City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

I lived in and around Los Angeles for more than 30 years. After moving “back East”, I’ve seen occasional references to this book. People say you should read it if you really want to understand Los Angeles and Southern California. Here’s what Library Journal said:

Eschewing the character study that comprises most Los Angeles history, Davis concentrates on the ongoing and ignored ethnic and class struggles, formerly manifested by booster (pro-growth) exploitation, now replaced by exclusionary (no-growth) neighborhood incorporation, and by police control of Afro-American and Latino neighborhoods. His analysis of recent Los Angeles history is often chilling and–sad to say–more true than false.

I’d say the book’s general topic is power. We learn about real estate developers, the owners of The Los Angeles Times, the repressive Los Angeles Police Department, suburban homeowner associations, overseas investors and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. We also learn about the ways neighborhoods were kept all-white and the economics of the drug trade. Hollywood doesn’t get a chapter; the blue-collar town of Fontana, with the worst smog in the region, does.

The two most remarkable aspects of the book are the tremendous level of detail on certain topics (probably more than you want to know) and the pessimistic tone. City of Quartz was first published in 1990. When you read passages like the following, it’s hard to believe the city and the rest of the metropolitan area (now home to more than 13 million people) function at all thirty years later:

In Los Angeles, there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor-white boondocks with their zombie populations of speed freaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger-happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon [288].

But I guess things weren’t all bad in 1990:

Setting aside an apocalyptic awakening of the neighboring San Andreas Fault, it is all too easy to envision Los Angeles reproducing itself endlessly across the desert with the assistance of pilfered water, cheap immigrant labor, Asian capital and desperate homeowners willing to trade lifetimes on the freeway in exchange for $500,000 “dream homes” in the middle of Death Valley [10].

That’s what passes for optimism in City of Quartz.