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Explaining Los Angeles

City of Quartz
Mike Davis
Vintage, $14.00

Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World
David Rieff
Touchstone, $12.00
by Marc B. Haefele
Those hills are ancient stone gods

Just beginning to be literature.

-- Les Murray, "Flood Plains on the Coast Facing Asia"

Los Angeles is a city with more lore than literature, and less history than either. But with three major disasters in as many years -- and now the O.J. Simpson affair -- it badly needs a new self-definition as something other than the catastrophe-prone winterless shore that recently posed as the land of hearts' desire. We're already a generation away from Reyner Banham's sentient Los Angeles, Architecture of the Four Ecologies, which taught the world to see Los Angeles as a human accomplishment, rather than a violation of nature. And we're two generations from Carey McWilliams's Southern California, an Island in the Land, probably the only book about Southern California that adequately portrays both the humanity of the forces that created its societies and the viciousness of the powers that shaped them.

Both Mike Davis and David Rieff's Los Angeles books appeared in the year of Rodney King. So if you're shopping for the latest on LA's tribulations in paperback, they are what you will find. Davis himself has also become an op-ed page standby: our own Jeremiah, gloating at our subsequent comeuppances.

But half a decade's history hasn't been kind to either author. They've been overtaken by more than just an additional trio of disasters, and suffer from their failures to behold the recent neon signs of decline.

All books about Los Angeles fall into two categories. There is the booster book -- wave of the future, lifestyle of the 21st century, and so on. This was Banham's take, and it remains Rieff's, albeit more cautiously.

Then there is the basher book -- the city as apocalypse of runaway capitalism and premeditated ecocide. McWilliams's humanity informed and moderated this approach. He never forgot that Southern California, after all, had comprehensible reasons to exist.

But Mike Davis takes the approach to the drag strip. No one has ever vilified Los Angeles like Davis does. Doubtless, this is why City of Quartz has been such a success.

Both books, though, miss the central problem of this city's present. They manage to be unwitting snapshots of a city on the brink of economic collapse, photos so focused on foreground they leave the end-of-an-age background a blur.

The slump was ordained years before either book was written. Mikhail Gorbachev ended the arms race that pumped the Los Angeles economy for more than 40 years. Writing in the second year of our five-year regional depression, Rieff both lambastes and invokes the cheer of the official LA 2000 report of 1989 -- itself the last documentary gasp of Mayor Tom Bradley's pluralistic optimism. The era when an economist could be quoted as saying, "The region cannot stop growing, no matter what."

Rieff tips in an afterword on the riots, but there has been so much bad news from LA since then that his book is nostalgic.

Davis misses the economic slide too, but his negativity is so obsessive that it takes a while to notice he doesn't notice it. Until you realize that Davis's rage is provoked by a bloating, lopsidedly prosperous Los Angeles now in mid-collapse. Davis claims to be excavating the city's future. He's actually inveighing against its past. Nostalgia again.

What's brilliant about Davis's book is his perception of Los Angeles as incarceration, its new prisons a major industry -- the
out-of-space Federal Detention Center that glowers off his book jacket, the high-rise, double-towered Sheriff's jail. He's right that a broad landscape of the city is turning itself into Postmodern Piranesi. And to young black males in particular, the city has become a prisoner factory.

He's also astute to note that the master plans of the '70s and '80s walled, raised, and otherwise separated the city's unapproachable-but-by-freeway skyscraper heart from entire classes of the city's population. It actually was in the decades of peak prosperity that Los Angeles's patrons saw fit to cut a moat around their downtown Valhalla.

City of Quartz's essential negativity -- its central trope of an apartheid of affluence, its loving dissection of the spavined secular and sacred power structures -- makes it great fun to read. It's an attitudinal artifact, as unlikely to date as "The Day of the Locusts." It's the decade's classic anti-LA diatribe, a black hole of Southland noir.

The author blurb states: "Unlike most writers on Southern California, Davis is a native son." But not of Los Angeles. A child of the distant industrial suburb of Fontana, Davis focuses a pastoral outrage on the gigantic sprawl between the ocean and his birthplace. Certainly, his closing chapters on the decline of Fontana are the most engaging part of the book.

Davis's wrath outstrips even his vast regional target -- with its 10 million people, its 4,000 square miles of mountains, deserts, houses and beaches. His ideal is the small community. To him, it's given that no large municipality can exist uncoerced, of its citizens' free will. He's not just raging at LA -- he's down on the very concept of a post-medieval city.

Davis wants us in socialized suburbs. His introductory paradigm is the long-lost desert commune of Llano, complete with phalanstery dormitories and collective agriculture. As he describes it, though, Llano fell apart as much from its ideological schisms as from the hostility of the WWI flag-
wavers around it.

But very few people come to Los Angeles to share their lives. Rieff catches Davis out on this when he notes LA is "a setting where the notion of the collective seems the biggest abstraction of all."

Davis's yearning for a community apart from the Los Angeles urban mass is his own manifestation of the tendencies that he lambastes for dividing the city. Llano might have survived as a gated, elite community like Hidden Hills or Bradbury, isolated by fences and guardposts from social torment and the immobilizing fear of crime.

Rieff concedes he's an outsider, and a privileged one, with access to top journalists and a comfortable sublet in the heart of the Anglo elite. He's a genteel visitor who listens well as he explores the city's gleaming surfaces, peering, rather than descending, into the cultural mosaics within.

Rieff's personal distance shoves the book quickly out of memory. The jacket blurbs him as "intelligent," "readable," and "insightful," but these aren't necessarily the qualities that bring us to what Los Angeles means. If City of Quartz is, in sci-fi-writer William Gibson's phrase, "a visionary rant about the secret meaning of Los Angeles," Rieff gives us LA Lite.

Yet Rieff actually sees more of the city than Davis does. He revels in the implications of such foreboding phenomena as the polyethnic prosperity of the Mid-Wilshire area, along whose major north-south route you can travel six miles without seeing a sign in a European alphabet. His Los Angeles is a city of nascent possibilities, of free will, while Davis's LA is a sinkhole of predestinarian doom.

Rieff finds the city "more a religion, really than a place fixed in time and space," that still sees itself as "the capital of America's America." He disregards the "academic prophets of apocalyptic meltdown."

He is, in short, having too good a time. The "exuberant sense of hubris" he attributes to well-off California liberals informs his own uninvolved, gently foreboding vision. You or I, hitting the library instead of the newsroom data base, talking to folks on the street instead of the people who get paid to talk to the folks on the street, maybe even getting punched in the nose, would have been harder put to make deadline.

But here and there, we might have connected with what's actually going on, and surprised ourselves and our reader. And avoided such pitfalls of second-hand data gathering as encapsulating phenomena like the homeless population and gang membership in dubiously general statistics.

Actually, both writers slack up on the drudgery called checking it out. But Davis mostly doesn't talk to people at all.

City of Quartz, infused with the joy of its own despair, deserves to be recalled for its central, dazzling metaphor of a city of prisons and boundaries shaped by the segregators of affluence. But it is also a book whose chapters barricade themselves against events behind hundreds of footnotes.

Intensely researched, it's so ill-reported you wonder if Davis has a telephone phobia. Drawn as it is from academic studies and an amazing hoard of newspaper and magazine stories, much of City of Quartz could be written in 22nd-century Tomsk. Davis's packratted clippings are the book's great weakness. They belong to a vast democracy of plausibility, without any visible process of assessment, in which an article in a weekly throwaway newspaper stands equal to a PhD thesis.

His chronology suffers. Waving his wads of yellowed paper, Davis maintains LA's past, present, and future are synonymous. Thus, he gets to attribute to "white racism" -- his favorite whipping boy -- social patterns and developments even in communities that have become largely non-white.

And there is the Berkeleyitis thing. One chapter draft of City of Quartz admittedly got reviewed in advance by the "Berkeley Collective of the Socialist Review." The rest reads as though it also had Telegraph Avenue's nihil obstat. This is like getting the Sinn Fein to explain the English Constitution.

But if Los Angeles intellectuals still send their laundry to Berkeley, or even New York, it's their own fault. They're told they are inferior, and this assumption is convenient to well-paid minds in a warm climate. Minds that might, who knows, at any moment, have a profitable Close Encounter with the mother ship of the Industry that hovers over the lush landscape, humming its promise of raging success.

As long as this laziness prevails, we won't see the studies, the books, the discipline, the intellectual self-awareness this city desperately needs to understand and better itself. Even to see itself for what it actually is -- a city of four million incredibly
diverse people, not the state of mind, as Rieff and Davis both imply, of a well-positioned few.

Local intellectuals, Rieff observes, are "as bound by metaphoric ways of thinking about Los Angeles as [city boosters Harrison Otis] or [Henry] Huntington had ever been."

Rieff continues: "They described LA as a `narrative' and wrote academic papers studded with . . . epigraphs from heroes of literary postmodernism."

But Rieff concludes, "And why not?"

Again, that zoo-goer's detachment. Why not is because Los Angeles suffers from this lack of cognitive responsibility, from lack of a vantage point from which to view itself.

What it has instead is a milieu of publications like Buzz and LA Weekly, which, apart from sporadic forays of single-issue reporting, fix on lifestyle and entertainment issues. On the old LA dream in its fashionably curdled state.

It also has its scholarly missions -- like the East Coast Raj of professors who eschew not only regional culture, but even the local papers ("If anything important happens around here, I'm sure it will show up in The New York Times," one UCLA professor told me) while counting the days until they can spend California tax dollars on sabbatical in the tender lands of fall colors and shore dinners.

The Arcadian isolation from government and politics of even locally born academics is daunting. Until I dragged him there three years ago, one senior professor of local history who teaches five miles from City Hall hadn't set foot in it.

Rieff's own Raj is a visiting scholar's corner of the LA Times's newsroom. In 1990, it was Los Angeles, two years later it was Sarajevo. Next year, perhaps, he will find himself in yet another crisis city, weaving such sinuous sentences:
Far from moving along a more or less legible contiuum, whether of space or ideas, the discontinuities that kept cropping up in Los Angeles between information and meaning could seem so great that, just as looking at the city from the freeway did not, even though it was the vantage point from which more was visible, show you anything very revealing, listening to the information that should have led to a conclusion about LA's future in fact required a context to make any sort of sense.
To dive into that context, all Rieff had to do was to turn on his radio. On the far end of the FM dial from the NPR-college stations lies the most popular morning radio station in the city. It broadcasts in Spanish.

KLAX's Juan Carlos Hidalgo rivals Howard Stern in LA listenership. People call to brag about their fathers and worship their mothers. Last holiday season, Hidalgo attacked war toys and nasty video games. He does a lot of yammering with little children who call in, and song dedications to the folks in Sinaloa.

In contrast to the all-hating Stern, KLAX is cheery as the Arthur Godfrey show. The music is even more upbeat: banda and corrido, mostly, pop brass ensembles with thumping tubas and a wide assortment of major-key polkas and waltzes with border ballad pistolero lyrics, Spanish covers of calypso and US pop standards. Just about anything loud enough to bang away in your head all day while you're performing a noisome physical job no Howard Stern loyalist will ever endure.

The legible continuum of Los Angeles is its immediate future as a majority Hispanic city with a border Mexican culture. As McWilliams predicted nearly 50 years ago, "it is not unlikely that, in the future, some fusion of the two cultures will occur." This future is now. The school-age population is already more than 60% Latino. The 1990 total for the city was 40%, not including illegal immigrants. The only real question about the year 2000 census is, how close to two-thirds Latino will Los Angeles be?

The actualization of this looming fact -- missed by Davis and Rieff -- is the rising anti-immigrant mania, mostly confined to the Anglo segment of the population.

But take away the immigrants, legal and illegal, and statistically, you still face a majority Latino Los Angeles by 2000. And, absent those immigrants, you might face a two percent drop in the county's economic expansions -- a figure which in FY 1991 totaled just about two percent.

Davis's and Rieff's grapplings with this future are what the Barrio calls muy engringolada. Davis mentions and drops the topic in his introduction. Rieff alludes to the Chicano movimiento's 1960s Plan de Santa Barbara, but then moves on to root 20 years of northward migrations in the effect of beer ads presenting blonde women on Mexican males. He writes: "And the farm boys flocked to Mexico City . . . and [on] to the greatest blonde of them all, Los Angeles."

This would be a bit much for Howard Stern. Rieff also mumbles about the Green Revolution's effect on agriculture, but neither writer touches Mexican causes. These include the ineptitude of the 1972-82 Mexican ruling party's land reform, central planning and industrial development strategies, as well as its de facto opposition to birth control. And the roller-coaster ride of oil prices and the ensuing spiral of national debt. All of which gave millions of ambitious Mexicans reason to seek a better life in El Norte.

But both authors generally view Latino California as an accomplishment of white Los Angeles -- segregation, Zoot Suit riots, the entire Racist America bit. Latinos as victims, pure and simple.

To Chicanos, this is condescension. There is little in Rieff, and less in Davis, about Hispanic self-empowerment, about the future's preludes in 1960s Chicano movements, the 1970 East LA mobilization that martyred journalist and cultural hero Ruben Salazar and filled Chicano Studies classes for a decade. Particularly to Davis, the area's largest population appears to contain few individuals. It's mostly the same all-suffering brown mass. Pitiable, but intangible.

To Davis, the Anglo community is just as indistinguishable, its blandness surmounted by racist postures like the Brady Bunch in Klan hoods. To make this point, he gleans from his most dated clippings,
even when their data trip over his later information.

For instance, on the same page, Davis allows the tremendous Asian influx into
the suburban San Gabriel Valley, but a few lines later he's calling the same region a typical Southern California "besieged white laager." This of a region that has had black mayors and deputy mayors in two of its largest cities, and where an influx of Hispanic and Asian homebuyers has created the only serious double-digit assessment growth in the county.

In his negative zeal, Davis details the mid-80s rearguard white reaction to this influx. But he ignores the action that provoked the reaction, and the fact that the reaction, obviously, failed.

More importantly, his white-racism fixation, along with his collectivist asceticism, blinds Davis to those "master-race life-styles'" allure to other "races." Davis just doesn't get that there's no genetic factor involved in the appeal of plush landscaping, barbecues, and swimming pools.

Just as there isn't any inherent virtue to having been oppressed. By imputing "master-race" traits to the city's Anglos, Davis avoids seeing how these are less traits than roles assumed by winners of the LA societal game.

And if the values are "ruling class," they are nonetheless eagerly assumed by whoever replaces the Anglos in the context of power. For instance: it's the Latino homeowner-dominated city governments of the East San Gabriel Valley that now try to restrict the rental housing favored by lower-income Asians; it was the increasingly Asian and otherwise non-WASP homeowners in the city's elite Hancock Park who last year forced the white male Gibralter of the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple to curtail operations as "a public nuisance"; and it is the upper-class African American homeowners of Ladera Heights who sought to ban Latino day laborers from that community's streets and sidewalks.

Rieff notices this tendency when he speaks of "a spectrum of left to right" over which affluence tends to carry Los Angeles families. Since he speaks Spanish, one keeps hoping he'll dive into the depths of the inner city, strike up conversations with street vendors, put on his cowboy boots to dance the quebradita at the Latin Lover Club down on Third Street, and get us a view of the top from the bottom. Alas, by talking mostly to people's maids, Rieff misses most of Los Angeles's monoglot Hispanic society.

But in his afterword, he does stress something usually overlooked about the 1992 riots. The events that left heavy smoke hanging over Beverly Hills and Santa Monica didn't touch East LA.

But Los Angeles's poorest, most ignored new barrio of Pico-Union -- with a population as dense as lower Manhattan's -- blew itself sky-high. As many of its people found redefinition in street violence.

No one knows exactly who raged where on 29 April 1992; Rieff suggests many were from Pico-Union. Perhaps.

Fenced off from Davis's quartz skyscrapers, the mob swarmed the surrounding downtown, burning Skid Row hamburger stands and second-hand clothing stores, traumatizing the homeless population.

And leaving me with a personal omen of McWilliams's cultural fusion and the values of our new self-definition. When
they hit my office that night, the mob burned and smashed all the way back to
the only desk in the room that had on it a glittery portrait of Mexico's Virgin of Guadalupe. That desk, and those beyond it, were untouched, easing our task when we arrived the next day to pick up, sweep up, board up, and otherwise engage our own rage and despair.

Originally published in the June/September 1994 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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