City Of Quartz by Mike Davis [Review]

This is a history of Los Angeles and its environs. It is not the sort of history you associate with America – Davis does not exclude the Anarchists, Socialists, company towns and class struggles that lie hidden, deep in the void of US folklore. Where it touches upon the history of ‘great men’, it is one where they are shown, warts and all.

City of Quartz is not necessarily a straightforward book for the non-American reader. Davis never misses an opportunity to go into detail, and that means covering many places and individuals that will be utterly unfamiliar to European readers.

The issues, even when they appear unique to LA are however all too often universal – in particular Davis concentrates on a city choking on its waste, and an area deeply damaged by the contradictions of capitalism – the over-production, greed, social stratification, gentrification, political chicanery, religious revivalism and ignorance of the environment. If LA is a glimpse of our own futures, you don’t want to go there.

Davis’ sense of humour, and cutting attitude to the well-heeled, peeks through. LA appears to have been a trailblazer of homeowner associations and all manner of NIMBY groups. Of one such body he comments “When it comes to solving major urban problems, moreover, the Valley homesteaders are about as patient and constructive as Sendero Luminoso”.

A sorry picture emerges in particular of black working class Los Angeles squeezed from all sides – left behind by de-industrialisation and under-priced by Latino labour, the 1980s found south central LA surrounded by a hostile police force and a corrupt political system where even so-called 1960s radicals had long since given up on black youth. However, as America was to see in the 1992 riots, the one thing the youth of Los Angeles had not done, was give up.

Davis inadvertently raises hard questions for radicals. Whilst we can no doubt all agree that the environment cannot survive if every American businessman who wants to build a new development in the desert does so, can everyone who wants to live in California do so, and continue doing so?

It is one thing to believe in “No Borders” – another to see it implemented solely by capitalism’s need for mass migrant labour. Those issues, and the one’s thrown up by the creation of an increasingly Spanish speaking and Catholic California, are unlikely to go away.

Davis’ narrative stops in 1990, and whilst this book claims to be a ‘new edition’ it is in fact the old one, but with a new 14 page preface. Given that, if you bought this first time round, there is probably little point in rushing out to get the 2006 remix.

That should not take away from the importance of City of Quartz. If like me, this is your first book by Davis, it is unlikely to be your last. This is a guy who knows what he is talking about.

Paul Stott

City Of Quartz by Mike Davis. Verso, 2006 £10.99