Mike Davis interview by Joe Day
Just before departing on a promotional junket for Ecology of Fear (Metropolitan, 1998), Mike Davis took a couple of hours one morning to answer some questions from the Forum. He had just completed a 2 hour phone interview with Metropolis magazine and really didn’t want to talk about the book, so we asked…
JD: What are you working on currently for Verso?
MD: It’s called Late Victorian Holocausts, subtitled “El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World”. In the 1870s and 1890s there were these global El Nino events and somewhere between a minimum of 35 million people and as many as 50 million people died in [the resulting] famines – the majority of them in India and China, but also in southern Africa and eastern Brazil. It’s a short book, essentially an environmental history of these famines, but it’s also trying to adjudicate this question: to what extent were these famines caused by El Nino, and what turned these into such devastating episodes? What I focus on is the increased ecological poverty brought about when the British abandoned small irrigation and destroyed the traditional village government systems for mobilizing communal labor.
JD: So, a colonial mass-agricultural system was installed and then got hammered by natural catastrophes?
MD: Right. Building roads to move food everywhere, and exporting massive quantities of food to England while millions are dying; that’s what happened in China. Although, in China it’s different because the right of subsistence was always considered a human right. The Grand Canal, which is the single largest man-made object on the planet, was traditionally used in China not only to move tribute grain to Beijing, but also to move rice surpluses to northern China to relieve famines. It was a system that worked brilliantly in the 18th century, but after the foreign interventions, the Opium Wars and the Tai Ping Rebellion, the ruling Chings had abandoned the maintenance of the Grand Canal. They couldn’t move the surplus grain anymore and 20 million people died of starvation in two terrible famines, the second of which fueled the Boxer Uprising. In other words, this is either an environmental history of Late-Victorian imperialism or a social history of El Nino.
JD: I’d like to talk about a few current and specific issues in LA. What do you make of the fast-track development of the new downtown sports facilities?
MD: With regards to downtown, it’s the same old song: “yet one more costly, publicly subsidized project will make downtown work.” We built this huge convention center expansion but nobody came because there aren’t any stores or street life. So now we’ll build a sports stadium, and it goes on and on. The question is why is it in the interest of the whole city to constantly pile up investments in downtown? It’s an artificial life support system for downtown hotels and businesses.
It’s a slightly complicated issue for me because these convention and sports centers are a major subsidy to the hotels and I’ve historically been a very strong supporter of the hotel workers’ union’s struggle downtown. But there’s still no justification for any level of further public subsidy. And in fact, this is happening while across the country there is a grassroots rebellion going on against public subsidies for professional sports centers.
The whole history of downtown since the 1920s, since the original challenge by the Wilshire District, was the leveraging of downtown with increasingly large amounts of tax expenditure to keep it artificially central or dominant.
JD: Why do you think [Mayor] Riordan has fallen into exactly the same pattern? He came into office so closely identified with the Westside.
MD: Well, he made a fortune downtown wearing several hats as an investor and corporate lawyer. In an older piece on Chinatown I discussed a deal in which Riordan made a couple million dollars buying and selling a single parcel downtown in one week. He is actually a consummate downtown insider. What fascinates me though, is that he won office by virtue of the north-west valley and he’s stacked commissions with perhaps the biggest number of valley-ites in the history of the city. When Riordan came in it really looked like there might be a serious shift in power, but in the last couple of years he’s proven to be a much more traditional downtown mayor in the footsteps of Tom Bradley.
JD: A few people at the LA Forum are studying the freeway expansions in Pasadena. Can you clarify the issues surrounding the extension of the Long Beach Freeway? [note: see accompanying article on the 710 expansion]
MD: There are two forgotten aspects to the conflict over the extension of the Long Beach Freeway. One is that it impacts El Sereno as much as South Pasadena. It’s always been perceived as an issue of the white middle class in South Pasadena, that doesn’t mind if traffic is stopped in Alhambra, but doesn’t want its ambiance destroyed by a freeway. But there has always been another side to it: there are hundreds of homes in [more working class] El Sereno that are similarly menaced, but the opposition from El Sereno has never really been noted.
Secondly, the big problem with this freeway is that it will siphon off all of the truck traffic to the harbor. In other words, if you’re coming in from the valley, the easiest thing to do, rather than get snarled in traffic downtown, is to loop to the Long Beach freeway through the City of Commerce to the harbor. LA since the 1940’s has kept alive the idea of a separate truck freeway through downtown – an Alameda Street freeway. It is an absolutely fundamental idea, because the largest threat to early morning commutes are early morning truck accidents on the San Bernadino freeway or on the exchanges around downtown LA.
JD: So this freeway would effectively divert traffic out of downtown…
MD: It would take a lot of heavy truck traffic and divert it onto the Long Beach Freeway, which at rush hour is already one of the most terrifying driving experiences in southern California with the current volume of truck traffic. And you’re going to exacerbate that. I believe that Alhambra needs to take some of the traffic off Valley Boulevard, but you could deal with that separately from completing the freeway. I don’t think the freeway is just the selfish white middle-class issue that it’s been presented as, there are lots of working-class Latinos against the project as well.
JD: Did you see the LA Times piece on SCI-Arc’s search for new campuses?
MD: Apparently [Nicolai Ouroussoff] has me advocating a move to the old Lincoln Heights Jail. What I actually said was that before the last move to Playa del Rey some students had advocated that, and I supported the student position. I think that anywhere but where we are would be preferable. The Harbor would be preferable, anywhere downtown would be preferable.
JD: Why move out of that belt of the city, with Dreamworks moving in? SCI-Arc will probably be priced out of the market there, but what’s your argument for moving?
MD: There’s very little interaction with any neighborhood or urban context possible at that site. If we were located in the harbor, we’d be in the storm center of all kinds of interesting land use battles. I’m just excited about being in any kind of heavier industrial environment, and having some relationship with what’s been going on in the interesting local politics of Long Beach, the great forgotten city of LA County. Or, alternatively, take any of the downtown sites that have been suggested. I heard there was a 1920s auto dealership was a possibility. It’s just that now we are not within walking distance of any neighborhood or any kind of human activity. It’s a very, very inert site.
JD: What do you think of the possibility of SCI-Arc operating in tandem with another school in the area?
MD: I had proposed to [former Director] Michael Rotondi that SCI-Arc do this with CalArts eight years ago when I was teaching at both schools. Steven Levine at CalArts was really interested in the potential synergies between the two schools – maybe in an arrangement along the lines of the Claremont Colleges. I think SCI-Arc would be the perfect compliment to CalArts. At the time, CalArts was a lot more aggressive about responsible community involvement and was better than any of the other design schools at putting resources into the city.