Mike Davis' Planet of Slums

Interview with genius under San Diego's perfect sun.

San Diegan Mike Davis, author of eight nonfiction books and Planet of Slums, the ninth, comes on the line, voice weak from recent pneumonia. We launch in.

"You were educated...?"

"I went to UCLA. I started when I was 29, or 30, something like that."

Could I have heard right? "You started when you were about 29 or 30?"

"I went to school as a freshman. I worked [first] for about 10 or 12 years."

"Oh, so you went late in life?"

"Yeah."

"And you're described as an 'urban theorist.' I was wondering if you see yourself that way."

Mike Davis sounds impatient. "What does that mean?

"I don't know," I confess. "And you have quite a bundle of kids?"

"Not actually. I only have two two-year-olds here, twins, and then I have two older kids in Ireland. I spend time commuting between here and Dublin. Both my Irish kids are coming over in a couple of months."

"So you split your time between San Diego and Dublin?"

"Yeah."

"And your wife resides in which location?"

"She is here. Her name is Alessandra Moctezuma, and she runs the Gallery Studies Program at Mesa College. She is an artist."

"Uh-huh. What year were you officially declared a genius?"

"Excuse me?"

Mike Davis is mildly put out. But eight years ago he was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and an award of $315,000, which is often referred to as a "genius prize."

"In what year were you officially declared a genius? When did you get the MacArthur?"

"I don't remember. It was -- Jesus, when was it? -- in 1998."

"Was that around the time of City of Quartz being published?" A landmark book on Los Angeles, in which Davis predicted the L.A. riots that were to follow two years later.

"No, City of Quartz was in 1990, this would have been after The Ecology of Fear."

Of course. The riots were in '92. I run down the list of his titles chronologically: Prisoners of the American Dream, City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Magical Urbanism, Late Victorian Holocausts, Dead Cities, Under the Perfect Sun, and The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.

"And how do you explain why your range of interests is so wide? What connects the dots, what connects the subject matter in your writing?"

"Well, first of all, I went to college late and then mainly enjoyed the library in college. You know, I'm kind of a typical self-educated person. Of course, I've learned to write, and I tend to write about the things that I study. So each new interest usually produces some spin-off interest. For instance, I used the MacArthur fellowship money to take my kids all over the world. I took my son to Greenland, and then that ended up becoming a story, which ended up becoming a kid's novel. But I find it difficult to describe what I do. I work as a historian now, but I've taught in geography departments and in architecture schools, taught political science and political economy. So [the various themes of interest] have a kind of common thread, but it may be only visible to the author."

"What sort of work did you do before you went to school at the age of 29?"

"Initially I was involved in the civil rights movement in San Diego, in the early '60s. And I went to work for Students for a Democratic Society, at the national office in New York at the end of '64, and worked for SDS for a couple of years and then got married and worked for a while as a meat cutter with my father here, in San Diego. And then I went through a War on Poverty jobs scheme, the Teamster Opportunity Program in Pico Rivera, which trained heavy-duty truck drivers -- which was the best thing that ever happened to me (at least it was a helluva lot more fun than the MacArthur). And then I became a heavy-duty truck driver. Worked at that for about five or six years, then went to college. I lived in London from 1980 through 1986 or '87 and had worked in publishing [there] and was sick of intellectuals. I came back at the end of the '80s. I went back on the road, trucking, for almost a year and had a lot of fun but lost my shirt."

"Where did you work in publishing?"

"I worked for Verso in London. Verso Books is actually owned by the New Left Review, and I worked for the New Left Review and then for Verso. I've been associated with Verso since, oh, 1980-81. And I used to have a series at Verso, which I did with my best friend, Mike Sprinker, who was at Stony Brook. He died some years ago, and the series disappeared after his death. We did that for about a decade."

"When did you first meet Verso's former publisher, Colin Robinson?"

"I met Colin when he started working as sales manager for Verso, and that must have been '82 or something like that -- '83. So I've known Colin well over 20 years."

He is someone I know too. "Where is Colin now?"

"Back in New York and kind of looking at his options. He has some really interesting offers on the table."

"In publishing?"

"He may go back to Verso. Some complicated negotiation going on, but I was...I was pretty shocked by what happened at the New Press and still don't quite understand what went on. I mean, I wrote to André Schiffrin [proprietor of New Press, who let Colin go] and never got a response."

I glance down at my notes. "How did you come to do a book on avian flu?"

"It is actually a spin-off of larger interests, which are in this book that just came out, Planet of Slums. My intention was to sit down and try and read as much as I possibly could of this huge literature on contemporary urban poverty. And, of course, one of the issues is public health in today's megacities and slums. And I taught before on the history of infectious disease. I just got interested in the whole question of how you have slums which are growing so rapidly and teetering with poor sanitation, worse than anything that existed in the Victorian world. Much worse. I got interested in the ecology of disease. One thing or another led me to thinking about avian flu, and before I knew it, this turned into some columns and eventually into this short book."

"The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu."

"If you go back to the turn of the century and you either look at the third plague pandemic, which started in the 1890s and persisted through the first decade of the 20th Century, or you look at the flu pandemic of 1918, the mass of the mortality was in the colonial world. And more in India than in China. Much more in India than in China. This is something I've been trying to unravel and understand. I deal with this a little bit in a book I wrote called Late Victorian Holocausts, about empire and famine in the late 19th Century. And it appeared that in the case of India, density and railroads and poverty made disease far more deadly than in the case of China, which lacked railroads. So diseases communicated and spread rapidly in India."

"And now, of course, we have jet travel to accelerate infection."

"I have a young friend at Irvine who is trying to model how an avian flu pandemic would spread. And his maps and analysis are very scary."

"Rapidly, unfortunately," I chime in, aware that 2 million people worldwide cross borders daily.

"He believes that it will be on our doorsteps before it's been identified at its source."

"Planet of Slums, your book, is about the slum, which seems almost a medieval creation, it is so dark and so menacing. You write: 'No one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable.' Also, 'In many cases rural people no longer have to migrate to the city, it migrates to them.' In south Asia, 90 percent of urban population growth is in slums. In Africa, slum populations grow twice as fast as the cities, doubling every 15 years. It's an international phenomenon, a worldwide catastrophe. A third of the planet's urban residents subsist in slums: 6 percent of First World cities, 78 percent of Third World cities. Megaslums are growing exponentially. How were you first attracted to this, where have you seen slums locally? Have you gone to see the colonia in Palm Springs, do you go down to Tijuana to look at the pueblos? How do you personally contact it?"

"I actually, a couple of Christmases ago, I spent some days in the Coachella Valley with a former student of mine, Juan De Lara. He is the first Rhodes scholar from Coachella, and we toured 'Duroville,' one of the two colonias on the Torres-Martinez Reservation, where poor farmworkers live in trailers. And of course, I go to Tijuana quite frequently. But the occasion for this book was really the pathbreaking study by the United Nations on urban poverty, which was unprecedented in its methodology and data. [It's] the first really global survey data on poverty, a whole set of new databases that UN-HABITAT [the United Nations Human Settlements Program] has come up with: it is really the first time in history that it's been possible to look at urban poverty on a global scale and actually come up with estimates about living conditions and about poverty that are reasonably accurate.

"The picture is a shocking one. Over a billion people live in slums worldwide, and the number of actually poor people living in cities is greater than that. So, not quite a sixth of the world's 6.5 billion inhabitants. But that [slum] population will double by 2020, and the build-out of the human race will achieve its maximum sometime just after the middle of the century: 10 billion people. At that point slum dwellers will be 20 percent of the total.

"Almost all of the increase [in slum residents] was occurring in cities of the Third World. The rural world has reached its maximum population, and even declined. All the additional humans born on this planet will be born in cities. A large proportion of them, unfortunately, will be housed in slums.

"I think probably the core of the book is simply that for the last 25 or 30 years, the World Bank and international organizations have written off the ability of states, of governments in the Third World, to provide either housing or jobs for the poor. What they've counted on is self-built housing, [achieved] basically through squatting on the periphery of cities. And secondly, through the so-called informal sector, where people essentially create their own jobs in one form or another.

"We've relied on the poor to create their own conditions for existence and to improve that over time. What the literature shows, and shows very dramatically, is that the frontier of squattable land, free land, has been settled. Filled. That poor people who arrive in the city today actually have to pay for their plot of land -- something called 'pirate urbanization.' Or they become renters, because the supply of free land has disappeared. The second thing is that the [poor's] informal economy is grotesquely overcrowded. People tend to be crammed into a small number of niches or occupations, and increasing numbers of slum dwellers just ensure it is a kind of Darwinian competition that either degrades or reduces income to impossible levels or leads to depletion of everything for all but a few people. So the core of the book explores the consequences, the fact that the means of adaptation within the city, among poor immigrants, are beginning to fail."

A car passes on the Berkeley street outside my window. It is 2:30 in the afternoon.

"And you charge that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are actually contributing to the extraordinary growth of slums worldwide by pressing debtor nations to shrink government programs, privatize housing markets, eliminate urban housing projects, and eliminate welfare. This through so-called structural adjustment programs (SAPs) instituted in the late 1970s."

"Well, they did, yes, because of the whole process of [their economic] structural adjustment programs, which the majority of countries in the Third World eventually had to agree with. The structural adjustment programs, as the United Nation's report emphasizes, and experts in the [impoverished] regions agree, were extraordinarily anti-urban in their bias, reducing expenditures on urban infrastructures, cutting back urban social services, decimating urban work forces, [with] huge impacts on formal employment. They really devastated the state at the urban level. And what you see is this kind of big bang of urban poverty that comes out of the '80s, the decade of structural adjustment, of debt, of negative economic woes. This is when the [world's] slums really grow at extraordinary rates."

"What prompted this extraordinary growth in the last century? I mean, slums have been around for quite a while, but suddenly they exploded."

"Historically, slums have especially grown since the 1970s. Before that there were factors that retarded the growth; in fact, retarded the entrance of rural people into cities. Obviously in the former state socialist countries -- Stalinist countries -- migration was strictly controlled. China was remarkable in restricting the growth of its cities in the '50s and '60s, just as colonialism forbade, or made it extremely difficult, for instance, for Africans to move to British colonial or French colonial cities.

"Likewise, Latin America, in the '50s and '60s, had political regimes that fought the growth of slums; they fought the migration of the poor into the cities. But a combination of wars of national liberation, national independence, and more free-market regimes opened the floodgates to a countryside being rapidly transformed, just as its people were pushed off the land.

"What's happened, particularly since the 1980s, is [that] cities are taking the place of the countryside as warehouses of surplus labor. And the vast majority of people coming to the cities are being born in the slums. They're no longer incorporated into the formal economy."

"The other thing I was struck by, as I read, was that it doesn't seem to matter whether the prevailing system is capitalist or communist or totalitarian. They all seem to have failed in anticipating this universal phenomenon of the megaslums. Continuous corridors of human misery surviving in housing built of discards -- garbage. Human dumps teeming with the unwanted, occupying even graveyards in some instances, like the City of the Dead in Cairo, where one million people have taken up residence in cemeteries, in tombs, stringing laundry between headstones, filling mortuary shelves with pots and pans and TVs."

"There are two things that underlie this. One is the question of jobs, and, above all, of formal employment. Or for that matter, an informal sector which offers some kind of mobility. The second is the way that shelter is provided. And there are some exceptions. China, you know, has managed, even though it has this huge floating population of workers from the countryside. China has been outstanding in some ways in the provision of housing. Likewise, Singapore and Hong Kong. I explain a little bit about the special case of Hong Kong, where housing has been provided but with a density that would be intolerable in other countries. So I don't think it's correct to say that all social systems produce the same result."

I paraphrase Mike Davis back to him. "China also now boasts gated communities, called things like 'Orange County,' 'Long Beach' north of Beijing, 'Palm Springs' in Hong Kong. But I was more alluding to each system failing to anticipate slums. Even Karl Marx seems to have missed the boat on this, and he certainly had enough personal contact with impoverished living. You'd think he'd get the idea, but he too seemed not to have."

"The slums that Engels wrote about, of course, were different kinds of slums. Those were the slums in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution, inhabited by people who worked in factories. The slums today are inhabited by people who are essentially exiled from the world economy, from the world of branded commodities made by giant corporations. And, at the end of the book, I peruse what I think is the most profound problem of our time, as profound and threatening in its long-term implications as global warming. And that is the fact that such a large portion of humanity essentially has become surplus to the world economy.

"I mean, you go back in the '60s and post-Stalinism, and both Russia and America claimed to be able to solve the problem of humanity and offer a future to everybody in the world. Nobody makes claims like this at all now. Nobody is talking about fundamental solutions to poverty or housing. The last blast at that kind of global idealism has been the millennium goals program of the United Nations, and now it's almost unanimously agreed that those goals won't be achieved. In fact, some of them probably won't be achieved for a century at the current rate, much less within the next decade.

"So the book, at the end, starts to pause and reflect a little bit: What are the potential consequences of this idea of this surplus humanity, warehoused where free 'squattable' land is disappearing and the informal economy is supersaturated with people competing for jobs? What are the political and moral implications of it, and to what extent is current world disorder an expression of this?"

"In the '60s, American administrators like Robert McNamara saw Third World revolutions as 'diseases of modernization,' which they addressed with everything from land reforms to B-52s, carrots and sticks. That has surrendered to pessimism in the face of these urbanized hells filled with people without jobs or futures. Places like Mogadishu (made famous by Black Hawk Down), like Sadr City in Baghdad, where Iraqi teenagers taunt American troops by calling a main boulevard 'Vietnam Street.' Do you want to talk about Vietnam Street for a moment?"

"An example that haunts me is the kids in Casablanca who came into these cities to conduct suicidal, al-Qaeda-like terrorism a few years ago. It turned out they had all grown up on the outskirts of Casablanca, but far beyond traditional poor neighborhoods and traditional urban life. For some it was the first time they had ever been in the city center. And they were staggered by the kind of affluence they found, even as they were throwing bombs at Jewish cultural centers and five-star hotels.

"This is a subject that I'm taking up in a sequel to this book, with a young friend of mine, Forrest Hylton, who's lived for years in Colombia and Bolivia and has just written a book for Verso on that. He actually has two books coming out: one on Colombia and one on Bolivia."

"You write: 'The demonizing rhetorics of the various "international wars" on terrorism, drugs, and crime are so much semantic apartheid...that disable any honest debate about the daily violence of economic exclusion.' When you were an activist yourself, did you realize at that time you were sort of dealing peripherally with the consequences of this -- what was called then 'the diseases of modernization'?"

"My activism was in the mid-'60s, when we all truly believed that it was possible to create an egalitarian, just society. People were talking about the end of work but not imagining that the end of work would be mass unemployment across the world and the warehousing of a large portion of humanity and that slums would reproduce the worst features of the 19th Century. I mean, this is totally off the horizon then, in the 1960s."

"Impossible question. How has your outlook changed from then -- the '60s -- to now?"

"In some ways probably less than almost anyone's I know. I don't know whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I would say that my essential politics haven't changed very much at all. The context of those politics, of course, has changed. And like other people, I in some ways tremble for the future we're giving our children and our children's children. And the whole point is to make the case that the condition of this world-slum population of the informal working class should be as much a concern to us as irreversible climate change.

"These two things at some point will begin to interact. Some cities very soon, I think, will begin to see the impact of environmental crisis in terms of conditions. Particularly resources like water, for example."

"What does slum life look like in Palm Springs?"

"What's happened in California agriculture, in the last 20 years, is that farmers no longer provide places for their workforces to live. So the farm belt of California is full of people living in their cars or living in beat-up trailers and some even sleeping outside. In Palm Springs, what happened was that Riverside County, for whatever reason, decided to clean up people, mainly farmworkers, living illegally in trailers. Riverside County supervisors started enforcing this law against illegal trailers, not bothering to think about the situation the people lived in and the contradictions created by agricultural needs. And what happened was that Harvey Duro, the former chairman of the Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians, allowed people to come and rent spaces on their land. And what you have now is the emergence of these two camps that are [slum] colonies within eyesight of new golf courses and some of the richest communities in the West.

"The same kind of colonial incursion can be seen all around El Paso on the American side of the border. This is classic informal housing, what you'd call pirate urbanization anywhere else in the world, with the poor subletting to the poorer. You'll find similar examples in Europe, in places like Naples or Lisbon."

"Who is the next Karl Marx, if you can identify him or her? Can you describe that person? Where do you think he or she lives?"

"I think Karl Marx would have been appalled by that question because he always thought in terms of the European labor movement, particularly the British labor movement. As he pointed out, the British working class itself had come up with things like the labor theory of value. This whole idea of supergeniuses and condescending analysis is kind of an anathema, and I think it should be an anathema [for] anybody [who] generally comes out of the Left.

"The Marxists' position on social theory, or the idea of social movement, is that they have to come out of a movement themselves -- real movements of history. I don't think there is a [next] Karl Marx. I disappoint a lot of people, including students, who come to me expecting world-shaking metaphysical ideas. I don't have any."

"So, Mike, you think it's going to be incremental and accrued and very broad, and it's not one central core idea or ideologue that is going to launch anything. The problem is much larger scale. The solution is going to have to be large."

"The number of people doing intellectual work is incomparably larger than it was, even in the 1960s. And the idea of gurus or single philosopher figures...I mean, what is exciting to me is simply how many young scholars and scholar activists there are writing and researching, and their endurance, their engagements and struggles and existential knowledge.

"In other words, I think that radical social theory is much more democratic in production. Nothing has been quite as devastating as world geniuses like Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. I mean, nothing could be more un-Marxist in my mind.

"What I do, actually -- to be honest with you -- when I teach, is just try to stimulate them to go out and become engaged in some part of the world."

"What about the cultural effect of slums on the greater world society?"

"I actually don't deal with the culture of slums very much. But one of the most striking things is how much popular culture is still coming out of the slum.

"You look at music in particular. The root signs aren't so much from the countryside as they once were. They're from city streets. Poor in the slums of the great cities remain immensely creative. I remember once I was terrified when somebody said that, in L.A., both the music industry and the fashion industry have people who just basically hang out in the ghetto, kind of spying out and finding out what the trends are, because they realize that street culture is the creative engine for popular culture and ultimately of consumer culture.

"The problem is that increasingly large numbers of people live in the cities but aren't, in any real functional or cultural sense, part of the city. You know, they're not poor in the traditional sense that people on the Lower East Side of New York or the East End of London were. They were poor, but they were integral, central parts of city life and had access to the public space of the city.

"Now you have so many people who are warehoused just beyond the city. And not just in the Third World. I mean, the explosions last summer in France are very striking. Because of course in Europe, the working class seldom lives in the central city anymore. This is even more true in the Third World. So on one hand, street culture in the classic slum remains as it has been for a century -- an enormously powerful generator of popular culture. But, on the other hand, an alarming number of people no longer live in the countryside but only on the edge of the city, the scraps of the city, its waste margin. So they don't have a classical relationship to the city anymore."

"Right. As in Iraq's slums right now, which is what you also suggest."

"[Baghdad's] Sadr City is very much the kind of new megaslum that I write about. And, by the way, it's almost impossible to find out anything interesting, any serious social studies of that part of Baghdad, partially because most of the population is so new. They were shifted there when Saddam pushed the Shiites off the land around the time of the Iran-Iraq War. The population has just bloomed there in the last 10 or 12 years. But it's almost unknown. I've talked to Shiites and other people who have been in Baghdad, because I've been trying to find out more about the Sadr City area, and nobody seems to know anything."

"I was also startled by the very high percentage of urban residents in Iran who are living in slums: 44 percent are slum dwellers."

"In Iran, during the Islamic Revolution, the slum dwellers were used by Khomeini against the organized working class. The current president of Iran, if you ask where he's most popular, what his real social base is, it tends to be among military veterans from the poorest part of the city rather than from the Khomeinist middle class, the traditional working class. Interestingly, Hezbollah's roots in southern Lebanon were the huge burgeoning slums of southern Beirut."

"Mike, another shocking figure in the book is the number of countries in which the slum-dwelling population is over 90 percent. Ethiopia: 99.4 percent of the urban population, for instance."

"Those are the UN-HABITAT statistics, and some of them are almost hard to believe, just like other African cities. In Africa you have some of the most extreme examples. Almost beyond imagination. Kinshasa is the one I focused on, but you could have taken other cities as well. Cities where the state has almost entirely disappeared except as a corrupt site, and people have been left to shift for themselves."

A heavily clothed female vagrant pushes a shopping cart down the middle of the street outside. It's filled with discarded soda cans inside a huge plastic bag.

"If there is no ultimate solution," I say, "it may be that these entities will become their own kind of nations/states then."

"I do obviously profoundly believe there are solutions, and the second book, the sequel, will explore a whole range of possibilities: from Pentecostalism through fundamentalist Islam, to more classical, radical, urban movements. The Pentagon believes that the major problem of nonstate violence has moved from the countryside to the city and in the potential for parts of the city to concede their power to gangs or militias. The Mogadishu model. I just yesterday received a huge document from the Army War College about the slum's ability to basically assume state power, or exercise state power. Again, the military strategists are thinking well ahead."

I ask Mike Davis about the odd partnership of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara after he became president of the World Bank with a far-sighted architect named John Turner. (It proved a slightly touchy subject.)

"Well, I don't want to overdo this. Turner is actually a noble figure in many ways. He had gone to Peru and worked on housing for the poor. McNamara inherited a situation where it became obvious to him that the World Bank was really failing to address issues of the city, and Turner's ideas offered an appealing new solution. Because the state, in Turner's mind, was the problem, and he was saying, let the poor build their own housing. Put resources [directly] in their hands [instead of into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats and administrators].

"Actually I do like Turner. And I don't want to represent this as anything more than a marriage of convenience. Turner's ideas ended up serving the opposite ends. Turner wanted to short-circuit corrupt governments and put resources directly into what he calls the homebuilders."

"It didn't work."

"There is no question that Turner's idea of self-building has been blown way out of proportion. For instance, there is a book out called Shadow Cities, written by someone who lived in the slums of several cities. It's a very good book, colorful and alive. But he just makes one essential mistake: it talks about a billion heroic squatters.

"And the truth is, the expert literature points out that squatting is disappearing and vanished in some places a long time ago, that the heroic squatter is a myth. More likely he is a renter. And that this whole idea that the poor can solve all their own problems with a minimal amount of aid is a huge excuse for disinvestment in the poor and in the cities."

"Where are you teaching now?"

"I teach at UC Irvine."

"For how long?"

"I've been there for three years. We came back to San Diego because my wife got a job here and her family is here. She wanted to have children. Otherwise, I was quite happy teaching kids from Queens and Brooklyn at Stony Brook."

"Do you think rap music is a safe form of slumming?"

"Rap music is everything. I mean, it is the free press of the streets, and it is the most cynical commercialization of other people's suffering. It's all those things and more. I don't think you can make a simple statement about rap music, or a simple characterization.

"It is a constant struggle between the media or the culture industry and kids and their experience. I've been very critical of gangster rap, but again, as I said earlier, what's so striking is that popular culture more than ever is being driven by kids in the slums, by poor urban youth who maintain exceptional creativity. Particularly now. One thing that has changed about the slum in our world is it used to be the ultimately parochial place, a small village in which you'd live and vie with people from other small villages.

"Now poor kids across the world are in touch with each other, exchanging ideas and culture and music, and that has led to some electrifying possibilities."

"There is an odd universality to the problem, though. I mean, I think at this point, Colin Robinson or somebody could actually publish a pictorial coffee-table book of all of the Olympic cities in history and their attempts to build cosmetic shields against the eyes of visitors. Screens and idyllic scenes painted on sides of decrepit housing to hide their homeless, their slums. It's been done by everyone: the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics, in Seoul, New York, Barcelona, Mexico City, Athens, and continues to this day. It doesn't seem to matter the kind of regime or the time period."

"I would say that actually Beijing is right now a cut above almost everybody else."

"But in Shanghai, for instance, its slum is a huge problem."

"They're not slums in the sense they are in some other countries in Europe. In other words, China before Deng Xiaoping, and for a decade after market reforms, built impressive amounts of fairly decent housing for people who lived in poverty. Much of their slum poor are real migrants who live an underground existence. They tend to live in particular parts of the city or on the outskirts."

"The Chinese solution was simply to force them back to the land at one point, and the number of urban poor actually decreased because of that."

"Yes, it did. But in that period, the urban working class in a sense wasn't leaving China. It had shelter and a great deal of security. But in the cities, China dealt very impressively with the problems that faced other countries. It was such an exaggerated inequality [in China] between rural and urban life that it led to what you have to describe as almost ethnic conflict between the traditional urban populations and the migrant workers from the countryside. People I know who have lived in China tell me it's very shocking to hear other urban people talk about the new immigrants. It sounds like somebody in Costa Mesa talking about the Mexicans."

"Jumping subjects: how long did it take you to write City of Quartz?"

"Oh, City of Quartz took me the longest. I think it was put together over about three years. And the core of it was actually written in Canada, when I was teaching in Canada."

"Where did you teach there?"

"I taught at Carleton in Ottawa and then at York University in Toronto. And in both cities, I was lucky to have libraries that actually had, or could get for me, the entire run of the L.A. Times. I read the L.A. Times in six or seven different regional editions covering about a 35-year period. Which is the only way you can do something like reconstruct the history of people fighting over land-use issues and water rights. It also helped that, when I was in L.A. and driving a truck, I was out in the city in a way that I haven't been since. Anyway, the actual core of the writing was done -- 60 or 70 percent -- when I was in Canada, which is not a bad place to work."

"And what inspired City of Quartz?"

"Well, City of Quartz I suppose rose out of kind of an internal contradiction. As a Marxist early in my life, I thought I pretty well had an idea of how history worked and most societies worked, but I couldn't possibly explain Los Angeles as the society I grew up in. And so I thought for years about how you would begin to explain and how L.A. would fit into world history.

"Before I left for England in 1980, I'd written a giant, long thing, which I never published. My interest then was the economic history of Southern California. And it made a kind of scaffolding that, when I went back, I realized -- instead of starting in sort of classical fashion from political economy -- in the case of L.A., you begin to excavate its history from its self-images, changing self-images."

"Are you sick of hearing how brilliant it is?"

"I've never understood it. I thought the book would sell about five copies. Anybody who writes an almost 100-page chapter on suburban land issues [and] homeowners' movements can't have much hope for it. I've never quite understood the success, but I think part of it had to do with the kind of enlarged packaging. It was a period when there was a great hunger for stuff about L.A. There was very little available at that time. Now there is a huge renaissance of writing about L.A. I find it difficult to keep up with how many interesting books: eight or ten a year."

"You've inspired a trend, Mike. There is no higher capitalist accolade than that."

"You know, it is also very strange, because the book I pictured it as being, people should have taken offense at. But they liked it, or misunderstood it as innocuous. Richard Riordan, before he was mayor, took me out to lunch at the California Club. And I had to sit down and explain to him that I had actually portrayed him as a rather diabolical figure. He hadn't read the book. So I actually offered to do some work to kind of retrieve my own radical image -- to piss people off enough to stop complimenting me about it."

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad