Skip to content

Books on Cities: Mike Davis, City of Quartz

Over the years, I’ve occasionally referred to Mike Davis’ City of Quartz as a paranoid classic of Los Angeles nonfiction. Editors usually cut out the word “paranoid,” and I never fight it when they do. But to my mind that descriptor does no serious injustice to the work, which in any case remains acknowledged as the closest-to-definitive single book yet written about Los Angeles. It’s held that spot if not since it came out in 1990, then at least since the city’s riots of thirty years ago. Davis acknowledges this in the preface to the 2006 edition: “The fate of City of Quartz was largely determined by events that followed its publication: the explosive notoriety of L.A.-based gangster rap, the Rodney King atrocity, and, finally, the apocalyptic uprising that followed the acquittal of his assailants.”

Davis’ use of the word “uprising” is characteristic. In the main text, he also applies it at least once to the August 1965 outbreak of violence and destruction — framed in retrospect as a preview of the larger conflagration to come 27 years later — that he more often calls the “Watts Rebellion.” On my latest reading of City of Quartz, this brought to mind the most memorable of several tours I took of Watts Towers, by far the neighborhood’s best-known landmark, while living in Los Angeles myself. A baseball-capped middle-aged attendee stammered his way into a question, working the words “Watts Uprising” into nearly every clause. Our guide, a native of Watts with childhood memories of reading Spider-Man comics amid the then-unfenced Towers, cut him off: “Hold on. I was there. That was a riot.”

I’d be lying if I said City of Quartz couldn’t use a few similarly peremptory interjections from that tour guide at Watts Towers. Yet Davis is also a straight talker, in his way, despite the book’s the preponderance of cumbersome political language seemingly picked up from the New Left Review. He called that publication (which he edited for a time) “an early influence on my writing” in an interview last month with the Los Angeles Times, “and in some ways a bad one.” This reflection is part of a squaring-up with mortality: he describes himself as in “the terminal stage of metastatic esophageal cancer,” a disease for which he recently chose to stop receiving treatment. That announcement has surely motivated more than a few students of Los Angeles to revisit Davis’ best-known book while he’s with us.

Read the whole thing at Substack.