Speaking Volumes

March 24, 1995

LINDA McDOWELL on Mike Davis's City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles

It is incongruous, I know, but I always wanted to be Philip Marlowe, striding down those mean streets, unattached, all surface appearances. Los Angeles is my idea of heaven - dangerous, noisy, polluted, anonymous, flashy and exciting. So when Laurie Taylor asked New Society readers a decade or more ago what to do in the countryside once he had admired the view, I knew the answer. Get back in the car and head for the city immediately.

Cities are my hobby and my living. When I became a geographer at the end of the 1960s, I took every urban option I could and now I teach about urban development. It was not until 1990, though, that I finally managed to make it to LA. Just as I hit the town Mike Davis's superb book about LA, City of Quartz, was published. I bought it immediately - 462 pages of undiluted pleasure. It became my guide to LA in the next few months and Davis's quirky and committed voice rang in my ears as I excavated the future of the city in his company.

Davis's vision is not the pacey, glitzy, post-modern pastiche of images and spectacle celebrated in some contemporary representations of LA. Nor is his city the formless, shapeless place of which Gertrude Stein might have said "there's no there, there" (if she had been in LA instead of Oakland). Instead it is a city with a strong centre, both literal and metaphorical, based on privilege and the exclusion of the majority of the population from the utopian dreams of the affluent. The new financial downtown - the gleaming towers in the opening shots of LA Law - is a literal bunker, a fortress built on Bunker Hill to protect the interests of the rich and keep out the poor, the homeless, the people of every race and colour who live in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Above all, Davis's LA is a vision of a future that might have been. His city is a junkyard of old dreams - the utopian dreams of the Young People's Socialist League, who at the beginning of the century founded a communitarian settlement in the high Mojave desert above LA, now laid out as ranch-style single-family housing for suburbanite Angelenos; the dreams of a decent blue-collar working-class lifestyle based on steady male manufacturing employment; the dreams of migrants from Central America, many of whom risked their lives evading the border guards and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service only to be faced by the insanity and inhumanity of Proposition 187; the dreams of African Americans, whose young men destroy themselves in the ghettoes of Watts, Compton and South Central, and who are now leaving in increasing numbers to return to Alabama and Georgia. For many who remain LA is a prison, a divided city of sectional interests, fear and greed, where power and control depends on repression and continual surveillance: a terrifying version of Foucault's image of modern society as the panopticon.

Davis proved a good guide. An accessible yet intellectual commentator on contemporary urban theories, with an eye for the odd and unusual, in his company the city revealed itself as absurd as well as threatening, sublime and ridiculous, heaven and hell for residents and visitors alike. This contradictory set of reactions, of course, is common in the history of urbanisation. Like Marlowe, Davis is at home in his own city, a tough guy on those mean streets. In the end, I had to recognise that LA was the junkyard of my own dream too. I could never be Philip Marlowe. So I succumbed to the anti-urban lure of small-town life and fled to Santa Barbara. After all, Sue Grafton's private eye, Kinsey Milhone, should be a better role model for a woman.

Linda McDowell is a fellow of Newnham College and a lecturer in urban geography, Cambridge.

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