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Geoff Manaugh on Mike Davis

On the man who excavated the details the city wished to forget.

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In the 1990s, Mike Davis published two books that fundamentally transformed how the city of Los Angeles should be understood. Taken together, City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998) stretched the very concept of urban journalism to include such far-flung topics as ecology, wildfires, seismic science, police surveillance, gang warfare, political conspiracy, extreme local eccentricities, and the alarming rise—and rise and rise—of California’s public/private prison industry. Often mercilessly, Davis excavated details that Los Angeles seemed to wish it had forgotten.
Proving that academically informed journalism could bring obscure issues of the modern metropolis to a popular audience, Davis came to prominence during a decade of riots, earthquakes, and financial crisis—and his writings immediately struck a chord. Davis convincingly argued that the overlooked margins of the modern metropolis were, in fact, central to any critical understanding of how the city had formed. The city thus had to be reappraised—and urgently—in order to understand the powerful, historic influences on its current form. In doing so, Davis revealed a beguiling darkness beneath the surface of the City of Angels.
As the science-fiction novelist William Gibson wrote at the time, Davis’ work is “more cyberpunk than any work of fiction could ever be,” refracting the city through Davis’ own cynical lens. His writings seek to turn Los Angeles inside out, in a sense, exploring the oil-rich, seismic jigsaw puzzle locked in the rocky ground beneath the city; the wildfires raging in Malibu; the small children attacked by mountain lions in the suburban hills; and the unsupervised expansion of prison space that, still today, threatens to turn much of Southern California “into a vast penal colony.”
Davis came to prominence during a decade of riots, earthquakes, and financial crisis—and his writings immediately struck a chord.
Indeed, as Davis suggests in Ecology of Fear, L.A. is a city where “several parallel worlds or realities are nested inside of one another,” and he shows that the most exciting urban writing is that which tries to pick those worlds apart—to delaminate them and to show everyone how the city really works.
City of Quartz, in particular, reveals L.A. from a dizzying parallax view. In one chapter, he shows us the metropolis as seen from above, where military-style attack helicopters buzz high overhead, armed with infrared cameras and multimillion-candlepower spotlights, owned and operated by an increasingly—and very deliberately—militarized LAPD. This was an aerial effort, Davis writes, “exceeding even the British Army’s aerial surveillance of Belfast.” Indeed, the fabric of the city itself has become a kind of control mechanism: “thousands of residential rooftops have been painted with identifying street numbers, transforming the aerial view of the city into a huge police grid.” What does it mean to be a citizen in such spatial circumstances? How do we practice a fully engaged urban politics? In Davis’ work, these are more than just rhetorical questions.
Of course, Davis has been accused of delighting in apocalypse, of having a macabre enthusiasm for the very things he describes. But, as he has explained in interviews, his compulsion to confront sights of violence, decay, and dystopia is not borne from wishful thinking. If anything, it is a kind of articulate sobriety, preparing himself and his readers for what might yet be on the horizon—whether that’s the Big One, a pandemic, or even urban warfare.
Los Angeles is no longer Davis’ chosen city of focus, but his early books are indispensable—they are interpretive comets streaking through the history of the region, illuminating even the deepest cracks with their ferocious light. Davis is not always for the faint-hearted. He is, however, very much for Los Angeles.
Portrait by Michael Gaughan\n

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