As L.A. Dying

Ecology of Fear
Metropolitan Books; 484 pages; $25

If forewarned is forearmed, no other American city seems as likely to survive apocalypse as the City of Angels. In disaster movies, theme-park thrill rides, and dystopian science-fiction novels, Los Angeles has been dying for so long now, and in so many different, spectacular ways, that its seemingly inevitable destruction has become a source of civic pride. Riven by earthquakes, scourged by fire and lava, and overrun by mobs and monsters, it has the self-image of a masochistic Sodom – a city so uniquely damned that it keeps coming back for more punishment, more pain, disdaining the petty love taps of outraged Heaven and begging for a solid knockout punch. A low-budget, indie Armageddon won’t do; only a blockbuster final judgment complete with stars and special effects will satisfy.

Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear suggests that Angelenos will get their wish, but that the eruption of glowing brimstone that seems built in to the city’s spiritual infrastructure as well as its physical setting will not fall equally on the rich and poor. Like his earlier City of Quartz (an unlikely steady-seller about the fortification of everyday life and the arms race of urban class warfare), the book is a Jeremiad with footnotes, a paranoid sermon with facts and figures, only this time the battle lines aren’t purely social but environmental. L.A., for Davis, is designed for doom, a back-engineered Atlantis or Pompeii. Deficit-financed down to its foundations by what Davis characterizes as “a seismic regional debt,” it’s built not only on sand but from sand. The cheap concrete shells that shelter its masses are nothing but communal sarcophagi posing temporarily as architecture. It’s only a matter of time until they topple.

The puzzle at the heart of Davis’s diatribe – why would a city hard-wire itself to crash? – is cleared up page by page and chapter by chapter until it’s not a mystery at all but a perversely logical imperative. The original sins are arrogance and greed, and the fault lines of bad karma spread from there: “If there has been a single, fatal flaw in the design of Southern California as a civilization, it has been the decision to base the safety of present and future generations almost entirely upon short-sighted extrapolations from the disaster record of the past half-century.” In other words, the California Dream – patios on shifting tectonic plates, ocean-view decks with their stilts in hillside mud flows – amounts to a conscious misreading of the odds against its coming true. It’s as if New York City were to plan its transportation system to suit a perpetual snowy Sunday morning.

In his most persuasive, impassioned chapter, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” Davis makes a foray into history to show that lightning inevitably strikes twice in the same place. Indeed, that’s lightning’s nature. The seaside colony of movie people whose name is synonymous with carefree affluence sits at the mouth of an ecological dragon – a constellation of canyons and weather patterns that are bound to go off, over any extended period, with the regularity of a string of firecrackers. Worse, the sociology involved is even more combustible. Funded by private insurance and public assistance, rich residents with a private line to bank managers, governors, and presidents have rebuilt and rebuilt their firetrap castles into pyrotechnic palaces, squeezing out the open spaces and buffer zones that protect the whole region from total conflagration. Davis calls this “disaster amnesia” a “federally subsidized luxury” and, in the tone of an unrepentant Marxist without a tear to spare for the elite, paints bitter, Nathanael West–ish pictures of burned-out entertainers on the beach hugging their Oscars and precious purebred pets as squads of ex-cons dig trenches in the hillsides and Mexican maids run screaming from gleaming kitchens. Meanwhile, down in central Los Angeles, huddled immigrants perish by the dozens in fleabag tenements, their cries unheard. No helicopters spraying water for them and no condolences on White House stationery.

It’s not nature that’s the villain in Davis’s book but the developers who would capitalize on its graces – sunshine, sea breezes, and wide horizons – by willfully covering up its dangers. In the chapter “Our Secret Kansas,” Davis documents the incidence of savage, midwestern-style tornadoes in an area sold for its year-round mild weather to escapees from Topeka and Dubuque. Played down by local boosters as “freak windstorms” – their occurrence once officially suppressed by the government agencies charged with reporting them – the twisters are, in fact, routine, says Davis, the cyclonic upshot of the city’s positioning between coast and mountains. But for all his dialectical materialism and scientific savvy, Davis has a religious streak too. The wrath of God is real for him, apparently, and he isn’t afraid to sound like a mad prophet when he refuses to discount the idea that L.A. has somehow offended an angry deity in its quest to out-Eden Eden. Read between the lines of Davis’s book and what you hear is less secular critique, bolstered by cool reason and hard facts, than biblical trumpet call. L.A.’s rise is a travesty of Genesis, not the creation of life on earth but an incredible simulation – Disney trying to improve on Jehovah.

There’s something a little rabid about Davis; he seems to want Sin City to burn, not just expect it to. L.A.’s continued survival, one senses, galls him personally, and writing scenarios for its devastation appears to be his emotional substitute for getting to witness the firestorm firsthand. If so, he’s not alone, as his own book testifies. In his most engaging chapter, “The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles,” Davis collects, counts, and classifies his influences, from The Day of the Locust to Volcano. From what he confidently claims are “at least 138” movies and novels about the city’s fall, he comes up with a nightmarish spreadsheet that lists 49 nuclear holocausts, 28 earthquakes, and 10 invasions by “hordes” and “monsters,” to cite only the top four fancied threats. What’s behind all this ominous ill-wishing (besides the experience of real catastrophes) is “white fear of the dark races,” Davis alleges.

Disaster fiction is to racism what slasher movies are to sexism – a way to get off in the safety of one’s own home without the messiness of actual bloodletting. At least that’s Davis’s infectious conclusion. “After 1970, with the rise of a non-Anglo majority … the city turns from an endangered home into the Alien itself; and its destruction affords an illicit pleasure not always visible in previous annihilations.” Such an impressionistic axiom can’t be verified or proved, of course, but that’s its appeal and the secret of Davis’s power as a slightly crackpot urban historian. Under the dollar losses, the body counts, and the statistical projections of seismic drift and annual mean temperatures, the decline of L.A. is an all-too-human artwork, still in progress but perhaps nearing completion.

As L.A. Dying