Burning Los Angeles


Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, by Mike Davis, New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 484 pages, $27.50

No major American city seems more precarious than Los Angeles. There's a certain moon-base feel to the place, a sense that its inhabitants are living in a massive, well-provisioned bubble resting uncomfortably on a stunning but generally inhospitable landscape. It's damn near perfect inside the bubble, which is really a pleasure dome: glorious day after glorious day; striking mountains running into beautiful beaches; every possible human opportunity and diversion in overabundant supply.

But there are also constant reminders that the bubble might burst at any moment: smog alert days when the ventilation system isn't working quite right; wildfires that deposit ash over large sections of the city; brief but fierce rainstorms that create raging rivers of mud; and, of course, earthquakes that threaten to level the entire place in a few seconds. The potential for physical apocalypse has a psychic counterpart, too, in ever-present threats of race riots, gang warfare, street shootouts, and home-invasion robberies.

This is to say that, at least in terms of its negatives, L.A. is pretty much like every other city on the planet: It is constantly threatened with ruin from within and without. To be sure, on a superficial level, L.A. may seem even more artificial, more obviously constructed than most cities--signature flourishes such as carefully manicured foliage and ubiquitous automatic sprinkler systems underscore the effort necessary to grow things in the region. But that distinction fades when one strives to suggest a more "natural" alternative. None of the other largest American cities--New York, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia--is free of environmental and demographic tensions similar to those found in Los Angeles. While none of those places is prone to the spectacular rupture accompanying earthquakes, none would survive very long without constant maintenance, repair, rebuilding, and repopulation. (Consider, for instance, winter in Chicago and summer in Houston.) In the end, all cities are artificial in the best sense of that word: They are the result of massive, concerted, and continuing human activity.

In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Mike Davis takes a very different line. It's not simply that L.A. is plainly an unsustainable affront to Nature. Indeed, for Davis, author of City of Quartz and a fixture in left-wing publications such as The Nation, even the weather there stinks (he describes Southern California as a "secret Kansas" rife with tornadoes and vicious windstorms that the delinquent media fail to investigate fully). Although theoretically unconvincing and factually dubious, Ecology of Fear is nonetheless a compelling document. That's because Davis embodies fully the contradictory and incoherent impulses inherent in what F.A. Hayek rightly derided as the "engineering mentality," the notion that complex social interactions--such as city building--can be readily managed from above by planners and other wise souls.

If there's one thing that piques such a mind-set, it's messy, volatile, unpredictable market forces that decentralize decision making, thereby confounding prediction and control. Davis wastes no time in fingering the real culprit behind Hell A. "For generations," he writes on page 9, "market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and a responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire, and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets."

The bulk of Ecology of Fear is a detailed litany of those various eco-threats to the Los Angeles metro area. The result is a sort of Irwin Allen production that, if nothing else, provides aid and comfort to East Coast intellectuals who scorn Southern California as a Potemkin metropolis beset by everything from killer bees to the Black Death. In wide-ranging and quirky chapters, Davis explores endemic perils both obvious (earthquakes, forest fires) and arcane (mountain lion attacks, plague-carrying squirrels). Despite its often tendentious analyses of specific works, the long section titled "The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles" is a consistently engaging and nearly exhaustive compendium of books and movies that feature apocalyptic versions of the city's ultimate demise. The works surveyed run the gamut from Philip Francis Nowlan's Buck Rogers novellas to the Turner Diaries to Blade Runner; if nothing else, Davis has compiled a useful bibliography on the subject.

Davis simultaneously bemoans a general lack of public oversight and investment and critiques what he deems to be specific misuses of such largess. In doing so, he is not wrong so much as misguided. Hence, he sensibly attacks "public subsidization of firebelt suburbs" in Malibu and elsewhere. He does so, however, not because he is against public subsidies but because he believes it to be money spent in areas best left undeveloped.

Indeed, for him, the original sin of L.A. was not a lack of government spending per se but its failure to push a program that accords with his particular vision of the city as a smaller, greener place. In 1930, at the request of a "distinguished citizens' committee" that included movie stars such as Mary Pickford, the renowned urban design firm of the Olmstead Brothers devised a comprehensive land use plan for the L.A. region that sought public control over much of the city.

The plan envisioned "pleasureway parks" built around the Los Angeles River and stringent "hazard zoning" that would combine to "stop the ill-directed spread of the population" and to curb "excessive and fictitious prices for raw land." Davis rhapsodizes about the report, calling it "a window into a lost future" and "a heroic culmination of the City Beautiful era in American urban design." If the report's recommendations had been enacted, he writes, "the results would have been virtually revolutionary. The existing hierarchy between public and private space in Los Angeles might have been overturned…. The speculative real estate market might have been counterbalanced by a vigorous social democracy of beaches and playgrounds."

Never mind that L.A.'s beaches are free and that parks and other communal spaces abound. Davis' unshakeable faith in public-sector planning keeps him from even contemplating the ways in which such processes inevitably go awry. (See "Dense Thinkers," January.) Still, it's a curious stance, particularly given that Ecology of Fear precisely documents the ways in which the sorts of commissions necessary for the type of planning he desires are inevitably hijacked by special interests. And yet, when Davis shifts from discussing "natural" disasters such as wildfires to "man-made" disasters such as tenement fires in downtown Los Angeles, he is left wondering why a government that already doesn't serve needy people is not up to the job. The answer to botched public spending is inevitably more public spending.

Such almost willful cognitive dissonance is massively compounded by factual errors. While Davis's book has garnered largely respectful, positive notices, the satiric webzine suck (www.suck.com) and Jill Stewart of the weekly New Times Los Angeles have pointed out any number of basic mistakes in Ecology of Fear. They cite the work of Malibu resident Brady Westwater, who dutifully checked Davis' footnotes and sources, only to find them woefully inaccurate--in fact, at one point, Davis cites himself contradicting himself. (Westwater has reportedly taken to giving tours of Los Angeles in which he points out the incongruities between Davis' version of the city and reality.)

"[Davis] claims that [L.A.'s] immigrant district of Westlake …is the most fire-ravaged urban area in the country," writes Stewart, "when, in truth, it experiences only a modest level of urban blazes." Similarly, Davis' assertion that the Bunker Hill neighborhood has been gated and sealed off to keep out minorities is sheer fantasy, as is his notion that developers were planning to turn Hollywood Boulevard into a "gated theme park." His belief that the 1994 Northridge earthquake was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history ignores both Hurricane Andrew and the Midwest heat wave of 1988. To write that "brazen coyotes are now an integral part of the street scene" in Hollywood and Toluca Lake is a characteristically bizarre overstatement. As the editors of suck sardonically suggest, Ecology of Fear employs "a formula that was tried and true when The Day of the Locust author Nathanael West was still drinking bathtub gin: 1) Make dire statements about the city of Los Angeles. 2) Predict impending and abundantly deserved apocalypse. 3) Collect paycheck."

In fact, Davis's flippant attitude toward facts and sources is something of a badge of honor to his admirers. In a glowing tribute to Davis for the newspaper L.A. Weekly, author Lewis McAdams recounts the "first time" he met Davis, back in 1989. Davis was working on a story and wanted to use McAdams, then head of a group called Friends of the Los Angeles River, as a source. When the piece was done, McAdams writes, "I was amazed to discover [Davis had] fabricated an entire interview with me: We were standing together at the Fremont Gate entrance to Elysian Park, a place I'd never been, and I showed him a `dog-eared 1890s topographical map prepared for City Engineer J.H. Dockweiler,' a document that I'd never heard of at the time. Though we'd never actually talked, the words he put in my mouth made me sound like I knew a lot more about the Los Angeles River than I actually did." It certainly gives a reader pause if, as McAdams puts it, "Davis is the first to admit that he won't let a fact get in the way of a good story." McAdams even quotes him as saying, "I was stunned…to find out that something I said turned out to be true."

That fly-by-night relationship with reality may be why Davis seems to have no sense that L.A. is going through a prolonged economic boom and experiencing its lowest crime rates in decades. It also points to a deeper problem lurking in Davis' analysis of Los Angeles, one that reflects the either/or thinking implicit in the engineering mentality. Steeped in such binary logic, the engineering mentality posits a particular vision of utopia and declares anything short of that an utter disaster. Conceptually, those are the only alternatives. By Davis' reckoning, if L.A. is not the one and only heaven then it must be absolute hell: If people are not going to be killed when "the next swarm of inevitable freak winds" crash 747s approaching Los Angeles International Airport, then they will die when tornadoes "swoop down on the Coliseum during the annual USC-Notre Dame gridiron duel."

Such a mind-set leads to some twisted conclusions besides the obvious. For instance, although Davis positions himself as a defender of the poor and the dispossessed, his vision of an environmentally "sustainable" L.A. metro area is one in which there would simply be no place for teeming masses (in this, he participates in the elitism that runs through much environmentalist thought). Consider how he juxtaposes two photos of Hollywood. The first, taken in 1905, shows open land with a few farm buildings on it. The second, taken only 20 years later, shows a densely settled area with houses as far as the eye can see. There is no question which scenario Davis prefers.

But who exactly benefited most from such development if not the poor and the working-class stiffs who flocked to Los Angeles for the opportunities the city offered? Indeed, perhaps the greatest deficiency in Davis' jeremiad is his inability to account for why increasing numbers of people--whether poor, middle-class, or rich--continue to call L.A. home. Are the thousands of migrants from all over the world who gravitate there simply suckers waiting to be devoured by the coyotes that now supposedly prowl Hollywood Boulevard? Or does their willingness to relocate reflect knowledge that Davis' grand theorizing fails to consider?

This is not to mistake L.A. for paradise or to engage in the Panglossian boosterism that cities often inspire. L.A., like all cities, has problems that it can negotiate more or less successfully. How well it does so will mean the difference between flourishing and stagnating. It is no easy feat, after all, for millions of people to live in close quarters relatively peacefully. But the city's very existence is hardly one of those problems--and Ecology of Fear's feverish analysis is hardly a place to look for solutions.