Essay: Bad dreams in City of Angels

Los Angeles is not so much a city as a work of the imagination. And it's a horror story.

Los Angeles is not exactly famous for literary sparring matches. This is a city where money talks louder than the chattering classes and books are considered to be little more than raw material for the film industry. That might explain why the furore now enveloping the trenchant social historian Mike Davis bears little resemblance to the standard war of elegantly poisonous words fought in the letters page of some learned periodical. In fact, it's looking more like a fistfight in a disreputable flea-pit bar - not so much A S Byatt versus Martin Amis, as Philip Marlowe versus Moose Malloy.

Davis is the author of two books that address LA as the ultimate urban dystopia. The first, City of Quartz, was published in 1990 and painted a picture of LA as an increasingly paranoid collection of white middle- class citadels arming themselves against a chaotic sea of poverty and ethnic diversity all around. Hailed on its publication as one of the most penetrating, if unflattering, studies ever written about the city, it acquired a positively prophetic aura when, two years later, the quiet complacency of southern California was shattered by the LA riots and a descent into post-Cold War recessionary blues.

Davis's second book, Ecology of Fear, is just a few months old and uses many of the same analytical tools to examine LA's propensity for natural disasters, from earthquakes to mudslides to fires, tornadoes, plagues of killer bees and attacks on humans by mountain lions. Davis is interested in LA's passion for mythologising its own status as a city on the verge of disaster as much as the phenomena themselves. After all, this is a city that not only perfected the art of selling itself as a little piece of paradise; it is also responsible for film noir, tales of apocalyptic horror, and that supreme expression of Hollywood kitsch, the disaster movie.

At first it seemed that Ecology of Fear was destined to share the prestige of its predecessor. The reviews in the national papers were glowing, and the book spent 14 weeks on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list, including a brief moment in the number one slot. But then the backlash began.

The first stone throwers were the sort of people one might expect to take issue with Davis's relentless critique of the supremacy of big business and property development. A downtown newsletter, which draws on the business community for its advertising and its readership, was understandably upset at his characterisation of Bunker Hill - a relatively new development of office skyscrapers on the northwestern end of downtown LA - as a forbidding, guarded fortress protecting white-collar workers from the slums of Skid Row.

Similarly, a Malibu real estate agent and amateur historian calling himself Brady Westwater was no doubt alarmed by the chapter in Ecology of Fear entitled "The Case For Letting Malibu Burn" - a raging polemic contrasting the vast quantities of federal aid to help rich beach residents to rebuild their fire-ravaged homes with the official neglect faced by fire victims in shoddily built flophouses in the Mid-City district. Westwater went through the text and footnotes with a fine-tooth comb to uncover what he believed to be hundreds, if not thousands, of errors.

Westwater's zeal, and his relentless badgering of city journalists, eventually succeeded in bringing his message to a broader audience. In an intemperate but widely read piece in the alternative weekly New Times, LA's very own gadfly-about-town, Jill Stewart, dismissed Ecology of Fear as "a hoax of the grandest order". "Nobody," she wrote, "is bothering to point out in countless gushing reviews that many of the key anecdotes and major facts that Davis uses to build his case against LA as a mass urban disaster on the verge of collapse are fake, phony, made-up, crackpot bullshit." To back up her case, she reproduced many of the allegations Westwater had posted on the internet in his own 23-page diatribe: that Davis's assessment of the ferocity of LA rainstorms was way off, that his attempt to chart the little-mentioned history of tornadoes in the city was a ludicrous conspiracy theory about official cover-ups, that his account of the building of Bunker Hill by a city committee working largely in secret was wrong in every particular - and so on.

Where Stewart opened the field, the big guns soon joined in. Kevin Starr, California's official librarian and author of a multi-volume history of the state, said Ecology of Fear was "a work of fantasy" and that the whistle-blowing activities of Westwater, Stewart and others "should be a wake-up call to him to smell the roses, to see LA as something other than a case study in apocalyptic meltdown".

By now, no attack on Davis is deemed too far below the belt. His ex-wives (he has four) have been drafted in to attack his character. A rumour that he once invented an interview for a magazine article has given rise to claims that he is a pathological liar. His intellectual credentials have been savaged because he never finished his PhD thesis. He has even been charged with fabricating his birthplace.

As criticism goes, this is perilously close to lynching. Indeed, it is hard not to ascribe to Davis's detractors exactly the sort of paranoia that his books describe. On close examination, the criticisms turn out to be less than the sum of their parts. Even where they appear to have substance - and often they do not - they hinge on a fallacious assumption that a handful of errors and questionable footnotes undermine the entire thrust of Davis's argument.

Yes, the "truth squad" (as Davis's detractors are called) have uncovered some howlers. Yes, Davis overstates his case at times. Yes, he dwells on the bad news and skirts over the good - a side effect, no doubt, of his unashamedly Marxian approach. But that does not mean that his case is not a compelling one, or that it does not deserve to be made.

Behind the machinations of the truth squad lurks a long-standing struggle over the soul of LA. For at least a century, the city has been torn between boosters talking up its charms for commercial and political gain and doomsayers who see its sprawling suburbs, its endless mediocrity, its stench of decay, and feel they have reached the end of the world.

There has never been much love lost between the two sides. As Davis himself explains in City of Quartz, though, both viewpoints have fired the popular imagination and helped to define LA's image of itself - a duality reflected in one of the more cogent critiques of Ecology of Fear written by D J Waldie for the online magazine Salon. "The book's popularity exactly mirrors 150 years of ambivalence about the glamour of living in LA, expressed locally as a weird kind of Schadenfreude," Waldie wrote. "Davis's apocalyptic sermon about LA sells books the same way booster pitches about `health and happiness in the sunshine' once sold suburban lots to dazzled Midwesterners." What makes LA strange is that it has little scholarly history. The political language is fraught with double-speak and bureaucratic gobbledygook - making it well-nigh impossible to determine, say, how the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill really were built. To the historian, LA appears not so much a city as a work of the imagination, doggedly fought over by each and every interest group.

LA is thus a place of genuine mystery as well as brooding intimations of disaster. Orson Welles called it a "bright, guilty place" - neither as dark as its own apocalyptic dreams nor as innocent as its bounty- hunting boosters would have us believe. Mike Davis has walked into the duality at the heart of LA - and must now wonder if he will get out again.

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