Descending over the San Gabriel mountains into LAX, Los Angeles, the gray rolling neighborhoods unfurling into the distant pillars of downtown leaping out of its famous smog, one can easily see the fortress narrative that Mike Davis argues for in City of Quartz. A city that has been thoroughly converted into a factory that dumps money taken from exterior neighborhoods, and uses them to build grand monuments downtown. One could compare the concrete plazas of Downtown LA and the Sony Center dominated Postdamer Platz and see little difference.
Both stolid markers of their city’s presence. These places seem to be modern appropriations of the boulevard. Seemingly places that would allow for the experience of spectacle for all involved, but then one looks at the doors of the Sony Center, the homeless proof benches of LA parks, and especially the woeful public transport of LA. Is this the modern square, the interstitial boulevards of Haussmann Paris, or the achievement of profit over people? Maybe both.
The boulevards, for all their exposure of the vagaries of urban life, were built first for military control. Davis certainly considers that, and while not being explicitly modernist in his worldview, he views LA as the product of a thousand simulations, while the real Los Angeles, a place where“the street cultures rub together in the right way, [to] emit a certain kind of beauty,” remains locked away by the pharonic dedication to downtown 1 Davis’ book is primarily an exploration of the conditions that led to this hash economic divide.
He first starts with an analysis of LA’s popular perceptions: from the booster’s and mercenaries who craft an attractive city of dreams; to the Noir writers and European expats who find LA a deracinated wasteland of anti collectivist methods. Methods like an emphasis on the house over the apartment building, the necessity of cars, and a seemingly overwhelming reliance on outside sources for its culture. Though the Noir writers also find fault with the immense studio apparatus that sustains Hollywood.
He refers to Noir as a method for the cynical exploration of America’s underbelly. He references films like The Maltese Falcon, and seminal Nathaniel West novel Day of the Locust as examples But he also dissects objects like the Getty Endowment as emblematic of LA as utopia. Places where intersection of money and art produce great beauty, even, like the Haussmanninization of Paris, are products of exploitation according to Davis. Davis concludes that the modern LA myth has emerged out of a fear of the city itself. Namely, all it represents: the excess, the sprawl, the city as actor, and an ever looming fear of a elemental breakdown (be that abstract, or an earthquake).
Indeed, the final group Davis describes are the mercenaries. These are outsider who are contracted by the LA establishment to create and foster an LA culture. One could construe this as a form of ‘getting there’. Of enacting a grand plan of city building. LA’s pursuit of urban ideal is direct antithesis to what it wants to be, and this drive towards a city on a hill is rooted in LA’s lines of power. The second chapter attempts to chart a political history of LA.
From the prospectors and water surveyors to the LA Times dominated machine of the late 20th century, to the Fortifying of Downtown LA by the Thomas Bradley Administration. An administration that Davis accuses of bearing a false promise of racial bipartisanship— which in the wake of the King Riots seems to bear fruit. The third chapter is titled Homegrown Revolution and details the suburban efforts to enact a slow growth movement against the urbanization of the LA suburbs3. He talks about Suburban Separatists who unite in defense against the encroachment of the LA machine.
The reason they united was due to the Bradley Administration’s Growth Plan. This generically named plan’s objective was to Which leads to the fourth and most fascinating portion of Davis’ book, Fortress LA. This section details the increasing LA’s resources Downtown. As well as the fertilization of militaristic aesthetics. Which includes walled communities, militarized police, gated parking garages, micro police stations within poor neighborhoods’ strip malls. This is where the fortress comes, which I view as the establishment (i. e. the monied interests) attempting to master the sublimation that Marx foretold.
In fear of a city that has long since outgrown any sort of cultural uniformity, these actions were attempt to graft a monoculture onto a collage like sprawl of Latinos, African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Chinese, and too many more to mention. Davis concludes his study with a look at Fontana Valley. He calls it the Junkyard of Dreams— a place that foretells the future of LA in that it is the city’s discard pile. A wasteland of deferred dreams and forgotten souls. It chronicles the rise and fall of Fontana from AB Miller’s agricultural dream, to Henry Kaiser’s steel town, and finally to the present day dilapidated husk on the edge of LA.
Davis implies this to be a possible fate of LA. One where the post industrial decay has taken hold, and the dream, both of the establishment and the working class, has long since dried up, leaving a rusty pile of girders and rotting houses. He calls forth imagery of discarded amusement parks of the pre-Disney days, and ends his conclusion by emphaising the emphermal nature of LA culture. He posits that the vast trash of the past found in Fontana would be akin to finding the New York City Public Library’s Lions amid the Fresh Kills Landfill.
In this way he frames his whole narrative as a cultural battle between the actual Los Angeles, the multicultural sprawl, and the Fortress City of the establishment. The ebb and flow of Baudelairean modernisim against the planned labyrinth of the foreign investor and their sympathetic mayoral ilk. One can once again look to Postdamer Platz, and the boulevards of Paris: order imposed upon the chaotic systems of the populace, the guts of a city dragged from a thundering belly and frozen in place and gilded by the green gloved fist of the upper class.
Not that chaos is the highest state of reality— to say that would be nihilistic— but the denial of reality that emanates through the Fortress LA stylings of the late 80s and 90s My own experience in LA is limited to a three hour layover in the dusty innards of LAX (it was under renovation at the time), but its end result— drinking a milkshake in a restaurant designed to evoke the conformity of 50s suburbia— does well as a microcosm of Davis’ theories on LA’s manufactured culture.
Sipping on the sucrotic, possibly dairy, mixture staring at the shuffle of planes ferrying tourists, businessmen, both groups foreign and domestic, but never without wallets; many with teeth bleached and smile practiced, off to find a job among the dream factory. Perhaps, as Davis suggests, this is a manufactured image designed to ensnare money in service of a kingmaking industry, or maybe that’s just the red talking.