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Wed, 30 Apr 2008

LA: Heart of Darkness

Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Vintage

This is not a new book but such has been its popularity that there have been reprints as well as a new edition coming up soon or out now. What the book is about, is a history of LA told mostly from the losers point of view ... which is to say, vast swathes of the population who happen to be Black or Hispanic, or even white and from the wrong suburb or county.

The book isn't a mere fulmination: it has a lot of fairly dazzling scholarship even if some of the long lists of names can make one's eyes glaze over. Davis starts with the early Spanish and then goes on to the days of Colonel Otis and his "Open Shop" - meaning, no unions here on pain of death. And it continues in much that way. The cast of venal, corrupt, and extremely nasty people is virtually unending - from Otis himself to the execrable Chief Parker, and onwards.

Two striking aspects of the book are the bottom lines that Ayn Rand style capitalism doesn't work very well (aside from any moral considerations, or even the Constitution of the US) and that its revival, first under Reagan and then the Bushes worked equally badly. The second aspect is the role of fear in creating something close to a police state. The activities of the gangs were used to both terrify ordinary folk in the suburbs, and justify certain lapses in civil liberties as well as huge budget increases for the police.

The results of this social unwillingness to give people a hand-up resulted in desperate hard-core groups of people who hated their oppressors with a passion and who were and are willing to do virtually anything to escape their situation, including the dealing and taking of very nasty substances as well as the taking of people's lives who get in their way. The road away from this complete brutalisation will be a long one.

Davis finishes the book with a history of a place called Fontana in the San Bernardino valley. The story starts out with one of those larger than life characters with big ideas and big gumption who transforms a near-dessert region into a happy bunch of small scale farmers who feed into an enormous and clever agribusiness. His reign is succeeded by none other than Henry J. Kaiser who had some utopian ideas himself, insisted on unions in his workplaces, and set up a giant steel making facility there. Uh-oh, you say. It actually went quite well for some years - into the 1980's in fact. But then the tides of globalisation came in and the mill was washed away... but not its great polluted slag heaps. A further cast of villains then appears who try their best to pick the last meat off the bones. Dystopic is the word.

Of course all this doesn't explain why so many people have chosen to go to live in LA. Even now they are going despite a White flight to places like Nevada and New Mexico where their presence has been largely unwelcomed. If you're a poor Salvadorean or Mexican, it could be like buying a lottery ticket... long odds, but you could win big. If you're more affluent there's the climate, the sea and the mountains, a rich cultural scene ("high" or "low") and maybe, from time to time, a little magic in the air.

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