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City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, by Mike Davis, Verso, 462 pages, photographs by Robert Morrow.

In a city so often scorched by the sun’s brutal gaze, one seldom confronts the incredible variety of paradox and contradiction frozen in place just below the metropolitan crust. Shaded by the vast hyperdevelopment of the city and shielded by the reflective surface of the media industry, the chilling dialectics of cultural determination rest inert below Los Angeles, unthawed and forgotten by the vast majority her inhabitants. This majority, however, excludes Mike Davis.

With his latest work, City of Quartz: Excavating the future of Los Angeles, Davis has crafted a devastating critique of the-Powers-that-be-runnin’-LA. It is also the sexiest tome yet to come out of Verso’s Left-of-liberal Haymarket Series. Though much has been said of the book’s first virtue, too little has reached the printed page on the latter. Not since the purges of the fifties have Los Angelenos taken any variety of Marxist criticism seriously, and not since the beginning of time have such critiques been praised.

The main reason for the unlikely success of this book is that it is intoxicating. As in the best of Los Angeles noir fiction, City of Quartz delves into a vast and uncharted subterrain of the city. To our surprise if not his own, Davis finds not the societal equivalent of the dynamic, molten and shifting plates described by geologists, but a rigid and unyielding urban core of institutionalized racism, corruption, and class struggle – an ice-cold foundation to the “sunshine” city. Perhaps as importantly, Davis also reveals the melancholy remnants of alternative social orders, caught and fossilized in a nether-world of opportunism.

Each of City of Quartz’s seven chapters addresses a different theater of the Los Angeleno power structure, and unearths an essential – and generally overlooked – conflict within the city.

Chapter One lays bare the intellectual history of Los Angeles, and exposes the many modes of suppression at work in a city where a steady influx of scientific and creative brilliance is corralled into the mass production of military technology and commercial entertainment. Davis notes the economic utility of “booster” intellectuals who aided in the selling and reselling of the city, and the counter-cultural work of the “debunkers” who painted a less flattering picture of labor abuses made possible by LA’s “open shop” policies.

The following chapters on the financial development of the city, the “homegrown” politics of slowgrowth, the societies of police and surveillance, the resulting disenfranchised youth, and the torn remnants of the Catholic Church are equally incisive – and no less satirical. Who could match these monikers: Herbert Marcuse, “The Last Dialectician in Lotusland”; Nancy Reagan,”The great Nay-Sayer”; or the lead, “Frank Gehry as Dirty Harry”. But his wit never masks falsehood. Mike Davis stabs deep through many layers of emperor’s clothing to the Los Angeles body politic, and cauterizes the wound with a righteous flame. As sensational as these tales of exploitation, confusion and terror may be, their veracity is cited almost line by line. As legitimate scholarship turned on a forbidding locale, Quartz rivals the day-after satisfactions of safe sex.

But a long-term relationship with the new writing of the Left is what Davis asks of his reader. The opening and closing of City of Quartz reveal the emotional investment Davis has in his metropolis. He begins with a brief recounting of brief-lived Llano del Rio, a socialist community, in Palmdale. An “alternative future” for Los Angeles, Llano succumbed to both capitalism unbound and the machinations of city officials, but not until a valiant and viable community had threatened the status quo. In the final chapter, “Junkyard of Dreams”, the small town of Fontana acts as case-study for the inland development of the city. Waves of real estate speculation wrack the urban fabric of Fontana with force akin to the winter storm-surf that carries away Malibu ocean-fronts. However, unlike the third homes of executives taken to Neptune’s depths, the small farms of Fontana represented three generations’ toil, microcosmic histories of the city, now levelled and black-topped.

More can and should be said of the content of Quartz, but its form, theoretical and material, cannot be overlooked. Davis self-consciously turns the tables on that most stereotypical of Lotusland observers, the high-end, Oxbridge-educated, displaced British cynic. In contrast to the arm’s length satire of Waugh, Huxley and their architectural criticism counterparts, Banham and Jencks (and, from “left” field, but with Parisian condescension to spare, Baudrillard), Davis embraces an indigenous tradition of history noir. Posed as an Everyman’s view of civilization’s spiralling demise, noir invites the reader (or the viewer) to stand in and absorb the blows of clearly-reasoned illogic that our arid and cruel society hurls at the unsuspecting.

For those looking for an effective way to alter the thinking of a reading public along more socially benign and responsible lines (but also hoping to avoid the pathetic accusations of “PC” baiters), Quartz is a lesson in itself. Packaged as the vanguard volume of Verso Haymarket Series edited by Davis and others, City of Quartz holds its own on bookstore shelves with the most graphically degraded of commercial pulp. A beautiful sapphire blue-tone cover photo, shot by Robert Morrow, jumps out from the stark black and white print and ground of the jacket. Neither the irony of the photo’s subject – the new Metropolitan Detention Center, the proud new prison awaiting those lucky enough not to be beaten and left in the cold by the LAPD – nor the fine matte finish of the jacket will be lost on the upscale clientele Davis addresses here. One might question the PR flourish employed, but, in these embattled days for sanity, not all selling is selling out.

Joe Day

Back to June/July – 1991 Newsletter