Mike Davis' 1990 attack on the rampant privatization and gated-community urbanism of Southern Calfornia -- what he calls the region's "spatial apartheid" -- is overwritten and shamelessly hyperbolic. It is prone to dark generalization and knee-jerk far-leftism (and I say that last part as somebody who grew up in Berkeley and recognizes knee-jerk far-leftism when he spies it). It is in desperate need of editing and -- as many have pointed out in the two decades since it appeared -- fact-checking. Its view of Los Angeles is bleak where it is not charred, sour where it is not curdled. Many of its sentences are so densely packed with self-regard and shadowy foreboding that they can be tough to pry open and fully understand.
Here's a (perhaps unusually turgid) sample from Chapter 2, "Power Lines": "In the genealogy that follows, I sketch a generational narrative of power elites framed within a tripartite periodization according to historically dominant modes of land development.... In this first century of Anglo rule, development remained fundamentally latifundian and ruling strata were organized as speculative land monopolies whose ultimate incarnation was the militarized power structure."
As Bryce Nelson put it in reviewing the 462-page book for the New York Times, "It's all a bit much."
And yet for all its polemicism,"City of Quartz," the 12th title in our Reading L.A. series, is without question the most significant book on Los Angeles urbanism to appear since Reyner Banham's "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies" was published in 1971. It earns its reputation as one of the three most important treatments of that subject ever written, joining "Four Ecologies" and Carey McWilliams' 1946 book "Southern California: An Island on the Land." Though Davis' "Ecology of Fear," which appeared in 1999 and explored the inseparable links between Southern California and natural disaster, was a surprisingly potent follow-up, no book about Los Angeles since "Quartz" has mattered as much.