, the city’s homelessness problems grow and continue to be worse than in many other major US cities.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of Los Angeles, the patterns of City of Quartz will likely be familiar to those of us who live in other supersizing cities in the early 21st century. Sydney, for example, provides close parallels, with its market-driven treatment of housing, in which developers and political forces join to plan new urban projects. They support these projects in the name of (elusive) economic “growth”, “jobs” and property gains, rather than provision of shelter.

As a result, our governments marginalise the right of all people to live lives of dignity in an era of global housing crisis. Likewise, they politically encourage the fear of poor foreign immigrants and people of colour.

We can learn all this and more from City of Quartz. But perhaps the book’s most important lesson is its anticipation of a larger agenda of global and environmental history – which continues to build on Davis’s legacy today.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Ian Tyrrell, UNSW Sydney.

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Ian Tyrrell received funding on five separate occasions from the Australian Research Council, most recently through a Discovery Grant for 2015-18 on American Exceptionalism.