Mike Davis, Los Angeles and the Sins of Capitalism


“Los Angeles is the Great Gatsby of American cities,” Kevin Starr, the California history columnist and former state librarian, wrote many years ago. The City of Angels has of course been renowned for over a century for those who have sought to reinvent themselves, but the region itself also has a certain aptitude for erasing its own past and revitalizing its myth. And it remains an optimistic place. The title of a 1991 review by Bryce Nelson in The New York Times by Mike Davis City of Quartz: digging into the future in Los Angeles perhaps he said it best: “If this is hell, why is it so popular?”

Bryce Nelson was not a huge fan of Mike Davis, and Mike Davis was not a huge fan of Kevin Starr, in part because Davis felt that Starr’s multi-volume history of California, “Americans and the Californian dream”, was way too pink. an image of the state and its largest city – and the troubled history of both. An urban sociologist born and raised in Southern California (yes, some of us are actually from there), Davis first rose to prominence with the 1990s quartz city.

In quartz city and ecology of fearMike Davis painted dark portraits of a megalopolis ruled by paranoia and balkanization.

Sean Dempsey, SJ, wrote in America in 2020 that quartz city “reads like a social history filtered through the feverish imagination of a science fiction novelist. This was clearly no accident, as two of Davis’s subjects, Carey McWilliams, the leftist author of several books on Southern California history, and Philip K. Dick, the Los Angeles-based writer best remembered for his dystopian visions of the city in the film “Blade Runner” (1982), were also clear inspirations. Davis’ many other books include Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998), Magical urbanism: Latinos are reinventing the great American city (2000) and 2020s Set the Night on Fire: LA in the 60s.

Online media outlet Boom California once called Davis “a chronicler of California’s dark side and Los Angeles underbelly, proclaiming an unsettling and menacing reality beneath the bright, sunny facade.” In quartz city and ecology of fear, Davis painted grim portraits of a megalopolis ruled by paranoia and balkanization, an archipelago of gated white communities in a vast sea of ​​underprivileged people of color and immigrants struggling to find homes, jobs, and a piece of the world. California dream. Historians and sociologists have since had to reckon with Davis’ portrayals and conclusions, though he remains a polarizing figure.

While not a callback for Southern California in its current form (in the words of the aforementioned Bryce Nelson, “Los Angeles is Mr. Davis’ ideal scapegoat for all the sins of capitalism”), Davis said readers should not be discouraged. by his books on Los Angeles: “These are only passionate polemics on the necessity of the urban left. A more optimistic study was Magical Urbanism, which noted the (often overlooked) ways in which Latin American migration revitalized American urban life. “This population explosion has a continuing impact on the design of America’s great cities,” wrote John Coleman, SJ, in a 2000 review for America. “Davis argues that Hispanics (who value homeownership and frequently merge multiple homeowners’ mortgages to achieve this) bring redemptive energy to neglected and worn-out spaces in the heart of our cities.”

Bryce Nelson: “Los Angeles is Mr. Davis’ ideal scapegoat for all the sins of capitalism.”

While Davis focused on political coalitions and sociological factors, Coleman noted that Magical Urbanism may also be useful to Catholic social service organizations. “For Catholic readers who rhetorically conjure up a preferential option for the poor, Davis provides a needed focus on where to put his energies. Besides jobs,” Coleman wrote, “vital public resources for the working poor are education, health care, and public transit. These must also become the chosen goals of our big city diocesan parishes, Catholic charities and social justice commissions.

The “radical Los Angeles” of the 1960s is at the center of the 2020s Set the night on fire, which Davis co-wrote with Jon Wiener. “Instead of watering holes and the Playboy mansion, our city guides take us to college campuses at the height of the anti-war movement, to the streets of Watts on the brink of the uprising, and to churches and halls meeting where the fight for gay rights began,” wrote Sean Dempsey, SJ, in a 2020 review for America. “In propulsive prose and vivid historical vignettes, Davis and Wiener tell a near-mythical story of radical Los Angeles, a movement they believe sowed the seeds of an as-yet-unrealized revolution.”

“Together, Davis and Wiener have written a book that is at once encyclopedic and prophetic, scholarly and polemical,” Dempsey continued. “The omnivorous quality of the book makes it the most comprehensive volume on the history of radical politics in the city in any period.”

However, Dempsey found the book to be significantly lacking. “Davis and Wiener’s focus on the movement’s public actions, from street protests and civil violence to school walkouts and radical political advocacy, also risks wiping out quieter forms of resistance and struggle,” continued Dempsey. “My own research on Los Angeles revealed that the city’s many churches and other religious communities were also at the center of these less obvious, but no less vital, struggles for dignity and equality among the city’s most marginalized citizens. city.”

Despite these flaws, Dempsey concluded:Set the night on fire will be an indispensable resource for scholars and activists interested in radical politics in Los Angeles for years to come. Indeed, Davis and Wiener call for a new generation to “expand and revise” the stories told in the book and, in doing so, bring about a new, more just Los Angeles. »

On another note: Today, we’re thrilled to announce the winner of the 2022 Foley Poetry Contest: Lisa Mullenneaux, for her poem ‘In Copenhagen’. Congratulations! Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

Set the night on fire will be an indispensable resource for scholars and activists interested in radical politics in Los Angeles for years to come.”


In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:

From poetry to Catholicism, Muriel Spark did nothing halfway

Telling truth and lies with the Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize

Myles Connolly has a question: Why are Catholic writers so boring?

Leonard Feeney, Americathe only excommunicated literary publisher (to date)

Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life

Good reading!

James T. Keane


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