The Power of Sunshine

Alexander Cockburn

  • City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles by Mike Davis
    Verso, 462 pp, £18.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 86091 303 1

‘City of Quartz’? Los Angeles is indeed bright, hard, opaque. Even the astonishing sunsets one can see from Interstate 15, looking west towards Pomona, have a sepulchral flush to them as the red light filters through the foul air rolling towards Riverside and the desert seventy miles east of the Pacific. And when the Santa Ana winds blow the other way and clean out the whole basin there’s nothing warm in the colour tones even then, just an eerie depth of field so clear throughout its focal range that it’s hard to keep an accurate sense of perspective.

Most writers find their way to Los Angeles from somewhere else and the city has been refracted through the lens of their disenchantment, remorse, bad faith; diminished in such costive satires as those of West or Waugh. The European Marxists of the Frankfurt School, fleeing thither from the Nazis, were as uncomprehending, though at a higher level of sophistication. Years later, when he’d returned to Frankfurt, Adorno remarked rather portentously that ‘it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even if in opposition, has something reactionary about it.’

He was talking about Los Angeles, where he and Horkheimer allowed (as Mike Davis puts it) ‘their image of first sight to become its own myth: Los Angeles as the crystal ball of capitalism’s future’. They exhibited as little interest as their fellow exile Brecht in the wartime turmoil in the local aircraft plants or the vibrant night-life and music in the Central Avenue ghetto, and turned their gaze instead onto the little single family homes that represented to them the world-historical mission of the proletariat perverted into the highest stage of false consciousness. As they put it in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘even now, the older houses outside the concrete city centre look like slums, and the new bungalows on the outskirts are at one with the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans. Yet the city housing projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent unit in a small hygienic dwelling make him all the more subservient to his adversary – the absolute power of capitalism.’

This was in essence a heavy-breathing version of the noir fix on Los Angeles which began in 1934 with James M. Cain’s The postman always rings twice, surging through Chandler, Faulkner, film noir, the extraordinary novels of Chester Himes and on towards Rechy, Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. Davis acutely points out that noir – dystopian revulsion at the boosterism that manured the city’s growth – took hold as a style in the Depression because it was anchored in the despair of the middle class, their savings sunk in real estate and oil speculations, as they volatilised in a downward spiral of crisis and bankruptcy. Chandler’s Marlowe, in his stale office in Downtown, snarling alternately at the punk scum and the powers-that-be, was a political time-bomb waiting to explode. In their agony and panic no less than 100,000 bedrock Republicans crossed the lines in 1934 to vote for the socialist Upton Sinclair in his gubernatorial campaign conducted under the slogan ‘End poverty in California’. Four years later, the tide turned and the Midwestern retirees were bellowing ‘Ham and eggs’ – the rallying-cry of a bizarre pension-reform movement with Brownshirt undertones. In this mulch Marlowe himself would probably have ended up as a Brownshirt if Chandler had followed the true logic of his character.

For every noir scrivener staring out across the Hollywood Hills under eyelids heavy with disillusion there’s been a booster, starting with Charles Fletcher Lummis, who in 1884 took 143 days to walk from Ohio to Los Angeles and was hired on arrival by the patron of the Los Angeles Times, Colonel (later General) Harrison Gray Otis. Lummis helped to forge the booster image described by Kevin Starr in his book Inventing the dream: ‘a mélange of mission myth (originating in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona), obsession with climate, political conservatism (symbolised in the open shop), and thinly-veiled racism, all put to the service of boosterism and oligarchy’.

Lummis was an enthusiast for South-West archaeology: indeed the cultural/geographical ascription ‘the South-West’ started with him, as did the museum of that name in Highland Park now under threat from the city’s culture tsars who want to shift it over to the West Side. He began the magazine Out West (Land of Sunshine), which published the cream of California letters and ran a salon pleasantly devoted to the promulgation of a fake past (the mission myth) and an ecstatic future. As Davis notes, ‘one of the Set’s major credos ... was the power of sunshine to reinvigorate the racial energies of the Anglo-Saxons.’

Boosterism finds its most meaningful expression in the joyous language of a real-estate promotion, such promotions then and now being the amniotic fluid of Los Angeles. It also finds itself in the cults nourished by spiritual boosters such as the late L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology, Aimée Semple MacPherson, or, more recently and at a coarser commercial level (though Hubbard was pretty coarse at the arts of primitive accumulation), the promotions of Charles Keating (S&Ls) and Michael Milken, high priest of the junk bond, now facing ten years in the Federal penitentiary.

There’s rarely been a city harder to ‘see’, through a windscreen caked with the alternative myths of the boosters and the noirs, nor one about whose history and geography its more prominent denizens have been more ignorant. ‘I didn’t know Los Angeles had a history,’ one movie mogul remarked recently, reacting to the launch of a Public TV series on the city’s hidden past. The culture industry is but one small segment of a vast terrain largely unvisited and unsung: the nation state of greater Los Angeles, with 14 million individuals, 132 incorporated cities and an economy bigger than India’s.

Here in Los Angeles county is the largest complex of military aerospace plants in the nation: Hughes, Lockheed, Northrop, TRW, McDonnell Douglas; here until a few years ago was a powerful manufacturing base with car and tire plants and, to the east in Fontana, the only integrated steel plant on the Pacific slope. Here are strange sub-cities like Vernon, a separately incorporated industrial enclave. By day some 45,000 men and women toil in the garment and furniture sweatshops of Vernon and then go home to some place else. By night the population of Vernon falls to 90. Meanwhile Vernon’s city fathers, democratically elected by their citizenry, supervise their demesne. The City Supervisor draws $165,804 a year, which makes him the highest paid city official in the State of California. He administers the five-square mile empire, ensuring that sales and property taxes stay low, to the detriment of the tax base of Los Angeles county but to the great joy of Vernon’s commercial residents, who enjoy all the appurtenances of civic pride but none of the actual costs.

People tend to forget that Los Angeles has an industrial working class of over a million blue-collar workers. They toil and often live in the string of communities south of Downtown and along the Los Angeles River. The good, high-wage jobs are gone, along with the auto, steel and rubber plants that closed in the Seventies. The city has tilted back towards the 19th century, for now across the city there are 125,000 working in the garment industry, of whom 90 per cent are women, 80 per cent undocumented and all on the minimum wage. Just a few miles west are Redondo Beach and the LAX corridor where resides the largest colony of scientists and engineers in the world, plunged in despair at the end of the Cold War and only elevated from this state by the crisis in the Gulf where their infernal devices may receive their first exposure to reality outside the engineering shed and the faked test.

Los Angeles needs a historian, a political scientist, a sociologist, a pamphleteer, with the synoptic power to teach us how to see and seize it whole at the moment of its emergence as one of the twin capitals of the Pacific century, and now it has such talents in the form of Mike Davis. In his epigraph Davis situates himself and his ambitions with a quotation from Walter Benjamin: ‘The superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner. To portray a city, a native must have other, deeper motives – motives of one who travels into the past instead of into the distance. A native’s book about his city will always be related to memoirs; the writer has not spent his childhood there in vain.’

Davis was born in working-class Fontana in 1946, the same year that the first Hell’s Angels association was engendered in the same town on the eastern edge of Greater Los Angeles. He spent much of his childhood further south in El Cajon, another working-class town on the eastern end of San Diego. Years of wanderings up and down the State (before further years that took him to Europe, to London and to the pages of the New Left Review, where he was responsible for the finest analyses of Reaganism, collected as Prisoners of the American Dream) have given him an intimate knowledge of place and of event, won not only on the road during his stints as a truck-driver and tour-bus guide, but in municipal newspaper file and secluded archive.

To drive – as I have done many times – with Davis around Los Angeles, down along the back roads to San Diego, up over the San Gabriels and into the ultramontane horrors of Palmdale and Lancaster, east to the old Kaiser steel plant, is to weave through place and time with a guide as robust and detailed in his knowledge as, say, Richard Cobb is about France, albeit with diametrically opposite political analysis and enthusiasms. As a pamphleteer and radical, Davis is still very much on active service, though, as he remarked not so long ago, the programme of a radical in Los Angeles today is really that of a New Deal liberal with the basic demands of 1932: the right to a job, to shelter, to food, to health, to education, and for the helot class of Hispanic workers without which the consuming classes would be lost, an elementary safety-net.

City of Quartz is strung between two dreams. The first, in the high Mojave desert and in eyeshot of the place where Aldous Huxley first took mescalin, is the site of the socialist city of Llano del Rio, a utopian colony founded in 1914 and dispersed by external hostility and internal stresses four years later. It is, as Davis writes at the start of his book,

the best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium ... from the ruins of its alternative future. Standing on the sturdy cobblestone foundations of the General Assembly Hall of the Socialist city of Llano del Rio – Open Shop Los Angeles’s utopian antipode – you can sometimes watch the Space Shuttle in its elegant final descent towards Rogers Dry Lake. Dimly on the horizon are the giant sheds of Air Force Plant 42 where Stealth Bombers (each costing the equivalent of 10,000 public housing units) and other, still top secret, hot rods of the apocalypse are assembled. Closer at hand, across a few miles of creosote and burro bush, and the occasional grove of that astonishing yucca, the Joshua tree, is the advance guard of approaching suburbs, tract homes on point.

Here, in this militarised desert, is the final frontier of the Southern California dream, with home prices $100,000 cheaper than in the San Fernando Valley, which was just about to be subdivided when the Socialist pioneers headed towards their hopes in 1914. Hither Los Angeles is exporting itself, its water-hunger, its mess, its commuters, its gangs and its ferocious police deputies who not so long ago in nearby Lancaster confronted a homeless, middle-aged black woman with a history of mental illness called Betty Jean Aborn. When the poor woman, accused of stealing an ice-cream from Carl’s Junior Restaurant, supposedly waved a butcher’s knife, the seven sheriffs discharged a volley of 29 rounds at her, 18 of which found their mark.

Davis ends with a long chapter on Fontana, his birthplace, a town just off Interstate 10 and rarely visited by the genteel classes who whizz by on the way to Palm Springs with their windows rolled up. Fontana embodies a trio, a triage too, of dreams which summarise the history of Southern California. It was founded as an agrarian utopia of chicken ranches and orange groves that ordinary people could afford, a poor man’s alternative to Redlands or Pasadena. Then, in the Thirties, it was transformed into Henry J. Kaiser’s mighty forge for war. Finally, at the beginning of this decade, the plant was abruptly shuttered and Fontana embarked on its destiny as a new commuters’ boomtown contrived by big developers from Orange County who shackled the city fathers with the infrastructural costs of the developers’ housing schemes. Today, vainly trying to upgrade from its blue-collar past, Fontana watches its municipal debt swell by $10,000 more in interest payments each day, a little Andean nation in our midst.

On the road from Llano del Rio to Fontana Davis takes us on what might be called a series of strategic interventions, from the early chapter on successive intellectual visions and interpretations of the city, to the role of the Catholic Church and its archbishop in the largest diocese in the country. There are long essays on the power structure of Los Angeles, on the ‘war’ on drugs and gangs, on what Davis calls the ‘militarisation of space’ in Los Angeles, on the middle classes’ ‘home-owner revolt’ in the Eighties. It is Davis’s originality as a socialist writer to recognise that the most important social movement in Los Angeles in the last decade has not been an uprising of the new Hispanic majority or of immigrant workers or of South-Central blacks, but rather of the affluent in defence of property values. His political aim is not merely to expound the relentless struggle between the rich and poor but to outline a more complex dramaturgy, notably in the sixty pages on the great revolt of the home-owners, of which he is the first historian.

Los Angeles is a city whose good fortunes are either under duress or running out. Its vast boom in aerospace was for many years financed out of net tax transfers from the rest of the country – above all, the Great Lakes. At the peak moment Southern California was receiving 14 per cent of all Federal military expenditures. The gravy train is slowing down, however, as people are forced to peer past the Lockheed and Northrop assembly sheds towards something romantically termed a ‘peace dividend’. These aren’t the only ‘comparative advantages’ of Southern California which are disappearing. As California faces the consequence of its refusal to do anything for its helot class beyond the provision of minimum and sub-minimum wages, other States push ahead with their industrial policies.

At its starkest, the political economy of Southern California, its agriculture especially, is comprised of too many people working too hard for too little, to support too many people consuming too much and doing absolutely nothing. If growth were perpetual the equation might survive. When growth slows or stops, as it is now doing, the eventual consequence will be serious social dislocation. The thick blue line standing between the haves and the have-nots is of course the Los Angeles Police Department, with its kindred agencies and supportive infrastructure of prisons (one of which adorns the cover of the book – like the warehouse on the previous page here, it is part of a fine series of photographs by Robert Morrow). Davis is at his best on the arsenal of repressive techniques designed to keep the have-nots at bay or under control, from the architecture of Frank Gehry to the geosynchronous spy satellite and other high-tech surveillance demanded by the police chief, Darryl Gates:

The universal and ineluctable consequence of this crusade to secure the city is the destruction of accessible public space. The contemporary opprobrium attached to the term ‘street person’ is in itself a harrowing index of the devaluation of public spaces ... In regard to the ‘mixing’ of classes, contemporary urban America is more like Victorian Britain than Walt Whitman’s or La Guardia’s New York. In Los Angeles, once upon a time a demi-paradise of free beaches, luxurious parks and ‘cruising strips’, genuinely democratic space is all but extinct. The Oz-like archipelago of Westside pleasure domes – a continuum of tony malls, art centres and gourmet strips – is reciprocally dependent upon the social imprisonment of the Third World service proletariat who live in increasingly repressive ghettoes and barrios. In a city of several million yearning immigrants, public amenities are radically shrinking, parks are becoming derelict and beaches more segregated, libraries and playgrounds are closing, youth congregations of ordinary kinds are banned, and the streets are becoming more desolate and dangerous.

In Eighties Los Angeles there were more rich (three times as many people earning over $50,000), more poor (from 30 to 40 per cent earning under $15,000) and fewer in the middle which has collapsed by half (from 61 per cent to 32 per cent). If the Nineties follow a downward curve it will turn out to be an evil political mix.

The consequences of the Eighties are most visible in Downtown. The city that invented urban sprawl has a new economic geometry: ‘outer cities’, or suburban downtowns, in Encino, Glendale, Pasadena, Century City, Santa Monica, Long Beach and at LAX are now held in subordinate orbit to the recentred supremacy of the financial megastructures of Downtown. Up until 1959 the only buildings in Downtown over 150 feet in height were City Hall and the Braly Building. Now the toadstool towers rise in the same profusion as they do in Houston. Thirty new skyscrapers have been built since 1969, the majority foreign-owned. Up to 90 per cent of recent Downtown construction has been financed from abroad – pre-eminently from Canada and Japan. In this political economy of real estate there is no old-style power structure dominated by a man like Asa Call, on whom the Huston patriarch in Chinatown was based. There are contending entrepreneurial factions rampaging across the region, dependent on a seemingly indefinite supply of Japanese capital, most recently disbursed – at $6 billion plus – to buy MCA. At the bottom of this particular pyramid is overvalued real estate in Tokyo, poised on its own precipice. With its imaginative heartland owned by Sony and (prospectively) by Matsushita, Los Angeles faces a perilous millennium whose emerging contours will surely have no more brilliant prophet or historian than Davis.