The Hellish Paradise That Is Los Angeles


Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster

By Mike Davis

Metropolitan Books 484pp $25

Los Angeles defies easy description. At times, it can be the ugliest place imaginable: Through the yellow-brown haze, one street crossing resembles the next--three gas stations and a strip mall, repeated as far as the eye can see. At other times, especially after a cleansing winter rain, L.A. makes good on all its hyped promise: Zip along its freeways, and behold a glistening jewel fringed with swaying palm trees and snow-capped peaks.

Hell or Paradise? The paradox of Los Angeles goes far beyond its architecture and weather patterns. With its movie stars, sun-tanned surfers, and tawdry scandals, L.A. has always loomed large in the American psyche as a place full of excitement and youthful vigor but also dangerous glamour and moral compromise. Common doomsday wisdom has long maintained that it's just a matter of time until a depleted Los Angeles, with its foul air, packed freeways, and partying celebrities, crumbles into the sea when the Big One hits.

It is the dark side of Los Angeles that fascinates author Mike Davis. In his widely acclaimed 1990 book, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Davis probed the deep social and racial divisions that then seemed destined to pull the city apart. Two years later, when riots rocked L.A., Davis' prophecies proved right on target. Now, in his astute new book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Davis predicts L.A.'s coming environmental and spiritual collapse.

For Davis, a MacArthur Fellow who has taught urban theory, Los Angeles is already a lost cause, the sad result of a century's worth of civic hubris: greedy speculators and corrupt politicians rushing to destroy the once-bucolic "Land of Sunshine." Onto a semi-arid Mediterranean landscape, "Anglos" have swarmed from the East, ignorant of their new surroundings and eager to irrigate the parched land, level mountaintops, and erect endless rows of flimsy stucco houses. Now, Davis warns, Angelenos must reap the horrors of years of environmental arrogance.

It's a compelling thesis, made all the more persuasive by Davis' meticulous examination of the intersection of capitalism and the forces of nature. When firestorms engulf whole mountain ranges, taking with them million-dollar Malibu mansions, it's not some freak of nature, as the local TV news reports proclaim. Rather, asserts the author, it's the consequence of a misguided policy to protect those very same houses. Under natural conditions, parched underbrush burns frequently but briefly. Now, the chaparral accumulates for years, sometimes decades, only to ignite into uncontrollable firestorms. Similarly, rains that would have been harmlessly absorbed into the soil become dangerous, raging torrents as they funnel down streets and into the concrete-lined Los Angeles River.

In Davis' Los Angeles, nature bites back in ominous ways. By the mid-1940s, mountain lions were thought to be eradicated from the county. Then, beginning in the 1980s, lions began attacking hikers and picnickers, showing a particular fondness for small children. The lions, it turns out, never vanished. They simply receded into the rugged local mountains only to reappear as urban sprawl swept up the foothills.

The worst folly of all--the misguided belief that the cataclysmic movement of tectonic plates beneath the city can somehow be managed--will exact a far higher death toll, Davis insists. For 200 years, the plates have been in a quiescent period. Citing scientific journals, he argues that the 1994 Northridge earthquake could be the beginning of a new era of destructive temblors. And Los Angeles, despite what the boosters say, remains horrendously ill-prepared for the Big One--and not-so-big ones, too. Even modern skyscrapers, long promoted by architects as the safest place to be in a quake, "are poised to become rubble or towering infernos."

On the subject of environmental mismanagement, Ecology of Fear is an enormously convincing and terrifying work. Yet it suffers from a conspiratorial and overly polemical tone. L.A. is a big city with big problems. But its shortcomings are as much a result of simple careless planning as of corporate greed. Moreover, in many ways, the place is improving. For one thing, the air is much cleaner than it was 30 years ago, thanks to stiff federal regulations.

But where the author really misses the mark is in his economic analysis. For Davis, the wealthy live in idyllic gated communities, oblivious to environmental dangers, while the poor immigrants outside those gates live in squalor. Los Angeles has evolved into "a dystopian symbol of Dickensian inequalities and intractable racial contradictions." Economic hardship since the 1992 riots, moreover, has "only reinforced spatial apartheid." In truth, over the past three years, racial tensions have been greatly diffused by an economic rebound unmentioned by Davis.

Davis, though, is too busy mapping out the city's downfall to dwell on its current prosperity. In his chapter "The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles," Davis tells how writers and filmmakers have long enjoyed imagining the city's demise. Davis' book belongs squarely in that camp. In the real world, Los Angeles remains a vital if troubled place. It may not be perfect, but Los Angeles is still with us. And thank goodness for that.

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