Pornography of despair

d.j. waldie on mike davis, author of 'ecology of fear', and his predictions that los angeles will be destroyed by an ecological apocalypse.

Published September 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Killer pulses" from a 9.1 earthquake, wildfires, space invaders,survivalist hordes, megalomaniac dirigible pilots, hypertrophied crabgrass
and man-eating mountain lions -- by the end of Mike Davis' "Ecology of
Fear," a 484-page catalog of real and fictional Los Angeles apocalypses,
it's tempting to join New York magazine critic Walter Kirn in dismissing
the book as a "biblical trumpet call" from a "slightly crackpot" historian
who has Jeremiah too much on his mind. Naturally, for a book that
exhaustively imagines L.A.'s destruction, "Ecology of Fear" became No. 1 on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list.

The book's popularity exactly mirrors 150 years of ambivalence about the
glamour of living in Los Angeles, expressed locally as a weird kind of
Schadenfreude -- glee not at someone else's misfortune, but at
(potentially) our own. There are some L.A. residents who claim to get an
adrenaline rush from these reminders that the worst could happen to them at
any moment. Every copy of the "Ecology of Fear" sold in the city should be
stamped: Get out now, while you can! But, before you go, have a cool time!

Davis' apocalyptic sermon about L.A. sells books the same way booster
pitches about "health and happiness in the sunshine" once sold suburban
lots to dazzled Midwesterners (and still sell suburban houses to dazzled
Middle Easterners). At times in "Ecology of Fear" the effect is cruelly
funny. Davis counters each booster clichi with its demonic double -- L.A.'s
climate is actually lousy (tornadoes today and drought tomorrow), the
landscape is lethal (when it isn't burning or shaking, it's crawling with
fauna that has a taste for white meat) and its famously laid-back residents
are nasty and brutish (rich and poor alike prey upon each other).

Beneath its irony, "Ecology of Fear" is so hopeless, so Puritanical, in its
vision of L.A.'s decimation that you can sense something else, some emotion
stronger than the desire for sound environmental policy, at work.

In 1990, Davis wrote a bitter, brilliant and scholarly study of these
themes in "City of Quartz." That book's principal contribution was
redefining L.A. as a "carceral city" -- a place of prisonlike vigilance
awaiting violent confrontation between the city's immigrant underclass and
a malevolent power structure, personified as the Los Angeles Police
Department. Davis' prediction came true in 1992 as poor families ransacked
the city's most famous department store (and the brassiere museum at
Frederick's of Hollywood), and suburban cities bulldozed dirt and concrete
barricades across access roads to keep freeway-close looters at bay. In the
sooty aftermath of hundreds of fires (whose intensity was registered on
surveillance satellites miles overhead), Davis became L.A.'s most quoted
critic, and "City of Quartz" became the standard textbook on L.A. and its

Parts of "Ecology of Fear" read like Davis trying to top his inadvertently
horrific success at prophecy. The sequel to "City of Quartz" is a litany of
more exotic terrors, more like a late medieval bestiary of actual and fake
monsters: chipmunks infected with Black Plague, terrorists with H-bombs and
coyotes with hantavirus waiting in the sagebrush. Some of these may turn
out to be true, in the way the Rodney King riot fulfilled the warnings in
"City of Quartz." But Davis expects more than fire from Los Angeles the
next time; he anticipates a combo-apocalypse: tornadoes and earthquakes and
the burning of Malibu and suburban skinhead race war. The idea may appeal
to an imagination that longs for an ultimate, cleansing disaster, but it's
a vision so dismal that it's ultimately paralyzing.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Besides living in L.A., Mike Davis and I share some experience with two
historically deterministic faiths: Catholicism and Marxism (although I
imagine the balance of our experience is different). Both faiths tell a
story that explains current miseries. Both stories have a happy ending.
Because despair leaves no room for the happy ending, the Salesian teachers
at my Catholic high school hinted that despair was the only unpardonable

"Ecology of Fear" fetishizes L.A.'s fictional Armageddons -- according to
Davis' strict accounting, writers and filmmakers over the years have wasted
L.A. with 49 nuclear strikes, 28 earthquakes, 10 "hordes," six floods and 35
other forms of destruction. The book commandeers our reveries about the
city and leaves no room for hope. It's nearly a pornography of despair.
Like pornography, it invites our contempt for its subject.

And, what of us who live here, in a place Davis portrays as so dangerous on
so many fronts that it ought to be leveled and restored to wilderness?
De-engineer Los Angeles into its original sunshine and dirt and there's no
place for the small houses of my blue-collar neighbors or their small
victories over fear in living together. Davis (who sometimes sounds less
like a Marxist and more like a crude Darwinist) suggests that history has
nominated new agents of inevitable revolution, and they're not the working
people of Los Angeles, who have exchanged class-consciousness for
aspirations to a job, a paycheck and a house like mine in the suburbs. The
Davis who despairs of a faithless working class is telling the blue-collar
millions of L.A. that they are sinners in the hands of an angry ecology.

Davis is aware of how pitiless this sounds, particularly to the people of
color who are increasingly the owners of the houses in older suburbs like
mine now that affluent, white Angelenos have fled them. When a reporter for
Newsday noted this inconsistency, Davis said, "The question is whether
there's an element of deliberate exaggeration in what I write, or do I
really believe the stuff I say. Unfortunately, I do believe most of it. The
truth is, Angelenos -- like New Yorkers -- have a wonderful appetite for
hearing bad things about their own city. It makes us seem more heroic for
living there." That dismisses "Ecology of Fear" as ironic agit-prop.

My neighbors in Lakewood (a racially mixed, blue-collar town built in 1950
on the margin of the Los Angeles plain) don't seem mock-heroic for the
ordinariness of sharing their lives together. And they don't think of
themselves as performance artists for living here, either, but as people
who've taken up the protracted burdens of conviviality, a responsibility
for which Davis seems to have no heart (even though he calls his
turn-of-the-century bungalow neighborhood in Pasadena "sweet").

My neighbors aren't ironists either, even if they could afford the
aesthetic privilege of enjoying all the ironies that lurk in Davis'
dystopian L.A. My neighbors, as near as I can tell, know what they've
gained and lost in the bargains they've made to live here.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

L.A. is, in its diminished way, precisely what popular and high culture for
the past 100 years has presented as America's domestic religion. That faith
-- today's immigrants' hope, as it was for my parents in 1946 and my
neighbors -- has not failed completely. Its adherents are increasingly
African-American, Latino and Asian. In L.A., one in five home-buyers is
foreign born.

L.A.'s white, Protestant ruling class was always "south of the South" when
it came to their fear of backsliding into just such a "mongrel" society.
The Los Angeles they captured in 1846 was brown, Catholic, distant from the
East and too close to Mexico. White Angelenos exorcised their reasonable
fear of displacement with institutional violence -- relegating the city's
Native American and mixed-race residents to the stews of "Nigger Alley"
(the 1850s and 1860s), lynching its Chinese laborers (the 1870s),
displacing its Jews beyond the city limits (the 1890s), making Los Angeles
the most segregated big city in the nation (from 1900 to 1970) and allowing
it to convulse in the most destructive civil disturbances in the nation's
modern history (in 1965 and 1992).

Davis is right about one apocalypse that's coming. White L.A.'s feared
double is just beyond the gated suburbs. There's a name for it --
mestizaje -- the promiscuous amalgamation of Hispanic, African,
Asian and Native American peoples that is characteristic of the mestizo
(blended-race) culture of Mexico. The social landscape of Los Angeles --
from the placement of the L.A. River in its current bed to the boundaries
of its local governments -- documents an Anglo struggle to define a white

The L.A. emerging from this landscape supposedly tamed by white,
middle-class suburbanization is a mestizo exopolis of 4 million laboring
people, of Mayan garment workers, Hmong beauticians, Korean dry cleaners,
Armenian hoodlums and Quechua fruit sellers. That's the real cause of the
fear eating at the heart of L.A., for which the conversion reaction among
affluent Anglos is a sick fondness for all the Armageddons that "Ecology of
Fear" imagines.

Racism, at least, can be legislated against, and educated, agitated and
bred against. As someone from the Irish part of his family surely told
Davis, even when no present remedies work, evils are endured until they can
be prevented. Killer earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and periodic 100-year
droughts cannot be.

Davis recently told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that he believes
the things ordinary people build here are not allowed to last. "The thing I
hate most about Southern California," he said, "is the terrorism against
everyday experience."

"Ecology of Fear" is a kind of terrorist manifesto against the durability of
ordinary things.

St. Agatha's, Sunday morning, 10 a.m.

The congregation of St. Agatha's on West Adams Boulevard (on the edge of
what the media defines as South Central L.A.) is black, brown and white.
At the 10 a.m. masses I've attended, the congregants sway and sing in a
hot, crowded and worn sanctuary as the gospel choir belts out tunes I
never heard at my parish church.

St. Agatha's pastor since 1996 has been a youngish priest named Ken Deasy,
who describes himself as "a surfer, a blond, blue-eyed, beach kid." When he
took the job at St. Agatha's, he couldn't imagine how his mostly
African-American parish would ever accommodate its mostly Latino
neighborhood, and he was unaware of the irony that blacks as well as
whites are now subject to the city's new wave of displacement.

Deasy had arrived, it now seems, at almost the last moment when the
parish's old stories of working-class black life might be blended with new,
mestizo ones. Deasy also brought with him a remnant of the white, affluent
congregation he had led at St. Monica's Church in Santa Monica, not really
very far from the working-class neighborhood of St. Agatha's, but worlds
away in L.A. To bring these lives together -- an act of real defiance
against the L.A. he grew up in -- Deasy says, "I did what Jesus would have
done; I threw a dinner," and the stories began to flow.

A kind of mestizaje is underway at St. Agatha's. Barbecues, endless
talk (including Spanish classes for black and Anglo parish volunteers), Ken
Deasy's unmistakable conviction that he doesn't have all the answers and
the hallelujahs of the gospel choir are part of it. The parish's hopeful,
flawed people aren't looking to build a New Jerusalem but the sort of
everyday community that accommodates their weakness and their longing. They
aren't ready yet to see it obliterated if it fails to meet these modest
expectations. "People are coming out to this area," Deasy recently
said, "and discovering it's a holy land."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Los Angeles invites endless misreading -- and fury -- as a paradise. It
never was, except in the boosters' brochures. Their L.A. has always been --
and only been -- a sales pitch about palm trees, sunshine and the
possibility of radical self-empowerment.

Except in "Ecology of Fear," L.A. isn't a perfect dystopia either, although
the book's criticisms of hillside development in Malibu, earthquake failure
downtown and land use fiscalization in the suburbs are true. L.A.'s
shortcomings -- as heaven and as hell -- explain why, having created L.A.'s
noir history in "City of Quartz," the author of "Ecology of Fear" has to
bring it to an end over and over. The book is the story of Davis' Puritan
disappointment with a city that is not good enough or bad enough.

Both "City of Quartz" and "Ecology of Fear" make clear that L.A.'s social
landscape was deliberately made a mechanism for sorting communities by
race, class and income more rigorously than in any other American big
city. But, for its preponderantly blue-collar citizens after 1940, at least
L.A. wasn't a tarpaper shack at the end of a dirt road in Arkansas or a
third-floor walk-up in Chicago or even an architecturally pure tenement in
a modernist superblock. It was all the suburban "cities of tomorrow" that
were summoned by the longing of the not-quite-middle-class to own a
50-foot-by-100-foot parcel of the future.

The L.A. that aspired to be a "Caucasian triumph" over nature, organized labor
and lesser races can't be blamed on something as anonymous as sprawl. It
was the conscious product of federal housing policy based on home
ownership, suburban segregation and the subsidized construction of
working-class houses like mine.

A hundred years later, we have the regional city we planned for, and we
must make something of L.A. together. "Ecology of Fear" -- devoid of any
hopeful signs -- begs the question, why even try?

The writers who have followed Davis into noir Los Angeles seem to regret
the square miles of its not-quite-middle-class suburbs and its working
people who get by from boom to bust. The regrets are so totalizing in
"Ecology of Fear" that they enforce their own amnesia when it comes to
alternative stories of the city, like Ken Deasy's. That's unfortunate,
because Mike Davis tells stories superbly. He told one at the end of "City
of Quartz" about Fontana, the industrial town on the margin of L.A. where
Davis grew up, that is the best thing in the book.

The despairing effect of "Ecology of Fear" is to insist that no story of
our lives together can resist the perfect catastrophes Davis imagines for
L.A. That would be L.A.'s ultimate disaster.

By D.J. Waldie

D.J. Waldie, author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" (W.W. Norton), lives in southeast Los Angeles County.


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