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Natives and nature riot, visiting destruction on L.A. paradise


By Mike Davis
Henry Holt, 384 pages, $27.50


The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau proclaims -- or threatens -- that Los Angeles is “The Cultural Capital of the 21st Century.” Mike Davis offers a different, darker vision: Los Angeles as an expensive apocalyptic theme park. He lists the 1992 riots ($1 billion in damage), 1993 firestorms ($1 billion), 1994 Northridge earthquake ($42 billion) and 1995 floods ($500 million). “First the natives rioted, then nature,” writes Davis.

In recent years, NCR has devoted considerable resources to reporting on California, its diverse culture and its implications for Catholicism and American society. Los Angeles is emblematic of the power of the Sunbelt, and the edge city, the new suburbia that shapes the modern Republican Party.

In his 1990 book, City of Quartz, Davis examined the economic, social and political forces that shaped Los Angeles. Now he examines the environmental forces and fissures that Los Angeles has either ignored or paved over in its relentless growth.

While Los Angeles waits for the Big One, the ultimate earthquake, Davis points to countless other disasters that largely escape notice, at least from those not directly affected. The city and its citizens, as Davis demonstrates, are constantly at varying degrees of risk.

In a fascinating footnote, Davis constructs a list of 77 tornadoes that struck Southern California from 1918 to 1995. Civic boosters and the local press -- a redundancy in this case -- refer to these events as “freak winds.” To do otherwise would be to admit that Los Angeles is not the paradise they claim.

Davis recounts the yearly rituals of the Malibu wildfires and their city cousins, the tenement fires that have killed 119 people in one downtown neighborhood alone since 1947. Both types of fire have human origins, but Malibu’s victims are usually wildlife and foliage, while downtown’s are immigrants and poor people. Either way, those who actually feel the flames are practically invisible.

Davis’ particular genius is to provide a social context to ecological phenomena. Mountain lion attacks in outlying suburban areas are a staple of evening newscasts, but it is Davis who uncovers the irony implicit in the situation: White Angelenos, fleeing from the inner city and the older suburbs with their minority populations -- the “dark other” -- find themselves face to face with a new beast, the puma.

Not only is Los Angeles at war with nature but it is at war with its minority populations -- the African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans -- who provide the labor that keeps the new tourist, hotel and entertainment economy running. In City of Quartz, Davis showed how the military and aerospace industries built Los Angeles. Ecology of Fear depicts a city in which a downsized aerospace industry decimated the blue-collar white communities of the valley.

White residents who can do so flee to ever more remote new suburbs, while those who can’t flee call for increasing police action. Politicians respond by building new prisons, and prisons have become a potent element in the political ecology as well: The California Correctional Peace Officers Association has the second most generous political action committee in the state. This is a city in which prisons are as much a growth industry as tourism.

Calls for law and order, though, never apply to the alarming growth of racially inspired violence. The old blue-collar belt is a fertile breeding ground for alienated youth, and Davis documents an alarming increase in skinhead attacks on African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans, which has gone largely unnoticed in the national media.

But it is the imagination of disaster that is the most provocative contribution of this book. Davis sketches a brief history of disaster literature (including movies) stretching from 19th-century London to the destruction of Los Angeles in the 1996 hit “Independence Day.” He compiles a list of what he calls a “riotous miscellany” of destruction visited on Los Angeles in popular entertainment, ranging from nuclear weapons (49 times) to Bermuda grass (once).

Los Angeles has been destroyed more than any other city. In “Independence Day,” when New York is destroyed it is tragic and horrifying; in Los Angeles, farcical people laugh and cheer.

In the beginning, the destruction of London was portrayed as the death of Western civilization. Now, Los Angeles’ destruction is a victory for civilization. A sobering thought.

Ecology of Fear has much to say about the way we experience urban catastrophe and how those catastrophes shape civic life. Another Davis insight is how disaster assistance has become a new public works program for the middle class. It is a provocative exploration of our future and a worthy, hip-hop successor to other classics of urbanism such as Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.

John Olinger writes from Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999