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  • Watching Los Angeles Burn
  • Steven A. Nardi
Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Metropolitan Books - Henry Holt & Company, 1998.

Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990) has been recognized as a modern classic. Davis’s analysis of the impact of an ideology of urban planning that emphasizes security and surveillance over city and community provides a devastating corrective to the predominantly aesthetic postmodern interpretation of trends in architecture from the 1970s to the present. His description of the use of architecture as defense, and the new interpretations of public space that it makes visible, has had as significant an impact on the way that we view the contemporary city as Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Unlike Jacobs, however, Davis offers his devotee little in the way of an alternative vision. Jacobs, after all, devotes the bulk of her book to detailing how cities might be better built. Her suggestions are concrete, her precepts easily made practical. Indeed, perhaps the greatest impact of Jacobs’s argument was that doing nothing at all with the urban fabric is better than doing something badly. City of Quartz, on the other hand, expends the majority of its pages building a complex and fascinating case against the very philosophical background of the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area. As a result its thesis has been frequently, and not entirely unfairly, summarized as “Los Angeles—a big mistake.” Davis mitigates this reductivism, however, with a broader argument implicit in the book’s subtitle: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. L.A., it seems, is to be excoriated not merely for its traffic jams and bad taste, but because it represents a foreshadowing of the city toward which we are uncontrollably tumbling. L.A., Davis claims, with all of its ugliness and division, is the city that we Americans now want to build, and certainly deserve.

In Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, Davis returns to Los Angeles’s economic structure with a variation on his previous theme. Fundamentally, the problem of Los Angeles, Davis argues, is that urban development has been allowed to be dictated by real estate interests’ immediate profits, rather than any realistic long-term analysis of the natural environment of Southern California. The result is a city built in such a way as to invite a cycle of disaster and reconstruction—that which Davis calls the “dialectic of ordinary disaster.” By blatantly ignoring the realities of the natural environment (rather un-ironically called “Eden” in a chapter title), Angelenos have built a city that is permanently subject to periodic catastrophes.

Instead of describing man’s destruction of the natural environment, however, Davis reverses the typical trajectory of this narrative. According to Ecology of Fear, state and development interests have either ignored or concealed the process by which nature is turning on L.A. itself. A chapter on the hidden plague of tornadoes in L.A., and the careful concealment of the true strength of L.A.’s wind system by L.A. corporate media interests, argues that there is an active conspiracy deeply rooted within the L.A. power structure to conceal the extent of the environment’s hostility to the city. Davis’s extensive research turns up evidence that tornadoes strong enough to have thrown a wrench in the state’s campaign to attract home buyers were systematically downgraded in the press to “strong storms” or “freak occurrences.” Earthquakes, as well, he argues, have been much more powerful and pose a much greater threat to “earthquake proof” buildings than is commonly acknowledged (a point underscored by recent discoveries of ever stronger and ever more threatening faults directly underneath downtown L.A.). In another chapter, Davis describes how development in the mountains displaces mountain lions, who then range into urban areas with predictable spasms of fear among the populace at risk of attack. Development, in other words, challenges nature and then, when it loses, passes the bill over to the city to pay.

Returning to the roots of City of Quartz, Davis points out that disaster in L.A. has become not only a...

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