The third panel in the ThirdLA series was held last night at Occidental College in Eagle Rock and the matter at hand was not the city itself, but a book about the city: Mike Davis's seminal City of Quartz—the "definitive study of LA," as ThirdLA creator and LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne put it—and the 25 years since it was published in 1990.
ThirdLA is about a third iteration of the city, its post-Mid-Century-car-culture life, and Hawthorne believes City of Quartz is the second of two bookends to the second Los Angeles (Reyner Banham's decidedly more upbeat Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies being the first)—a private, suburban city that "dream[ed] of becoming infinite." Dense, wide-ranging, and above all else, angry, the book has built quite a reputation for itself in the 25 years since its publication. Davis touches on everything from Los Angeles's dual identity, a place of both "sunshine and noir," to its resentful, paramilitary police force, to rampant privatization of public space, to the discriminatory legacy of the Catholic Church in a city in which a plurality of the population is Latino.
Deputy Mayor Rick Cole, who sat on the panel, recalled how Los Angeles emerged as a world city in the 1980s. With massive amounts of Japanese investment, a booming aerospace industry driven by the Reagan administration's stockpiling of armaments, and Mayor Tom Bradley, who had formed a wide coalition of support, the future looked bright: "1984 was ... the absolute high water mark," Cole said. "Paris, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles—that was our only competition."
Good times, of course, did not last forever: "Underneath all that, there was this deep rot," Cole said, and it was in this climate of despair that City of Quartz was published in 1990. Davis, a Marxist, took a willfully pessimistic look at a city that was, in 1990, coming down, and about to fall off a cliff. The Rodney King riots hit in 1992, parts of the city burned in 1993, and both OJ Simpson and the Northridge earthquake wreaked havoc on the freeways in 1994. Davis suddenly seemed prescient in describing a city of "quasi-public space," of panoptic, fortress-like malls, and of beaches "now closed at dark, patrolled by helicopter gunships."
"I was very attracted to that apocalyptic sensibility," panelist David Ulin, book critic for the LA Times, said. "Downtown glittered in the distance, like the Emerald City; no one ever went there."
But today we're moving into the Third Los Angeles—Downtown is no longer the Emerald City at all—so how much of what Davis wrote still applies?
"The idea that the city was going to be this ever-expanding megalopolis has been disproven," Ulin said. "I see a re-urbanized city .... LA has kind of run out of space. It has to operate within limits."
The spatial apartheid Davis described is breaking down a little too, as people from different socioeconomic backgrounds move into the same neighborhoods, even if that gentrification process is not a positive for everyone involved. "People are willing to go into neighborhoods they would never set foot into, but now they go there for artisanal cheese," said Cole.
But echoes remain. "The concept [of the pseudo-public sphere] is really still present," Occidental professor Amy Lyford said. "I think of the branded malls like the Americana and the Paseo Colorado ... It's not Fortress LA as Mike Davis described it, [but] a kind of soft, gentle, happy fortress of consumption."
And Davis himself is still angry. The program ended with two of Hawthorne's Occidental students role-playing as Hawthorne and Davis, reading aloud an email exchange between the two. Davis railed against a laundry list of oft-forgotten issues, including "fiscal zoning, an absurdly unequal system of property taxation, a lack of regional economic planning, [and] the fiscal crunch in older inner-ring suburbs."
"People often needle me: 'LA's back dude, can't you smile?'" Davis wrote. "Well, a sense of crisis was the best ally we had." —Ian Grant
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