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City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles

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The hidden story of L.A. Mike Davis shows us where the city's money comes from and who controls it while also exposing the brutal ongoing struggle between L.A.'s haves and have-nots.

462 pages, Paperback

First published October 17, 1990

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About the author

Mike Davis

68 books527 followers
Mike Davis was a social commentator, urban theorist, historian, and political activist. He was best known for his investigations of power and social class in his native Southern California. He was the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award. He lived in San Diego.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 353 reviews
Profile Image for David McCormick.
32 reviews5 followers
May 23, 2012
It's great to see that this old book still generates lively debate. "City of Quartz" is so inherently political that opinions probably reflect the reader's political position. Davis makes no secret of his political leanings: in the new revised introduction he spells them out in the first paragraph. For a leftist, his arguments about the geographic marginalization of the Los Angeles' poor and their exploitation, neglect and abuse by civic and religious hierarchies will be fascinating and sadly unsurprising. For those on the right, his blunderbuss indictments of individuals, organizations and even whole neighborhoods may seem irresponsible and unfair. In my opinion, though, this is a fascinating work and should be read carefully, and then loved or hated as the case may be.

p.s. - many people try to minimize this book's merit because it was originally written as a Ph.D. dissertation and then rejected. I think this is unfair. Although it was rejected at the time, it is now considered a minor classic in the field of urban studies. I seriously doubt that any of the professors on his dissertation committee have written anything as popular, interesting, and provocative as "City of Quartz".
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,854 reviews1,369 followers
February 16, 2020
The ultimate world-historical significance -- and oddity -- of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism.

The enormity of the subject is reflected in this protean book, one of such distinct (almost disparate) chapters, each almost at odds with each other in an assemblage as pasted-on as the utilities must be in the emerging communities which are tacked on to the greater metropolitan area. The opening section on the art of LA, or perhaps the art against LA. The section is very intriguing and then suddenly after exploring the exiled auteur and writers who washed upon its shores, there are digressions into the phenomenon of noir and the marginalized poetry swarms which coexisted amongst the minorities, the destitute and other rank and file preterit. This occurs until the fortress LA mentality chases out the homeless, the communists and the narco-terrorists. Art then isn't mention for a couple hundred pages until an anecdote about Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann walking near the bay when they noticed the beach covered which is first assumed to be caterpillars but is then recognized as thousands of condoms washing ashore from a water treatment plant.

Land development and property speculation are the engines of Los Angeles. Water is the hidden history, everyone can assume their John Huston accent here in recounting such. Keeping despised communities enclosed in their areas isn't cost effective and the consequent strain on infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. I am afraid I am being euphemistic. Mike Davis is screaming disaster is nigh; he does this on every page. we are watching much of it in real time. yet the City of Angels with its storied dream factories is still a sufficient magnet for folks to stream to from across the globe despite all these attendant risks.
3.2 stars -- rounded up
Profile Image for Dan.
Author 5 books444 followers
April 14, 2016
A reliably lefty history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz was a fascinating read for a recent transplant from the east coast. Mike Davis' collection of essays eschews the day-to-day history, choosing instead to focus on several underlying factors to the ur Angeleno character: Architecture-as-fortress, crime-as-byproduct-of-disenfranchisement; the Catholic church as institution of greed, power, and racism; the boom/bust of manufacturing; etc. Davis makes a compelling case for why the city operates the way it does - or, rather, why the city in the 90's, at the height of its various tensions, operated as it did; the revised edition isn't much revised at all in that sense - but he's short on solutions.

Cronyism, greed, and an inferiority complex to the more established power centers of the east coast are portrayed as the perennial animating factors for Los Angeles' worse angels, but aside from a lot of hand-wringing there's not much that, seemingly, can be done retard these drives or focus them on a more positive bent. I often avoid politicized books (and I admit that it would be tough to write a non-politicized book about any major American city, especially L.A.) for this very reason. I get all worked up and then there's no vent for my frustration or righteous indignation. What is the solution: Better urban planning, less development/more development, forced integration, what?! Davis anemically raises the point that perhaps the way forward is through more local control of capital and markets; he blames a lot of the income disparity of the 80s and 90s on foreign investments in the city, but its not as clear cut as that. From Davis' point of view, one of the first villains on the scene was the very local LA Times. But surely there are benefits along with the negatives. After all, something keeps driving people to this city. I think the truer path here is one that is not so polarized. And, to his credit, Davis presents a more balanced argument in the final essay, the one about Fontana. He presents both the good and the bad about that city's evolution from agrarian eden to industrial polluter and finally commuter suburb in a calm, rational light. Solutions, though, are in short supply, and maybe that's the take away message here: Nobody knows how to fix things.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed this book very much (despite the fact that it took me months to read). City of Quartz was a great primer in the history of a city that I find fascinating, but know precious little about. A more dispassionate tone may have broadened the appeal a bit, but undoubtably some of the fire would've been lost. I recommend this book to anybody interested in contemporary urban space - how we negotiate it, how it came to be the way it is - and for anybody interested in getting a peek beneath the surface of this most enigmatic of cities.

If you liked this, make sure to follow me on Goodreads for more reviews!
Profile Image for Howard Olsen.
121 reviews26 followers
October 21, 2007
My favorite song about Los Angeles is “L.A.” by The Fall. It’s got an ominous synth line, a great guitar riff, and Mark Smith’s immortal lyrics: “L.L.L.A.A.A.L!L!L!A!A!A!” It’s the perfect soundtrack for reading this excellent book. Davis has written a social history of the LA area, which does not proceed in a linear fashion. Instead, he picks out the social history of groups that have become identified with LA: developers, suburb dwellers, gangs, the LAPD, immigrants, etc. By the end of the book, you have a real grasp on how LA got to be the way it is today.

If you’ve ever read any of Davis’ other books, you know he has an agenda, just like Howard Zinn or Ann Coulter. Davis’ information is not suspect; this book is well-sourced. However, it puts across a worldview, for which the reader must adjust accordingly. Davis writes in the post-structuralist style that was in fashion at the time. Politically, Davis is a doughy bourgeois leftist, who harbors the progressive’s Walter Mitty fantasy that he is a Bad Ass Street Rebel. If you can read past this, you can learn some absolutely fascinating info.

The longest chapter is Davis’ discussion of LA’s intellectual and cultural life. Don’t laugh. By the time you are finished with this, you will have a strange new respect for the Wasteland down south. Davis traces the groups of thinkers drawn to LA: creative people hired by Hollywood, PhD’s and engineers hired by the aerospace & defense industries; the noir novelists who created the modern detective story, cutting edge musicians, &c.

Davis also has long chapters about LA’s underlass. He traces the history of LA’s Catholic diocese, and uses it to discuss LA’s immigrant community. He also has a long discussion about LA’s gangs, and the LAPD’s campaign against them. His history of the Crips is very compelling. Davis unflinchingly details the bloody rise of the Crips, and their connection to the Black Power movement, a connection most commentators are loath to explore. Davis also gives us the rise and fall and rebirth of the town of Fontana, an honest-to-God LA steeltown that was so bluecollar that the Hell’s Angels were founded there, but which eventually became a chaotic blend (due to corrupt planning) of junkyards, truckstops and high end “second homes.” These chapters alone make this book worthwhile. Not coincidentally, they are the ones least infected by Davis’ po-mo cant.

Davis’ only false note comes in the chapter titled “Fortress L.A.” It's so filled with semiotic clichés and cultural referents as to reach the saturation point. It will be virtually unreadable by 2050. The theme is also weak. Davis argues that LA architects are creating buildings and public spaces that are intentionally meant to drive the poor and oppressed out of the city. He practically calls Frank Gehry a fascist Speer clone. He becomes especially exorcised over a South Central mini-mall, which the developer would build only after the city agreed to install an LAPD substation on the premises. Before the mall was built, ghetto folks had no place to buy food in the neighborhood, but no business would move in without some way to protect its investment. Davis finds something untoward in all of this, & rumbles darkly about the alienating design of the substation and the machinations in the mayor's office. But, the mall was so popular with the neighborhood that it made twice as much money as the equivalent suburban mall, so the people shopping there did not feel particularly oppressed by the architect. I'd say it was win-win for everyone. Davis’ worst qualities come out in this discussion, He comes across as one of those liberals who says they want to “help” the ghetto, but then throws up every possible procedural and philosophical roadblock in front of the police, developers, and bureaucrats who would have to be involved. You can easily skip this chapter, and I would suggest that you do so.
Profile Image for Andrea.
Author 6 books177 followers
April 15, 2014
This is as good as I remember it…though more descriptive, less theoretical, easier to read. I guess practice (as a reader of such things) does make perfect.

This is a story of the ‘contradictory impact of economic globalization upon different segments of Los Angeles society’ (vi), but written in very unexpected ways. No doubt why it has become such a classic, and why so many people I’ve met here in London know Los Angeles through this book. I grapple with what exactly it says about globalisation, and it is primarily about a restructuring economy, the offshoring of industry, the plant closures. A little about L.A.’s new place in a Pacific Rim economy – but not enough, though I suppose that was new. In some ways this is like a set of different short stories that start with a little of the global, but are almost entirely about the local.

I love that it opens in the desert looking out towards LA. Llano – once a site of utopian socialist dreams, now another remote suburb of tract housing and social problems. I also love that the first chapter is the literary chapter – the inventing, debunking, mythologizing of L.A. From Morrow Mayo:
Los Angeles, it should be understood, is not a mere city. On the contrary, it is, and has been since 1888, a commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the United States like automobiles, cigarettes and mouth wash (17).

I still find it funny the iconic status that people claim for L.A., though Davis is nothing like Ed Soja or Michael Dear. Still, he writes ‘Los Angeles in this instance is, of course, a stand-in for capitalism in general. The ultimate world-historical significance—and oddity – of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism’ (18). Some claim it is where everything comes together, in the tradition of noir it is ‘the terminus of American history’. But I love this: ‘I am interested…not so much in the history of culture produced in Los Angeles, as the history produced about Los Angeles—especially where that has become a material force in the city’s actual evolution’ (20). Thus, he says, Los Angeles has only been planned or designed to a very small extent, ‘but infinitely envisioned’ (21). Neo-Marxist geographers as much as gangsta rappers remain part of this ‘official dream machinery’ (24).

It all begins with the boosters of course, that cabal of magical real estate investors led originally by Colonel Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler that practically reinvented L.A. as a union-free paradise, and using Charles Lummis and Helen Hunt Jackson and a coterie of other writers as literary mythologisers. White supremacy was prevalent among them: Lummis himself and the arroyo seco set, Abbott Kinney who was a fervent eugencist, Joseph Widney, early president of USC , booster, and author of Race Life of the Aryan Peoples (1907), arguing L.A.’s destiny was as the Aryan capital. All ‘investing real-estate speculation and class warfare with an aura of romantic myth’. (30) Some things never change. Then come a subset of heroes, the debunkers: Adamic, Mayo Morrow, McWilliams, muralists like Siquieros. Then a section on the writers of noir and those amazing films, my own personal favourites. The improbable presence of refugee intellectuals during WWII – somehow you imagine them all in NY, but Adorno was hanging out in LA, Horkheimer, Brecht. The close connections between corporations and scientific institutions, the mad mix of religious nutters. The current work of the L.A. School and a nod to UCLA’s Scott and Soja and Dear and the rest, working against today’s boosters of downtown money.

The chapter Power Lines is a great introduction to L.A. politics in broad strokes – there’s lots out there with all the details and it feels like they miss some of the big picture that way (I’m thinking Fogelson, or Sonnenshein). But I like that both things are out there…and it’s true that ‘Political power in Southern California remains organized by great constellations of private capital’, the more conservative old(er)-money downtown business interests (Otis and Chandler and the L.A. Times), the differently conservative and sometimes Liberal and a bit more Jewish Westside, and now as part of the Pacific Rim, the rise of a third head in the form of potential new competition. We can’t forget the good old days of the 20s and Harry Chandler, when L.A. was ‘in many respects a de facto dictatorship of the Times and the Merchants and Manufacturer’s Association, as the LAPD’s infamous ‘red squad’ kept dissent off the streets and radicals in jail’ (114). Wealth was based on real estate and a ruling white elite kept its distance from a very large and diverse population. The 1950s saw the emergence of the Westside to challenge downtown’s dominance, partly around the wealth of S&L king Howard Ahmanson emerging from L.A.’s growing suburbanization along with other developers and bankers like Eli Broad and Mark Taper (their names are all over downtown buildings). They bankrolled Jesse Unruh’s time in the Assembly – his hold on CA politics was fairly astounding for a while there in the 1960s. Of course, land became less plentiful and developers and S&Ls consolidated or died out and then the Japanese came…real estate remains a central profit generator as industry has come and gone.

Homegrown Revolution: long and rambling and in the preface he said he was worried to read it again, but I think it’s one of the key chapters in the book really. No one had looked at this stuff before this way, especially as smart growth remains one of those buzz words. He writes:
The tap-root of slow growth in the South, however, is an exceptionalistic local history of middle-class interest formation around home ownership. Environmentalism is a congenial discourse to the extent that it is congruent with a vision of eternally rising property values in secure bastions of white privilege. The master discourse here – exemplified by the West Hills secessionists – is homestead exclusivism, whether the immediate issue is apartment construction, commercial encroachment, school busing, crime, taxes or simply community designation.
Slow growth in other words, is about homeowner control of land use and much more. Seen in the context of the suburban sociology of Southern California, it is merely the latest incarnation of a middle-class political subjectivity that fitfully constitutes and reconstitutes itself every few years around the defense of household equity and residential privilege. (159)

There it is. And ‘the starting point is to reconstruct the white-supremacist genealogy of its essential infrastructure: the homeowners’ association’ (160). He takes HA’s right back to their beginnings in enforcing racial deed restrictions and preserving neighbourhood homogeneity. He doesn’t forget the move to incorporate towns in order to preserve homogeneity and tax bases for their white occupants, documented so well by Miller in Cities by Contract. He writes ‘The basis of almost every residential incorporation in this era was the existence of a sharp gradient of home values between the inclusive community and the area intended for exclusion’ (167) Continues: ‘These myriad local manipulations of the ‘exit option’ by homeowner groups and business cliques have generated the current nonsense-jigsaw map of Southern California. One consequence of this ongoing process – Lakewood Plan populations now exceed one and a half million in Los Angeles County – has been the extension of residential segregation across a vast metropolitan space’ (168). His summary can’t really be beaten:
the Lakewood Plan and the Bradley-Burns Act gave suburban homeowners a subsidized ‘exit option’ as well as a powerful new motive for organizing around the ‘protection’ of their home values and lifestyles. The ensuing maximization of local advantage through incorporation and fiscal zoning – whether led by affluent homeowners or business fractions—inevitably produced widening racial and income divides. And, by eroding the tax base of the city of Los Angeles, this fiscal-driven spatial restructuring precipitated more bitter, zero-sum struggles between the affluent homeowner belts of the Westside and Valley, and a growing inner-city population dependant upon public services. As we shall see later, part of the logic of the 1978 tax revolt, which burned over the Valley in particular, was to equalize advantages between Los Angeles’s ‘captive’ white suburbanites and the residents of the Lakewoodized periphery’. (169)

Why had I never put together the Lakewood Plan – allowing small areas to incorporate by contracting with the county for services and initially pay for them through sales rather than property tax, ensuring for years that many paid almost no or sometimes no property tax at all – and prop 13?

So all of these efforts were part of what Davis argues was the establishment of Fishman’s bourgeouis utopias, roughly from 1920 through 1960. Since then, homeowners have been working to defend them, both against unwanted development and unwanted people. Whereas the first period saw little conflict between homeowners and development – with developers mobilizing homeowners to establish exclusive enclaves—after 1965, new development became a threat, as remaining open spaces were filled in and apartments and such built to create density. This is when environmentalism is rolled out to preserve space – and value. This provoked the battle to maintain sprawl, and the so-called tax revolt of the late 70s, and it was homeowner associations that led the charge. The anti-tax rhetoric also drew on the need to protect homes from ‘the encroachment of inner-city populations on suburbia’ (183). More and more whites left Los Angeles all together, many citing the need to escape L.A.U.S.D. as the primary reason. Others pointed to an overburdened sewer system, the breakdown of the Hyperion plant, and smog to call for slow growth.
slow-growth Know-Nothingism, by its very nature, seems to be creeping toward Malthusian final solutions. Thus, at a 1987 conference of Not Yet New York, the Westside slow-growth alliance, one group advocated a statewide ‘Elbow Room’ initiative that would seal the border with Mexico, drastically reduce inmigration of all kinds, and impose obligatory family planning. (209)

And then there’s this beauty of a quote from Henry George, 1869
It is a universal fact that where the value of land is the highest, civilization exhibits the greatest luxury side by side with the most piteous destitution. To see human beings in the most abject, the most helpless and hopeless condition, you must go, not to the unfenced prairies…but to the great cities where the ownership of a little patch of ground is a fortune’ (209)

Fortress L.A.: the argument that ‘we live in ‘fortress cities’ brutally divided between ‘fortified cells’ of affluent society and ‘places of terror’ where the police battle the criminalized poor’.(224) Again, this chapter on the rise of a new kind of built environment that through its form disciplines society is incredibly thought-provoking. We see the rise also of private security – ‘less to do with personal safety than with the degree of personal insulation, in residential, work, consumption and travel environments, from ‘unsavory’ groups and individuals, even crowds in general (224). This, then, is the destruction of public space, Davis argues it is the extension of ‘class war (sometimes a continuation of the race war of the 1960s) at the level of the built environment (228).

Davis really is the master of the pithy insight. A favourite quote about downtown L.A.:
The goals of this strategy may be summarized as a double repression: to raze all association with Downtown’s past and to prevent any articulation with the non-Anglo urbanity of its future (229).

Rather than draw on the past (however horribly, as Faneuil Hall in Boston or the gaslamp district), L.A. chose to raze all of Bunker Hill and rebuild a defensible City Core there, fleeing from the old downtown still vibrant through its use by low-income communities of color. It is only now that that is starting to change. Thus in Bunker Hill it is trying to make a safe space that is comfortable for ‘respectable’ people, even as it declares war on the poor and the homeless only a few blocks away. All public toilets have been removed, the benches are now barrel-shaped to make them uncomfortable if used for any length of time. Parks and quasi-public spaces are maintained only inside buildings where they can be controlled in ‘miniature paradigms of privatization’ (234). Frank Gehry is named the architect of the bunker (though in spite of every political feeling I love his design for the Disney Hall), malls become panopticons, walled communities hunker down behind their gates. The LAPD has substituted technology for man power in its own bunkered command center. The boom in prisons has not bypassed L.A. either, with nearly 25,000 prisoners held (at the time of writing) within three miles of city hall (254).

The Hammer & the Rock: Davis doesn’t forget about South Central, about the police, and about crack. The way the epidemic hit South Central, and the way the L.A.P.D. hit it harder with its anti-gang sweeps known as HAMMER, criminalizing not just kids but also their families. Thus, the demonization of an entire generation—though mostly restricted to kids of color of course—and their imprisonment en masse. I love most the sections that talk about the kids themselves, how they’ve tried to organize themselves for better rather than for worse. And he doesn’t forget how this sits in the larger picture, where 40% of families in South Central were living in poverty. That this is the decade of plant closures and the end of decent jobs for working-class youth in these communities of color, both Black and Brown. All that the civil rights struggle had won in getting these jobs and places in the union was wiped out in a single decade. It’s not a big jump to then move on the ‘Political Economy of Crack’.
Since the late 1970s, every major sector of the Southern California economy, from tourism to apparel, has restructured around the increasing role of foreign trade and offshore investment. Southcentral L.A., as we have indicated, has been the main loser in this transformation, since Asian imports have closed factories withour creatuing compensatory economic opportunities for local residents. The specific genius of the Crips has been their ability to insert themselves into a leading circuit of international trade. Through ‘crack’ they have discovered a vocation for the ghetto in L.A.’s new ‘world city’ economy’ (309).

I doubt many people are asking themselves, where is the church in all of this political economy? But Davis argues they should be, New Confessions helps explain why, through outlining the power wielded by the Catholic Church. An important consideration in a city that has such a large population of latinos (though more are deserting traditional Catholicism for more charismatic forms), apart from the church’s own substantial holdings in real estate and over 15,000 employees. Apart from the split within the church itself between support of liberation theology and struggle with the poor for their rights as against the more powerful faction (and the faction in power) which has supported the status quo and the establishment, clamping down on its own ranks. Another layer of politics, and an important one.

The book ends with Junkyard of Dreams, a fascinating look at the suburb of Fontana, once billed as a small farmer’s Eden, until the chicken farms and orchards were turned into a Steelmaking company town. Industry has left but the town still hangs on, it even spawned the Hell’s Angels. Here, Davis states, Soja’s description’s of L.A.’s ‘depthless present’ are undone as the past is never fully erased (376). Fontana is where the KKK rode, where activist O’Day Short was murdered with his young family in a fire for attempting to breach the color line. The home of Kaiser steel, long since converted into the health care giant. The attempt to redevelop the town, which forced locals out and brought angry KKK members back out onto the streets. The bubble rose brightly for a time, but then burst. These last two chapters make this book feel as much a mosaic as Soja could ask for though, an attempt to tell a number of widely disparate stories to give some idea of the whole sprawling extraordinary conglomeration that is L.A.

There is no conclusion. I hate writing them myself, so I applaud this really. Yet part of me wants a reassembling of all of these parts, a reminder of the argument that ties them all together. This is all about globalization, right? But it doesn’t feel that way. It is more, way more, and also maybe a little less.

So I go back to the newest preface, as this reprint is ten years on from the original. He looks at the major characteristics and reasons for pessimism for L.A.’s future, I think above all this book is one of pessimism, and that is perhaps my greatest critique. Having lived and fought there for so many years, it is a bleak place that will break your heart into pieces. At the same time, the activism that is happening there is some of the most interesting and most vibrant I have seen anywhere, it certainly outstrips anything happening in the UK, I can’t even describe by how much. He does mention it, but an aside can’t do justice to it. Still, all of these troubling facts are certainly true:

1. Regional (im)mobility – new development and no adequate infrastructure

2. Branchville – all those mega-corporations are still headquartered elsewhere

3. Manufacturing decline – by 1990 most of the fordist industry that once provided thousands of good jobs were all gone, and many of the light industrial jobs that had replaced them in the 1980s were also going to maquiladoras and China. California’s military-industrial economy had once brought in the Federal dollars, but now LA is like Detroit and other struggling cities, paying more in taxes than they get back from the federal government.

4. Growing inequality – hospitals are shutting down, the educational system isn’t working, real household incomes are falling and ‘Luxury lifestyles are subsidized, as it were, on both ends: by a seemingly infinite supply of cheap service labor, and by the tax advantages that accrue to real-estate and sumptuary consumption’ (xiv)

5. Terminal suburbs—‘Fifteen years ago it was apparent that residential development had reached the last frontier of available land within an hour of the coast…The dirt is almost gone.’ (xiv-xv)

6. Spurning the Peacemakers—‘Homicide is still the largest cause of death for children under eighteen in Los Angeles County’ (xv)

The only optimism? (7) A City of Organizers, and it is that. There’s some amazing stuff going on in L.A.
Profile Image for Malcolm.
1,720 reviews418 followers
August 6, 2011
Mike Davis a scarily good – he's a top notch historian, a fine scholar and a political activist. His analysis of LA in City of Quartz is excellent – he unpacks the political economy of the sprawling suburban mass that takes up so much of southern California and influences so much of the world by delving into the lives, the influences, the cultural and economic existence that is the past and present LA. As one who avoids the place like the plague, Davis is one of the few reasons why I'd go: he makes me want to see, and at the same time points to world beneath the glitz.
526 reviews132 followers
June 5, 2018
When I first read this book, shortly after it appeared in 1990, I told everyone: this is that rare book that will still be read for insight and fun in a hundred years. Rereading it now, nearly three decades later, I feel more convinced than ever that this prediction will be fulfilled.

Rereading this book has been a revelation. When I first read it in college, it seemed a spooky analytic apparition, explaining with hallucinogenic precision the 1980s Los Angeles I had grown up in, including the strong sense that everyone I knew there shared that there was nothing for it but eventually a city this corrupt had to expect to be BURNED DOWN. Then, a couple years later, when the Rodney King riots exploded in reaction to the violent repression of the LAPD, as the new video sousveillance turned the panopticon Davis had so acutely described back against the agencies of racist law enforcement, the book went from merely analytically profound and amusingly written to something more like a prophetic jeremiad.

Beyond my judgments of the literary and analytic merits of the book, it is also somewhat depressing for me personally to realize how utterly my own political and social vision has been spellbound by this text -- though it difficult for me to assess how much of my shared vision comes directly from this text, as opposed to having grown up in the world that the book describes. However that might be disentangled, the insights about the production of defensive space, about the zones of autonomy for the rich and the poor, about the privatization of public goods, about cyberpunk urban sensibility, about the noir fascination with the louche, about how the meaning of power can only be discovered by examining the deviant resistances, about the rhetorical tic of using transposed historical metaphors (especially from the French revolutionary tradition) to illuminate the contemporary, about the confidence that all hegemonies are failed and fractured, about disgust at elite toleration of social abjection and exclusion, and about the sense that deployed capital in the last instance determines social relations... I don't know whether I learned it here or whether it grew out of the crabgrass that Davis and I shared, but all of these instincts are already here, fully formed.

Finally, the new preface (from 2006) is itself an interesting document, one which reframes the argument of the 1990 book as really being about the differentiated impact of globalization (a term which had only begun its upward march at the time of original publication) on different parts of the city. Which is correct, but that was pretty buried background in the original text, mostly nodded to with allusions to foreign capital funding the rebuilding of downtown, the changing structure of the industrial manufacturing base of the city, and of course the play of immigrants. Bring that into the foreground significantly alters the narrative, suggesting that the villains of the book -- the downtown boosters and westside machers -- were themselves less instrumental than the massive forces of which they were merely the vehicles.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,487 reviews221 followers
May 4, 2012
What is it that turns smart people into Marxists?

I cannot write this review without prefacing the perspective that I come from: I'm from LA, a member of a West Side Jewish family involved in real estate development, and these days a grad student in science and technology studies. What I was interested in was what Los Angeles means; is it the American dream or the American nightmare? Davis almost gets there, but instead gets stuck reproducing the shibboleths of political economy.

Davis chronicles the struggles of various LA power centers: the downtown establishment against the Westside insurgency; boosters against noir exiles; white and black; police and gangs; factions within the catholic church. But while he starts from a fascinating premise the LA is somehow a uniquely post-modern city, he quickly becomes embroiled in standard narratives about oppressed minorities struggling against fascist power structures. I don't disagree with him here, LA is a racist and oppressive city, and was more so in the late 80s when this book was researched, but saying so isn't particularly interesting. I enjoyed the chapters on noir and police brutality, and a glimpse into the hidden workings of the Catholic church, but Davis spent so much time look for the periphery that he misses the centers of power lie the LA Times, the County Board of Supervisors, Home Owners Associations, or transit planning (these are centers he himself brings up, and then glosses over in favor of community organizers and unions).

This isn't the worst book ever, and it's actually a fun read for Marxist geography, but it's not the LA that I know, (development, freeways, Hollywood, Judaism, the West Side, and The Valley), and it's not the "real LA" either, whatever that is.
Profile Image for Adora.
Author 6 books28 followers
May 21, 2020
Thematically sprawling, thought-provoking (often outraging - against forms of oppression built into urban space, police brutality, racist violence, & the Man), and at times oddly entertaining. e.g., in describing anti-homeless design of outdoor elements in cities (hostile architecture/deterrents) Davis writes, "Although no one in Los Angeles has yet proposed adding cyanide to garbage, as happened in Phoenix a few years back, one popular seafood restaurant has spent $12,000 to build the ultimate bag lady-proof trash cage: made of three-quarter inch steel rod with alloy locks and vicious outturned spikes to safeguard priceless moldering fish heads and stale french fries."

I appreciated the consistent strains of both contempt for those who use their power to further crush the destitute beneath their boots (NIMBY city councilmembers, racist LAPD, and Nancy Reagan all get some shoutouts), along w/ strongly implied faith in the humanity and possibility for redemption of all (esp those groups most written off by society - gang members, unhoused folks, etc). His writing on urban life made me think a lot about who our cities are built for and why. Do we want more fortresses for the rich, policing of the poor, and quasi-public spaces that only open if your wallet is? I hope not, but Davis wrote this in 1990 and the issues remain relevant now.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,989 reviews699 followers
November 10, 2008
This is the sort of book I recommend to friends when they ask me about why I'm interested in geography as a discipline. Davis maintains theoretical rigor while still presenting us with a readable, even journalistic account of the postmodern city. My sole major reservation is that Davis seems excessively pessimistic. While the postmodern city is indeed a fucked up environment, Davis really does ignore a lot of the opportunities for subversion that it offers, even as it tries to oppress us.
16 reviews2 followers
June 27, 2008
Mike Davis is from Bostonia. It's a community totally forgotten now but if you must know it was out in El Cajon, CA on the way to Lakeside. It had an awesome swapmeet where I spent a month of Sundays and my dad was a patron of the barbershop there. I like to think that Davis and I see things the same way becuase of that. He's a working class scholar (yeah, I know he was faculty at UCI and has a house in Hawaii) with a keen eye for all the layers of life in a city, especially the underclass. Utterly fascinating, this book has influenced my own work and life so much. It's social history, architecture, criminology, the personal is political is where you live and lay your head and where you come from and don't you know it's all connected. Some factual inconsistencies have come to light and Davis' other work (I've read it all) doesn't do much for me at all, but this book is amazing.
Profile Image for Ben.
816 reviews49 followers
February 5, 2023
"Los Angeles - far more than New York, Paris or Tokyo - polarizes debate: it is the terrain and subject of fierce ideological struggle."

Mike Davis's City of Quartz, provides a very detailed, if often rambling, history of the City of Los Angeles, from its early farming days when the arid desert land was essentially useless and one could buy all the land in Los Angeles County (adjusted for today's dollars) for less than Jeff Bezos paid for his recently acquired Beverly Hills mansion to it's rapid expansion - detailing the city's nimbyism, political dealings, real estate speculation, racism and so much more.

Having lived in Los Angeles for 10 years I read the book with avidity, a city that has things about it which I like, but many more things that I loathe.

"Los Angeles," Davis writes, "is . . . a stand-in for capitalism in general. The world-historical significance - and oddity - of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism. The same place, as Brecht noted [in Blakean fashion], symbolized both heaven and hell." Certainly seeing Los Angeles as a heaven or a hell is influenced by one's social class standing, race and ethnicity; but one's cultural lens also plays a role here - the vapidity and one-dimensionalism of Los Angeles culture made it hated by many European intellectual ex-pats in the post-war years (who left Los Angeles as quickly as possible for New York or to go back to Europe). It is a city with little or no respect for its history - it does an appalling job of preservation, where plans are always in the works for the next best thing, often the next more lucrative thing.

It's a city, like many large cities in the world, where there is a lot of wealth concentrated in very few hands and where those who own land of worth have a considerable influence in future development plans, even when such plans come at the expense of Angelenos as a whole; public transportation plans thwarted because rich neighborhoods don't want metro stops near their homes, parking restrictions in wealthy neighborhoods, the ever-growing homeless population shuffled around here and there without ever addressing the root problems of homelessness.

Davis, who grew up in nearby Fontana and spent most of his life in Southern California until his recent death, writes with a fiery prose, which makes evident that it is a subject he cares deeply about. There are two main ways one can love their hometown (or country) - by blindly supporting it without question through all of its follies or by questioning it and continuously challenging it because one loves it and knows it can be better. Davis, like a Pete Seeger type figure, falls into the latter camp. What he lacks in organization in this work, he makes up for in his passion for the subject, his broad base of knowledge, and for his deep humanism, qualities sorely lacking in the world. Though he left this world in October 2022, his writing lives on and in this there is hope.
Profile Image for Andrew.
361 reviews11 followers
September 18, 2011
I've been interested in reading more about the history of Los Angeles since having read Lou Cannon's Official Negligence, a book that's rich with L.A. history. City Of Quartz seemed as good a place to start as any. The first few chapters, which deal with the founding movements and philosophical ideas (e.g. Socialism, Boosterism, and the obsession with "Mission" culture) that form the roots of much of L.A.'s gestalt, were fascinating, and seem to hold the polemic to at least a somewhat reasonable level. The chapter "Sunshine Or Noir?" in particular, is something of a masterpiece, and the crowning achievement of this book.

The subsequent chapters are a bit dicier, however. "Power Lines" and "Homground Revolution" are worth reading, though the massive cornucopious ocean of minutiae in these chapters does get a bit mind-numbiing. The leftist polemic begins to swallow the book whole, with terms like "holocaust" and "My Lai" tossed about, by the time we get to "Fortress L.A." and "The Hammer And The Rock". The police are invariably the villains, and the street gangs the victims. The lionization of street gangs, especially The Crips, is especially disturbing. I'm not arguing with the facts so much as the extreme bias, which draws the tensions in L.A. during this period in strictly black-and-white terms, in which law enforcement, and citizens who are justifiably a little freaked out about crime, are caricatured as bogeymen. It's a shame that Davis gets so off the rails, because he has legitimate things to say about the militarization of the LAPD and the creeping tyranny that often come with an overemphasis on security, but his points get lost in the storm of polemic.

I found the chapter dealing with the Catholic Church nearly unreadable, but the final chapter, "Junkyard Of Dreams", provides a useful illustrative example of what can happen when a municipal area (Fontana, in this case) gets caught between the various forces of commerce.

So, for all of its flaws, CoQ is worth looking at, though at times should be taken with a grain of salt. And if you want a good time capsule of the way that L.A. was seen in the pop culture zeitgeist of 1990, this book will take you there.

Profile Image for Lily.
67 reviews
April 6, 2010
This book made me realize how difficult reading can be when you don't already have a lot of the concepts in your head / aren't used to thinking about such things. However if I *were* thinking about such things I'd find it really rewarding to see all of them referenced. Really high density of proper nouns. I used wikipedia, or just agreed to have a less rich understanding of what was going on. In fact I think I used just enough google to get by. Anyway now I know that LA was built up on real estate speculation, once around 1880s (I think, not looking it up) with people coming in from the midwest, and again in the 1980s from Japanese investment. I also learned the word antipode, which this book loves, and first used to describe the sunshine/ noir images of LA, with noir being the backlash to the myth/ fantasy sold of LA. I wish the whole book were about the sunshine myth. The chapter about conflict between developers and homeowners was interesting, I previously hadn't thought about that at all. I did have some whiff of it from when my town tried to mandate that everyone's christmas lights be white, no colored or big bulbs or tacky blowup santas and lawn ornaments. And more recently a big to do about a Dunkin Donuts being built on Main Street and what it would look like. It looks very nice. Like a house. What else. A lot of the chapters by the end just seemed like random subjects, all of which I guess were central ideas pertaining to the city-- the Catholic church, a steel town called Fontana, some other stuff. None of which I had any idea about before. So it was fun to find out about it, and at some point I want to read this book's New York corollary.
Profile Image for Peter Landau.
895 reviews55 followers
October 21, 2015
It feels like Mike Davis is screaming at you throughout the 400 pages of CITY OF QUARTZ: EXCAVATING THE FUTURE IN LOS ANGELES. He’s mad and full of righteous indignation. Los Angeles will do that to you. A native, Davis sees how Los Angeles is the city of the 20th century: the vanguard of sprawl and land grabs, surveillance and the militarization of the police force, segregation and further disenfranchisement of immigrants, minorities and the poor. The book opens at the turn of the last century, with the utopian launch of a socialist city in the desert, which collapses under the dual fronts of restricted water rights and a smear campaign by the Los Angeles Times. It’s all downhill from there. Davis details the secret history of a Los Angeles that has become a brand for developers around the globe. The book was written 25 years ago and Davis is still screaming. Has anyone listened? His voice may be hoarse but it should be heard.
Profile Image for J.
730 reviews437 followers
October 27, 2010
I found this really difficult to get through. While Davis's approach is very wide ranging and comprehensive, I often found myself struggling to keep up with all of the historical examples and various people mentioned in this account. Having never been there myself and knowing next to nothing about the area's history, I often felt myself overwhelmed, struggling to keep track of the various people and institutions that helped shape such a fractured, peculiarly American locale. I think it would have helped if I'd read a more general history of the region first before diving into something this intricately informed about its subject.
Profile Image for Nathan Mabry.
11 reviews
June 12, 2017
-Most depressing view of LA that I've ever been witness to. (but, may have been needed)
-Goes on at length (ad nauseum) about power structure and it's relation to property values.
-HATES Frank Gehry
-Mr. Davis offers no real solutions to problems presented in examples.
-Overall: Great book for facts and overall pictures of where power comes from in LA (in a historical sense). However, you may have to buy a ticket to Disneyland or head to the beach after finishing this piece of work due to the massive amount of depression/hopelessness you may feel towards the City of Angels and it's Mike Davis Future.
Profile Image for Jennifer Ozawa.
152 reviews67 followers
January 9, 2018
The chapters about the Catholic Church and Fontana are beautifully written. I’ve had a fascination with Los Angeles for a long time. This isn’t a history of the area as much as a discussion of the main issues facing the region and how they came to be.
5 reviews
March 15, 2023
3.5 rounded up. singular and idiosyncratic. I understand why this book is so revered, Davis is a great writer. some minor gripes and I didn’t like the ending. ultimately the main shortcoming of this ‘people’s history of LA’ is one that it couldn’t help: it was written before 1992.
10 reviews
September 23, 2020
City of Quartz by Mike Davis is a history and analysis of the forces that shaped Los Angeles. Although the book was published in 1990, much of it remains relevant today.

My strongest endorsement for this book is that after reading it, I see my city totally differently. I don't mean that in an abstract sense. I mean literally, while driving last week, I noticed aspects of the physical environment I had never noticed before. (Davis has a sharp eye for irony, and if you enjoy his essay on urban design, check out "Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture," a 2017 essay from Current Affairs magazine.) Another highlight was the devastating essay on the LAPD, which characterizes the police as a violent occupying force, and is credited with predicting the 1992 uprisings.

Davis divides the book into a prologue and 7 essays. These could be read individually, but major themes, especially regarding real estate and development, emerge more clearly when read as a single work.

The 7 essays are: (1) Sunshine or Noir?, which examines the mythification of the city, (2) Power Lines, which traces the complex web of people and institutions that rule LA, (3) Homegrown Revolution, which outlines how homeowner's associations control land use, (4) Fortress LA, which covers the role that architecture plays in policing boundaries, (5) The Hammer and The Rock, a takedown of the LAPD, (6) New Confessions, which examines the tentacles of the Catholic church, and (7) Junkyard of Dreams, an elegy for the suburb of Fontana.

Admittedly, the writing is dense. Some sections are unnecessarily academic. I wish that the photos, which are excellent, were printed in higher resolution. There is a long section on City Council alliances in the 1980s that is obviously much less relevant now than it was 30 years ago. Regardless, this book changed the way I see my city, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the dark side of Los Angeles.
Profile Image for Phillip.
382 reviews
August 5, 2008
As a native of Los Angeles, I really enjoyed reading this great history on that city - which I have always had an intense love/hate relationship with. At times I think of it as the world's largest ashtray - other times I am struck by the physical beauty and the feeling I get when I'm there, (which is largely nostalgic these days).

But Davis starts in the days when LA was little more than Mexican farmland and deconstructs the political history of the place - revealing the east side - west side rivalries, intrigue among scientologists, the imperialist architecture of the barrios, and construction of prisons, among many other topics. Highly recommended for anyone desiring to examine the extremes in society, politics and culture that inhabit this enormous west-coast city.
Profile Image for Jason.
28 reviews59 followers
April 20, 2008
Mike Davis is a mental giant. I knew next to nothing about Los Angeles until I dove into this treasure trove of information revealing the shaddy history and bleak future of the City of Quartz. For me, Davis is almost too clever and at times he is hard to follow, but that is why I like his work. Check out how he traces the rise of gangs in Los Angeles after the blue-collar, industrial jobs bailed out in the 1960s. Must read if you consider LA home.
Profile Image for Mickey Dubs.
168 reviews
May 3, 2022
Davis analyses the minutae of Los Angeles city politics and its interactions with various interest groups from homeowners associations, the LAPD, architects, corporate raiders of old Fordist industries, powerful family dynasties, environmentalists, and the Catholic Church that moulded LA into an anti-poor urban hellscape.

Bit like the Romford Recorder.
Profile Image for Emmanuel Garcia.
15 reviews
March 12, 2017
An amazing overview of the racial and economic issues that has shaped Los Angeles over the last 150 years. This book placed many of the city's peculiarities into context.

Amazing book.
Profile Image for J.
207 reviews19 followers
April 28, 2021
DNF baby! Bye Mike Davis ! You annoy me !
Profile Image for Alex Gruenenfelder.
346 reviews3 followers
November 28, 2022
The cranes in the sky will tell you who truly runs Los Angeles: that is the basic premise of this incredible cultural tome. Recommended to me by a very intelligent family friend, but popular among local political nerds for good reason, this is a Southern California odyssey through a very wide range of topics. And while it has a definite socialist bent, anyone who loves history, politics, and architecture will enjoy this.

The picture this book paints is not always a pretty one. The violence that it describes in Los Angeles in the twentieth century is worse than the Troubles in Ireland, the systemic racism on par with the American South, and the corruption the same as notorious Chicago. This book was recommended to me to explore the dominant political power of developers, but it is willing to tear apart every side and their hypocrisies in its pursuit of truth.

One thing I loved about this book is that it is not always super targeted. It is not content with the city limits of Los Angeles, dissecting the smaller incorporated cities in the county where homeowner interest groups held a majority of power. It even leaves the county behind as it flies all the way out to Fontana and the desert beyond the county. This is a broad history text, brought to life with vivid descriptions and narratives.

At its core, this is a book about power. Whether that's corporate power, political power, or the power of social justice, it transcends justice and centuries in our coastal homeland. This book may be aging, and its author now deceased, but its content and themes are as relevant as ever. If you want to explore the intellectual culture of Los Angeles, the kind long denied by writers from places like New York, this book will make you gleeful as it deconstructs our city's myths.
Profile Image for Andrew Morin.
23 reviews1 follower
September 10, 2022
Broadly interesting to me. Davis sketches several interesting portraits of Los Angeles responding to influxes of capital, people, and ideas throughout its history and evolving in response. This is most interesting when he highlights divisions and coalitions--Westsider vs. Downtown, Valley homeowners vs. developers.

At times hard to penetrate, with quick successions of names and concepts that are only briefly against. The relentless pessimism also gets tiring at times, with the continual dynamism of the city in question seemingly leading straight downhill from Davis' 1990 perspective. The endless menace of Japanese capital and projections for permanent dominance of Anglo political power over minority groups felt a little played out by the end of the book.

Additionally, it did feel a little disjointed. The thematic divisions of the chapters were mostly comprehensible, though the chronological narrative of each suffered at times. I also do not fully understand the decision to move 50 miles east for the last, long chapter on the farms and steel mill of Fontana. While interesting, it seemed pretty distant from the broader picture painted of Los Angeles.

Still, pretty interesting overall.

Also, really would have appreciated more maps.
Profile Image for Camille.
128 reviews18 followers
August 22, 2021
Un travail rare, qui combine à la fois sociologie urbaine et géographie, histoire et histoire des idées. Mike Davis revient sur l'histoire de la cité des Anges depuis la fin du XIXème siècle, une histoire faite de spéculateurs fonciers, de racisme, et d'urbanisation à outrance. Los Angeles, de ville pour ainsi dire sans grand intérêt devient une métropole tentaculaire, qui matérialise la lutte des classes (je veux dire par là via l'architecture et le mobilier urbain, notamment le mobilier dit "anti SDF"). Le chapitre qui m'a le plus marqué est consacré à la militarisation de la police de Los Angeles notamment suite aux "émeutes" (Davis, à l'image des Black Panthers préfère le terme de rébellion) de Watts.
Pour Davis Los Angeles est le prototype de la ville du futur, un futur qui n'a rien de particulièrement joyeux, puisqu'il est caractérisé par les pauvres (c'est à dire les latinos et les Noirs) parqués dans des ghettos, soumis au harcèlement policier constant, et par les plus aisés (notons que la classe moyenne tendait à l'époque de l'écriture du livre, à disparaître) qui vivent dans des véritables forteresses urbaines, avec milice privé et des murs de "protection" à la clé.
33 reviews1 follower
October 14, 2021
Pros: I understand Los Angeles and how it got to be this way 1000x better now

Cons: I understand Los Angeles and how it got to be this way 1000x better now
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