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The Maps in Mike Davis’s Mind

Unfurling the Marxist Historian’s California

A man (Mike Davis) across Harbison Canyon, with the Laguna Mountains on the horizon
Mike Davis, looking across Harbison Canyon, with the Laguna Mountains on the horizon. Photo: Jonny Coleman and Molly Lambert.

In the fall of last year — aka The Before Times — Jonny Coleman and Molly Lambert drove down to San Diego to see Mike Davis, who graciously agreed to let us profile him on the condition we come down to visit him at his home of San Diego.

Mike Davis promises us a tour of San Diego’s strangest sights after we write him, introducing ourselves as a socialist couple from LA whose lives were changed by reading his books. Davis is the author of proto-doomer urban theory classics City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, whose vision of Southern California’s extremism feels more prescient than ever. Davis’s influence literally hangs in the air when we drive through a cloud of brown smoke down the 5 freeway from LA to San Diego several weeks into fire season. Throughout his work Davis has presented a people’s history of the Californian conflicts between humanity and the elements, and within the state’s heavily stratified class system. He is not a pessimist, as some have pegged him, but a materialist who states unpopular facts — like people shouldn’t be living in areas like Malibu, which are naturally designed to burn. He comes at California history with a naturalist’s perspective, love for the physical landscape itself, and contempt for those who pursue the folly of thinking they can outbuild nature somehow by spending endlessly.

Davis is a concrete realist socialist in an era of newfound leftist hope in America, and his influence cannot be overstated, especially on the West Coast. He scoffs at the claim he’s a genius at prediction — he does a deep historical analysis, and rightfully sees the cycles of repetition. He became known for doing this with his birthplace of Southern California, an area whose boosters would rather we forget the bloody, racist corners of its history.

Davis lived in LA during the 1965 Watts rebellion and saw that it was caused by a combination of police violence and institutionalized state racism. When he was writing City of Quartz in the late ’80s, he noted that both these factors were at an all-time high — causing some to claim he’d predicted the 1992 uprising that came a few years after he published. But Davis, a lifelong socialist, simply saw what others refused to see: people crushed at the bottom of the social structure in a wealthy city like LA, pushed to their limits and tortured for generations with state violence, will inevitably revolt. The mainstream has a way of catching up to Davis, eventually, after he’s moved on to a completely different idea.

Mike is getting his car ready when we pull up. He’s a spry man in his seventies, waiting for us outside his modest artist hilltop home where he lives with his wife and children, wearing a madras plaid shirt and flip flops. We had originally connected with Mike years ago, while investigating policing atrocities and privatization for the 1984 Olympics as part of our organizing work; Mike urged us to follow the Olympic money and, more importantly, the land around USC and the Community Redevelopment Agency. He had just become ill. After having his esophagus removed, his doctors have given him clearance to drive again.

Mike has returned to teaching to pay off the medical debts from his illness. He gives a friendly greeting and tells us what’s on the schedule, saying he’ll be taking us to see the Hells Angels, a utopian UFO cult, an area destroyed by fires, and the most dangerous community in America. We get in the car.

“I’ve been trying to emancipate myself from LA stuff.” Davis admits immediately. “We’ve lived [in San Diego] almost 20 years now. And I still have people who think I live in LA. Honestly, I’m not sure I could live in LA anymore.” He cites a lack of sentimentalism. “Every landmark and thing that was important to me in LA is now long gone.”

In LA in the 1960s, Davis briefly drove a Starline tour bus, antagonizing tourists by not knowing or caring where Hollywood’s stars actually lived. But when concerned with something he’s interested in, he’s a born tour guide. His storytelling style mimics his driving, winding around unexpected corners, circling and then coming back to a point. He talks like he writes — densely packed with historical details and fascinating throwaways, casually weaving them all together. His mind is overflowing with local lore and information about the terrain.

When we reach El Cajon, he pulls over and points at a red and white building with the Hells Angels logo painted out front. “I was born in Fontana,” he explains, “and that’s where the Hells Angels were founded right after the war.” He talks about the recent troubles of this particular chapter with indictments and drug cartels. “They used to have a bar there, too, the only quiet bar in town. No music.” Then he adds, “But the city managed to condemn it because it wasn’t earthquake proof — an argument you could make against half the buildings.”

Most of Davis’s stories end on a point about the landscape or land use, or on a punchline about how stupid and cruel human beings can be. He’s very funny, with a sort of brutal clarity. He’s warm despite his blunt, contrarian streak. He was, after all, a Red Diaper Baby in a region that is way more conservative than anyone from outside California knows. He generously shares information at every turn, about everything in sight, starting with the city of El Cajon.

“This is the poorest city in San Diego County,” Davis says, gesturing to the surroundings, “but it’s fascinating these days because Iraqis, largely Chaldeans but also Shiites and Sunnis and even Sunni Yazidis, live here. It’s the second biggest Iraqi population outside of Dearborn, Michigan. And they’ve remade the city, they really have. They have a cathedral here, a convent. They were pro-Republican until Trump started turning immigrants back.”

We park in the lot for a humble mini-mall, the unofficial State building of California. We’re outside Unarius, a UFO reincarnation new thought group without any of the dark apocalypticism or brainwashing you might associate with UFO cults like Heaven’s Gate. Unarius is an acronym for Universal Articulate Understanding of Science. Davis tells us the Unarians “believe there are 32 inhabited planets in the galaxy. And every year they have an event like a fair to welcome the visitors. They’re still waiting, 50 years later. But their beliefs are quite extraordinary, as you will see. They believe in harmony of all the worlds, all races, all people, and they’re kind of utopian socialists because they have these crystal cities powered by Tesla towers.” Ernest and Ruth Norman, who founded Unarius, were influenced by Marx, and didn’t consider their group a religion, as it’s non-hierarchical.

The chapel at Unarius. A blue hallway with classic statues adorning the wallas leading to the door to the chapel.
The chapel at Unarius Academy of Science (PHOTO: Jonny Coyle and Molly Lambert)

We bask in the benevolent folk art madness within, rococo on a tinsel budget. They know Davis here, and at his request the volunteer working today shows us the chapel, which resembles the room from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey if it were in Las Vegas. The chapel is painted with a fresco that, we’re told by the Unarian, was painted by a member who is the reincarnation of Vincent Van Gogh. Davis looks at a futuristic space car and muses on his own first automobile, “a ’50 Cadillac. And all of a sudden all the guys on the football team who hated my guts wanted to be my best friend… because of the backseat.” We get back on the road and Davis points out the tallest building, a large jail looming over El Cajon’s quaint arcaded streets.

The environs get gradually less urban and more rocky as we make our way further inland. Davis recounts his time in New Orleans after Katrina and touches upon what will become a familiar theme: that the bulk of recent environmental super-disasters like Katrina and the current fires in California are the result of human error and mismanagement, stemming from a willful human inability to react appropriately to the natural elements. Fittingly, we’re now deep in chaparral country, Davis pointing out manzanita trees and defensible, “fireproof” houses dotting the landscape, as he alludes to various fires in these hills’ smoky history. Areas like this represent a “kind of super-gentrification of wooded and chaparral areas, where fire is inevitable,” which could easily describe hundreds if not thousands of California communities.

The defensible house sticks out like a sore, ugly thumb, boasting corrugated little divots that are supposed to deter punishing hellfire, an attempt that seems risible even to laymen’s eyes. Davis laughs at the person with the supposedly fireproof house, saying they will be burned alive. The only foolproof way to escape a fire is to flee. This whole area burned in 2003 and was rebuilt, the houses bigger and more castle-like than before. Davis thinks rebuilding here is insane, as it will almost definitely burn again at some point. Why do people insist on rebuilding in these dangerous places, risking their lives for the sake of a view of the ocean? “There’s a major, irresistible force working to keep people in ignorance and it’s called the real estate industry. There’s now such enormous profits to be made from building in cheaper, high fire frequency areas that the developers and the realtors will always produce some reassurance that you needn’t worry about living here.”

As we climb a couple thousand feet up in these mountains, we’re constantly reminded of fire, whether from the site markers of previous ones or the municipal agencies clearing brush, trying to minimize the body count for the next one. “Right now there’s about 60–70,000 housing units [in the San Diego area] — all of them very upscale — projected to be built in the majority of fire hazard zones. After the fires at the beginning of the 21st century, a measure was put on the ballot to raise taxes to enhance the number of firefighters and equipment. It was voted down. So this is basically a civilization on a suicide mission because of its failure to understand what is a familiar natural process to people who live in other parts of the world.”

Davis then takes us to “the most dangerous community in America,” which turns out to be a fancy enclave deep within these hills. It’s up a narrow one lane road, which makes it a deathtrap. And in California, it’s not just fires. “Few places in the world compete for the richness of possible earthquakes,” he elaborates. “Fire was never a big problem until suburbanization. Floods were.” Both were regarded with appropriate fear and acceptance by the indigenous people who originally inhabited California. The wildfires are a seasonal constant and have been going on for the land’s entire history. They are not some rarity newly caused by global warming.

Davis offers a warning about climate change fear-mongering that paints it as the only problem, not one in a series of interconnected issues, like failed public infrastructural systems and greedy developers, that implicate human beings for the increasing severity of disasters. “I also feel there’s a real problem with the emphasis on global warming,” he says carefully as we make our way down this dirt road. “Politicians in this country have learned to use global warming because it’s a popular progressive cause to deflect the conversation from land use and uncontrolled building in the housing markets.” He notes that the worst effects of climate change will hit poor communities the hardest. Rich areas built in high risk zones tend to receive the most immediate aid in every city, and Davis remarks on the new trend of rich people hiring private firefighting services, which he says he imagines will only grow.

For Davis, it’s all about land use. Regional land use regulations would stop communities from creating an entire state filled with peripheral deathtrap McMansions in places no human should build. The moment California really blew it, according to Davis, is when Governor Jerry Brown blew his campaign promise to regulate land use. “It was the single best opportunity to at least lay a foundation for planning. Of course the regional planning which California developers and realtors call communism is just ordinary common sense in some parts of the United States and even some parts of Canada.” He tells a story of a house in Ramona, California, that was saved from destruction long ago by an avocado grove, which burned instead. Such natural buffer zones could also help mitigate the cost of life. But when the land is this expensive, these choices are never made and corners are always cut.

California politics is still dominated by pseudo-progressive oligarchs in the mold of Jerry Brown: Eric Garcetti, Dianne Feinstein, Gavin Newsom, and Nancy Pelosi. All polished and moneyed technocrats who claim to care about climate change but take no practical measures against it, treating it as a convenient deus ex machina to invoke whenever politically convenient. “Newsom has started talking about how this global warming happening now will destroy us if we don’t do something. I agree,” Davis concedes. “But we have to make our full contribution to the global effort to reduce warming.” Without heeding these warnings, “the social cost will be enormous,” he laments.

Being a few thousand feet up also conjures personal memories. He’s always been deeply connected to the earth. “I’m fascinated by geology. My father loved rock hunting. My uncle who’s wealthier than us was always thinking to invest in mines in Baja California. I can’t tell you the number of times I was lowered by rope into some abandoned mine shaft as a kid.”

Harbison Canyon overlook - green shrubs sparsely cover a mountainous terrain.
(PHOTO: Jonny Coleman and Molly Lambert)

At the mountain’s peak we ask if Davis thinks there’s a possibility for real political change in LA, a city that boasts the most police killings and most people sleeping outside on a given night in America. His answer is, unsurprisingly, no. But when talk turns to the reinvigorated left in America, Davis is upbeat. “A few years before the [2016] Bernie Sanders campaign I was on the Bill Moyers show, advertised as ‘the last socialist in America.’ So when I woke up one morning and saw that there’s millions of young people who believe in and want socialism in some form, even if it’s not what I consider really as socialism… I mean, this is a miracle to me and remains so. Particularly as I’d spent years going back to at least the ’90s saying that Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights should be the basis for the construction of a mass left. What seemed entirely possible and compatible with capitalism in 1944 or for that matter 1964 now had phenomenal revolutionary resonance to it. Obviously I’m totally delighted by the turn of events. I got my wife to join DSA,” he says, adding, “My son is too far left for DSA.” He went on to express fear of the way in which leftist movements could be crushed by technology. Nothing ever really changes in California, but there is a current of history underneath that provides a framework.

LA Weekly once “made the mistake of calling me ‘LA’s prophet,’” Davis recalls, because he had predicted the ’92 LA Uprising. The secret to Davis’s clairvoyance: he talks to regular people. “The LA Times didn’t know anything about it and apparently no one knew at City Hall. But everyone on the street knew.” LA has become a news desert, relative to other mega American cities (though it’s the same story everywhere, as private equity guts outlets regardless of geography). Davis comments on the uselessness of print in LA. “Everyone expects the newspapers to function truly as an essential part of government, the Fourth Estate, to invigilate and monitor local government, monitor and uncover corruption, and accurately report news.” The LA Times, founded by a ruthless oligarch itself and now owned by a pharma billionaire, has always been unfit for the task, cosplaying objectivity while fundamentally representing real estate and policing interests. But now it’s the only game in town. “That means unbelievable shit can go on. There’s no investigative journalism now.” He talks about LA’s local government and how opaquely unaccountable to constituents they are. “By the early ’90s when I started working for the LA Weekly, there was no dedicated reporter whose beat was LA county government. And this was the largest local government of any kind in the United States. With incredible powers, it not only had legislative functions, but it also has executive and, to a degree, judicial functions.”

It took Davis a long time to discover that he was a capable writer. He didn’t go to university until he was 30, where he found his calling and fell deeply in love with research. “For an Irish-Catholic, I have a very Protestant work ethic and I see writing as a craft anybody can learn. But for me it was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life, and I had a whole systematic approach. I taught writing like you would do landscaping.” He buried himself in the stacks at UCLA. He would later go on to teach around the county and California. His process is pairing this deep drilling solitude of reading with going outside and talking to people.

He’s also extraordinarily disinterested with his own work’s legacy and immediately exhausted by a subject once a book project is completed. We arrive back at his home and sit in his kitchen chatting for several more hours, our brains filled past the saturation point with this knowledge that just seems to naturally pour out of the man. Gossip about an LA jazz musician and the granddaughter of a local oligarch bleeds into a story about William Mulholland, whom he praises for holding the entire map of LA’s precious water supply in his head. Davis also holds all kinds of maps in his head: fire maps, hydro-geographical maps, maps of migration, maps of banishment, maps of the old Central Avenue jazz scene in LA, maps of people, maps of the earth.

Davis is disinterested in amassing personal wealth or power. He’s self-deprecating and dismissive about his massive intellect in a way that feels unforced and preternaturally Southern Californian. He experienced the taste of real money only once, with a MacArthur Genius Grant, which he “blew on Anarchist posters,” displayed alongside incredible Mexican art in the house.

Chaparral near Harbison Canyon
Chaparral near Harbison Canyon (PHOTO: Jonny Coleman and Molly Lambert)

The history of California is not always visible, but it is ever-present. Each time fires ravage the overdeveloped hillsides and beaches, it is history claiming its due. There are no easy answers. Not everyone wants to hear the truth about California, a place shrouded in myth for profit, just like not everyone wants to face the global realities of climate change and human influence. “This is the thing,” he says in summation of California but also our current moment. “It used to take a long time before you could rewrite history. Now you can do it instantly, within an hour after it happens.” Mike Davis does not hoard or guard the history of California, like the water flowing underneath Los Angeles has been hoarded and guarded. He is recording it for himself and the rest of us.

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