LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters

LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters

What happens to a leading Marxist writer after he gets a MacArthur genius grant, a Getty Fellowship, and his new book hits number one on the nonfiction bestseller list?


What happens to a leading Marxist writer after he gets a MacArthur genius grant, a Getty Fellowship, and his new book hits number one on the nonfiction bestseller list? If the writer is Mike Davis and the book is Ecology of Fear, what happens is that the New York Times news pages, The Economist, the LA Times and a variety of other publications large and small take tremendous interest in opponents who zero in on a few errors in the footnotes, manufacture other mistakes and denounce the book as “fiction” and the author as a “fraud.”

The book got many strong reviews, from the New York Times Book Review to Business Week, which called it “compelling” and “persuasive” [see also John Leonard, “California Screaming,” October 5, 1998]. But the attacks, which began in October, have been vicious. On its front page, the LA Times quoted critics who described Davis’s book as “self-promoting, city-trashing rot”; the New York Times quoted critics who declared, “There’s something pathological” about the way Davis has “twisted the facts”; and the normally staid Economist quoted a columnist calling Davis’s work “fake, phoney, made-up, crackpot, bullshit.” Salon, the on-line magazine, has published three attacks on Davis; New Times LA, a free weekly, has published four; Suck, the Webzine of Wired magazine, has published two; and it’s not over yet.

Beginning with his first book on LA, City of Quartz (1990), Davis has been a passionate historian and analyst of the underside of a city built on PR and mythologized from its inception as a kind of dreamwork in the desert. Although it was widely praised, City of Quartz never made the bestseller list and never aroused much criticism. But now that Ecology of Fear has spent seventeen weeks on that list, the voices of the LA establishment, whose policies Davis has excoriated for years (sometimes in the pages of The Nation) are striking back–with a vengeance. At heart, it’s a battle over who gets to define Los Angeles: the downtown boosters and their journalistic friends, deeply invested in selling the city as a sunny paradise, or Davis, who argues that developers have placed the city at risk of social and environmental disaster, a disaster “as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets.” Davis’s critics are not out to refute his arguments; instead, they seek to destroy him.

The attacks began in a small throwaway weekly in Los Angeles, the Downtown News, which published an article by former development executive David Friedman reporting on the work of one Brady Westwater, who had set up a twenty-two-page Web site claiming to document factual errors in Davis’s book. The Web site and associated e-mail to journalists provided the starting point for virtually all of Davis’s critics. Westwater opens his manifesto with a critique of the biographical information on the back of Ecology of Fear, which says Davis was “born in Los Angeles” when in fact he was born in Fontana. Fontana is an industrial suburb about twelve miles east of the county line and is generally considered to be part of greater LA. Davis has hardly kept his birthplace a secret, devoting the final chapter of City of Quartz to Fontana’s socioeconomic decline since his birth. For Westwater, though, the flap copy is “much like the Stalinist era creation of non-persons,” transforming Fontana into a “non-place.” To “claim he is a native son with specific firsthand knowledge of LA,” Westwater concludes, “is…well, fraud.” Anywhere else, such a denunciation would be dismissed as loony, but Westwater’s “fraud” charge has been repeated over and over, even providing the headline for The Economist‘s story.

The New York Times devoted three paragraphs to Westwater’s charge that Davis is “lying” when he argues that LA’s good-weather ideology has led to media amnesia about the existence of tornadoes in the region. The Times story then has Davis replying that all books contain errors and “the thing you have to understand about these books is I’m a socialist.” In fact, Davis’s documentation of the absence of the word “tornado” in LA Times headlines is systematic and convincing, and Davis denies he ever implied that his being a socialist was an explanation for alleged errors about tornadoes.

Besides regurgitating Westwater, virtually all of the critics have focused on three sentences in an LA Weekly cover story on Davis written by Lewis MacAdams. That piece praised Davis’s book as a farsighted analysis probing the links between “social injustice and ecological distress.” MacAdams also recounted his first meeting with Davis, ten years ago, when Davis was interviewing him for a story for the Weekly. MacAdams wrote that Davis showed him a draft of the interview, which described the two conversing “at the Fremont Gate entrance to Elysian Park, a place I’d never been,” and which attributed quotes to MacAdams that “made me sound like I knew a lot more…than I actually did.” MacAdams told me he didn’t regard this as a problem, and, as he also wrote in the Weekly, “I told him to go ahead with the piece just the way it was.” MacAdams rightly insists that this is not the same thing as making up characters or stories. Sue Horton, editor of LA Weekly, says simply, “What Mike did was wrong. He shouldn’t have done it.” Davis says the same thing: “Yeah, it was a mistake.”

But Horton also points out that “a lot of Ecology of Fear first appeared in Mike’s column for LA Weekly in ’96 or ’97. I edited it for the more than a year that it ran. We fact-checked it every week. There was never anything in that column that didn’t check.”

After New Times LA published its first attack, Horton said, “We fact-checked a couple of the ‘errors’ they cited, just for sport. We took Mike’s statement that the ’94 Northridge earthquake was the most expensive disaster in American history and had a fact-checker start cold on that. He talked to a disaster research center in Colorado. They said yes, indisputably, the most expensive disaster in American history was the ’94 Northridge earthquake.”

As with any 484-page book with 831 footnotes, Ecology of Fear contains some mistakes. This is an inescapable pitfall of publishing. No one accuses the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record, of “fraud” because every day it runs a “Corrections” column. In 1998 the Times ran 2,130 corrections, an average of six per day. As it turns out, the errors in Ecology of Fear that are so exciting Davis’s opponents are either trivial or based on misunderstanding. For example, Veronique de Turenne complained in Salon that, while Davis said there are 2,000 gangs in LA, there are actually only 1,850. When I asked Davis about the discrepancy, he said, “The missing gangs are in Orange County. She’s talking about LA County, while I was talking about the Census Bureau’s Los Angeles Standard Metropolitan Statistical District, which includes Orange County.” But even if de Turenne were right, should Angelenos feel better about the social health of their city because it has a mere 1,850 gangs?

Who are these people, and why are they saying these terrible things about Mike Davis?

Until recently, David Friedman, who wrote the first story attacking Davis, was president of Catellus Resources Group, part of the Catellus Development Corporation, a billion-dollar real estate company that operates or leases 20.9 million square feet of income-producing buildings, mostly in California. Friedman resigned in 1998 to “pursue personal print and broadcast media opportunities,” he said in a press release at the time. The company assured its stockholders that, although Friedman had been “named a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Opinion section and a contributor to Inc. Magazine,” he would continue to work “as a consultant following his departure.”

Joel Kotkin, often cited as “an urban policy expert” in articles about Davis’s footnotes, described himself to the New York Times as “a person who was trained as a Marxist” angry that Davis has “bastardize[d] Marxist theory.” He is now a research fellow at the Reason Foundation, a right-wing libertarian think tank, as well as a senior fellow at the conservative Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. Kotkin recently argued in American Enterprise magazine that “an increasingly left-wing AFL-CIO” was “bringing class-warfare politics” to Los Angeles. President John Sweeney, he wrote, “has opened the AFL-CIO to participation by delegates openly linked to the Communist Party, which enthusiastically backed his ascent.” The heirs of “the totalitarian left,” he concluded, are threatening the city of LA. Among the leaders of this menacing camp:Mike Davis. Kotkin is a frequent co-author with Friedman; their pieces on the “new LA economy,” extolling sweatshops as examples of immigrant entrepreneurialism, have appeared on Op-Ed pages in the Washington Post and LA Times.

Brady Westwater, upon whose efforts as a “fact checker” both Kotkin and Friedman have relied, is a pseudonym for Ross Ernest Shockley, a Malibu realtor who no doubt was troubled by Davis’s chapter “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” It is a compelling indictment of the systematic neglect of fire dangers faced by poor inner-city Angelenos, contrasted with the waste of public resources providing fire protection for scattered mansions in remote areas of Malibu, where brush fires in the dry season are inevitable. The New York Times did not mention Westwater’s interest here and promoted him to the rank of “amateur local historian.” Until Friedman publicized the efforts of Westwater, none of the dozens of journalists who received the latter’s nutty report would go near it.

The LA Times occupies a special place among Davis’s critics. As Davis detailed in City of Quartz, in the first part of the twentieth century the paper’s owners were major players in creating Los Angeles, joining in “syndicates to monopolize the subdivision of Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and much of northeastern LA.”The Times has never wavered from its commitment to regional development and boosterism. A few years ago, Davis contributed some opinion pieces to the paper, and Ecology of Fear got a mixed review in the book section. But the paper’s recent article had a revealing subtext: Davis is too “gloomy” to be “the pre-eminent analyst of Los Angeles’ soul.” It objected in particular to his description of LA as a place “where the future has turned rancid.” The Economist made a similar argument: Davis’s success “lies in the fact that the New York publishing establishment has a weakness for books that portray the upstart city of the West, its chief cultural rival, in the worst possible light.”

The issue that lies beneath the surface is: Who is allowed to portray LA? The Times and the downtown developers prefer Kevin Starr, the state librarian and upbeat historian of California, who has been quoted more than once recommending that Davis “wake up” and “smell the roses.” The Economist complained that Davis neglected the city’s “flowering of public spaces,” while the Downtown News criticized him for failing to praise the city’s economic recovery after the military cutbacks of the early nineties.

It’s not unfair to call Mike Davis’s work “dark,” and for those who live on the sunny side of the street in Southern California, the boosters’ picture may be an accurate expression of their own experience. But as Davis reminded me, 4 million Latinos now live in Los Angeles, and they didn’t come for the sun:The State of California spends $5 billion a year on prisons, and Los Angeles County has 725,000 people on welfare who have been written off. Davis never denies that LA’s winners have indeed won very big. It’s his presentation of the experience of the rest of the city’s people that the boosters seek to erase.

At least one of Davis’s critics admits that this portrayal is accurate. Of Salon‘s three attacks on the book, one was written by D.J. Waldie, the author of a wonderful book on the LA suburb of Lakewood. Although Waldie dislikes Ecology of Fear intensely, he agreed that its most important claims about LA are true: It was indeed “the most segregated big city in the nation” from 1900 to 1970; it did have “the most destructive civil disturbances in the nation’s modern history” in 1965 and 1992; “L.A.’s social landscape was deliberately made a mechanism for sorting communities by race, class and income more rigorously than in any other American big city”; Davis’s “criticisms of hillside development in Malibu [and] earthquake failure downtown…are true.” Waldie rejects the book only because it is “so hopeless” about the prospects for improvement and reform.

Even if the critics are right that LA’s economy has recovered and its crime rate has dropped over the past few years, that doesn’t disprove the central thesis of Ecology of Fear, which is a more original and significant work than its critics acknowledge. (Interest declared: One of my books was published in a series co-edited by Davis, and I am listed in the acknowledgments of Ecology of Fear.) The book is far more than a “gloomy” or “hopeless” account of the inequalities of wealth and power in LA today. It looks at the city in terms of its long environmental history–history measured not in decades or centuries but in thousands of years. Davis is bringing to a broad public the findings of scientists who have concluded that, for the past few hundred years, LA has been in a relatively quiet period of earthquake activity (a “seismic siesta”), as well as a relatively wet one in terms of rainfall. Scientists are concerned that the long-term pattern suggests much bigger and more frequent earthquakes in the future, as well as much longer and more devastating periods of drought–lasting possibly for decades.

Davis’s critics have avoided those fundamental arguments, and it’s not hard to see why. “For a nonscientist, Davis has done an excellent job of synthesizing the state of the field,” says Lisa Grant, who teaches earthquake science at UC Irvine. “I was impressed by his chapter [on earthquakes]. He has the right sources, and I didn’t find any inaccuracies in the footnotes.” Richard Walker, chairman of the geography department at UC Berkeley, agrees: “Most of what Mike is saying is completely accepted wisdom among scholars who work in the area of environmental hazards…. Extreme events, so-called natural disasters, are predictable, inevitable and inevitably made worse by human activity. The character of human activity is absolutely critical to the human losses.”

A responsible society would address environmental dangers, Davis argues. Yet the people who control the development of Los Angeles are ignoring them. By promoting high-rise, high-density development, they are creating the potential for immense harm to the millions of ordinary working people who live in the city. Ecology of Fear is intended as part of a dialogue between social justice advocates and environmentalists, and as an undisguised polemic for the city to abandon its reckless pattern of development. The way Davis makes that argument is his real contribution. But on every one of those issues so vital to the city’s future his critics have been strangely silent.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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