Copyright 1995 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
January 1, 1995, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill).


With financial wreckage strewn across 187 different municipalities and school districts, the collapse of Orange County's bond pyramid may prove to be the most socially destabilizing of Southern Califor nia's recent chain of human and natural disasters.

Bankruptcy, of course, is only the visible tip of the crisis. Underlying the financial debacle is a system of government by special interest and political exclusion that minorities have been shouting about for years.

According to Art Montez, state director of urban affairs for the League of United Latin-American Citizens (LULAC), his organization had alerted the county grand jury in early 1993 to sweeping abuses by the board of supervisors, including systematic violations of the Brown Act (prohibiting secret meetings) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

LULAC charges that Latinos, Asians and African Americans were routinely excluded from key commissions and judicial appointments, while an "invisible government" of billionaire developers and wealthy Republican contributors enjoyed virtually unlimited behind-the-scenes access to the county executives. They warned that supervisorial power was careening out of control toward some inevitable disaster for the county.

When the grand jury chose to ignore these allegations -- instead launching an inquisition into the "costs of immigration" -- LULAC appealed to the Clinton Administration. The 25-count complaint to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, filed in July, 1993, reiterated the charge that supervisors were refusing to appoint Latinos -- a quarter of the population -- to the board of the Orange County Transportation Authority. LULAC also protested the widespread misuse of state and federal funds by municipalities that collected housing subsidies, but refused to spend them, as mandated, on low-cost units. Instead, they imposed housing occupancy limits to restrict growing minority populations.

Although LULAC's complaints did not focus specifically on the county's spiraling bond portfolio or Treasurer Robert L. Citron's penchant for playing Russian roulette with interest rates, Montez insists that "lifting the veil of secrecy from county government, might have exposed the investment practices as well. Perhaps we could have driven the money-changers from the temple before they brought the temple crashing down on ordinary citizens' heads."

In any event, the Clinton Administration has shown little interest in responding to these allegations of civil-rights violations.

The supervisors meanwhile keep up their self-righteous caterwaul that they are victims not instigators. Citron, according to them, was a latter-day Rasputin (and a Democrat to boot) who hypnotized them with his broker-babble about "reverse repurchases" while he was stealing their livelihood.

It has become clear, however, that Citron was merely the technician -- he worked the voodoo that appeased otherwise contradictory fiscal demands from the supervisor's two core constituencies.

On the one hand, the major land developers and theme-park operators -- such as the Irvine Co. and Disney -- are seeking higher levels of public investment to leverage their expansion projects, as well as reduce the freeway gridlock that currently threatens to suffocate all growth in Orange County.

Their regional agenda translates into billions of dollars for an expensive face-lift of the Disneyland periphery as well as additional parking structures for the Magic Kingdom, three tollways, a new stadium for the Angels and Rams and the conversion of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a second airport.

On the other hand, thousands of wealthy homeowners and GOP contributors -- especially in the suburbs and beachtowns south of the Costa Mesa Freeway -- still have portraits of Howard Jarvis hanging over their mantles. It translates into instant political death to talk about raising taxes to these people.

In the past, some funds for infrastructure expansion have been obtained from Washington, or diverted, as Latino groups have long charged, from set-asides for the poor. But the most effective strategy for increasing capital spending without taxing the rich has been Citron's government by Ponzi scheme. From the late 1980s, he regularly gambled and won as much as $800 million each year for pool participants. Moreover, as recession eroded Orange County property values for the first time in living memory, Citron's earnings from speculative repurchase agreements replaced the otherwise dangerous shortfall in taxes.

Between fiscal 1992 and 1993, for example, the share of income from interest-bearing investments soared from 3% to 35% of the county budget, while the property tax percentage fell from 60% to 25%.

So, for as long as it lasted, Citron's prestidigitation kept all the champagne glasses full: Developers got their bond issues, affluent suburbanites kept their tax breaks, the supervisors waxed in power.

Now, with Orange County at least $2 billion poorer, it might seem time for heads to roll in the Hall of Administration. Unfortunately, the supervisors are operating the guillotine. Having driven the county into bankruptcy, they are now using the crisis as an excuse to ignore environmental regulation and collective bargaining, while simultaneously shifting much of the burden of the cutbacks onto children and the working poor. Take the environment. After 40 years of blitzkrieg suburbanization, only two major natural landscapes -- Bolsa Chica marsh and the San Joaquin Hills -- remain reasonably intact for future generations.

Incredibly, the first response of the Board of Supervisors to the eruption of the bond crisis in early December was to steamroll approval for the Koll Real Estate Group's huge, 3,300-unit development of Bolsa Chica. This was soon followed by the resumption of grading on the controversial San Joaquin Hills Toll Road, where local demonstrators had chained themselves to bulldozers.

At the same time, the board has declared war against the unions -- 70% of its 16,000 workers. Without negotiation, existing labor contracts have been unilaterally abrogated. Department managers have been given unprecedented authority to fire employees or cut pay without regard for seniority. The brunt of the service cuts, meanwhile, will be borne by legal services for the poor, health care and welfare while law enforcement and development services (like land-use planning) have been exempted.

There is, of course, method in this madness. Orange County's Establishment seems to be uniting around a triage that lets the supervisors save their beloved capital programs and the state rescue the schools, while public employees and low-income neighborhoods are allowed to drown in the red ink. Yet this could be only the beginning. Right-wing ideologues -- hallucinating on the thoughts of incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- are demanding revolution, not just retrenchment. They see the county's financial crisis as a heaven-sent opportunity to privatize government out of existence and install the entrepreneurial millennium.

The Board of Supervisors has already shown a willingness to meet these demands -- at least part way. Supervisor-elect Marian Bergeson, for instance, has invited the libertarian Reason Institute to advise the board on contracting out major county mandates. Other supervisors are urging a fire sale of public assets, including John Wayne International Airport.

What is the alternative? Montez of LULAC proposes a populist uprising, led by unions and community groups, that focuses wrath on the real culprits. LULAC wants a clean sweep of the Hall of Administration: resignation of the supervisors, an end to government-in-secret, full compliance with the Voting Rights Act, an elected transportation commission, a critical review of all capital programs and a thorough federal probe into the background of the Citron scandal. "Let's begin by admitting the truth: Orange County -- the Republican showcase -- is a disaster area for democracy."*

Copyright 1994 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
October 23, 1994, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By MIKE DAVIS, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill).


Once upon a time, a placid town basked in the golden glow of its orchards. In the 1920s, it was renowned as the "Queen of the Citrus Belt." In the 1940s, it served as one of Hollywood's models for Andy Hardy's hometown. In the 1950s, it became a commuter suburb for thousands of Father-Knows-Bests in their starched white shirts. Now, its nearly abandoned downtown is surrounded by acres of vacant lots and derelict homes. Its major employer, an aerospace corporation, pulled up stakes and moved to Tucson. The 4-H Club has been replaced by local franchises of the Crips and Bloods. Since 1970, nearly 1% of its population has been murdered.

This town is, of course, Pomona, Los Angeles County's fourth largest city. Although geographically a suburb, Pomona now displays pathologies typically associated with a battered inner city.

Its incidence of poverty, for example, exceeds Los Angeles' and its murder rate, in bad years, approaches Detroit's. Its density of gang membership, as a percentage of the teen-age male population, is one of the nation's highest.

Unfortunately, Pomona is not unique. Across the nation, hundreds of aging suburbs are trapped in the same downward trajectory, from garden city to crabgrass slum. This silent, pervasive crisis dominates the political middle landscape.

But the arrival of a second urban crisis -- potentially comparable in magnitude to the endless ordeal of American center cities -- does not fit comfortably into either political party's current agenda. Although urbanists and local government types have been screaming at the top of their lungs for several years about the rising distress "in the inner metropolitan ring," most politicos have kept their heads buried deep in the sand.

The failure of candidates to address, or even grasp, the acuity of the suburban malaise explains, in turn, much of the populist rage that currently threatens the two-party status quo. America seems to be unraveling in its traditional moral center: suburbia.

Indeed, the 1990 census confirms that 35% of suburban cities have experienced significant declines in median household income since 1980. These downward income trends track, in turn, the catastrophic loss of several million jobs.

As a result, formerly bedrock "family-value" towns like Parma, Ohio (outside Cleveland), Brockton, Mass. (outside Boston), or University City, Mo. (outside St. Louis) are experiencing the social destabilization that follows the relentless erosion of job and tax resources.

As the National Journal tried to warn policy-makers last year, "older working-class suburbs are starting to fall into the same abyss of disinvestment that their center cities did years ago." In Southern California, of course, suburban decline is not necessarily a slow bleed. Recent aerospace and defense closures -- like Hughes Missile Divisions' abrupt departure from Pomona, or Lockheed's abandonment of its huge Burbank complex -- have had the traumatic impact of natural disasters. Following the Lockheed shutdown, for example, welfare caseloads in eastern San Fernando Valley soared by 80,000 in an 18-month period.

But older suburbs' losses are usually someone else's gain. Just as the inner-ring suburbs once stole jobs and tax revenues from central cities, so now their pockets are being picked, in turn, by the new urban centers -- farther out on the spiral arms of the metropolitan galaxy -- that Joel Garreau calls "edge cities."

It has been estimated, for example, that the inner-ring suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul lost 40% of their jobs during the 1980s to the so-called "Fertile Crescent" of edge cities on the metro-region's southwest flank. Outside Chicago, Schaumburg and central DuPage County -- west of O'Hare International Airport -- have had similarly adverse effects on the older suburban communities of Cook County, as have the young edge cities of Contra Costa County on the East Bay's traditional blue-collar suburbs. Closer at hand, the 18-mile-long tape-worm-shaped City of Industry puts a bizarre spin on the idea of the predatory edge city. This special-interest "phantom city" (population, 680) monopolizes most of the tax assets of the southern San Gabriel Valley -- including 2,000 factories, warehouse and discount outlets, as well as a first-class golf course and resort hotel. Its malign influence on surrounding, tax-starved suburbs like La Puente and South El Monte has been compared to an economic atom bomb.

The one-sided competition between old and new suburbs has exploded latent class divisions in the historic commuter belts. Southern California, in particular, has become an unstable mosaic of such polarizations. Think of the widening socioeconomic divides between northern and southern Orange County, the upper and lowers tiers of the San Gabriel Valley, the east and west sides of the San Fernando Valley or the San Fernando Valley as a whole and its "suburbs-of-a-suburb" -- like Simi Valley and Santa Clarita.

The have-not suburbs, moreover, have accelerated their decline by squandering scarce tax resources in zero-sum competitions for new investment. A decade ago, every aging 'burb from Compton to Pomona had to have its own auto mall; now the magic bullet is believed to be a card casino -- and both Compton and Pomona are scheming to build one. In addition to the dramatic hemorrhage of jobs and capital over the last decade, baby-boom suburbia also suffers from what might be called "premature physical obsolescence." Much of what has been built in the postwar period -- and continues to be built -- is throwaway architecture, with a 30-year, or less, functional life span. It is ill-suited to support the intergenerational continuity of community or property.

Millions of units of this disposable, ticky-tacky stuff are beginning to erode into the slum housing of the year 2000. The Ur-suburb of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, provides a telling example. The colossal damage inflicted by the Northridge earthquake (a "moderate" trembler on the Richter scale) exposed some of the submerged bulk of this building-quality crisis as residents were literally killed by shoddy construction.

Although no one has yet attempted the calculation, there is little reason to suppose this suburban "housing deficit" -- the replacement cost of obsolete and unrestorable building stock -- will be any smaller than President Bill Clinton's now forgotten "infrastructure deficit." Nor is it likely, as declining suburbs become the new pariahs, that the free market's invisible hand will linger longer than it takes to draw a fatal red line around their prospects for housing reinvestment. All this, of course, is especially bad news for poor, inner-city residents who are being urged by every pundit in the land to find their salvation in the suburbs. Indeed, confronted with virtually Paleolithic conditions of life in collapsing city neighborhoods, hundreds of thousands of blacks and Latinos are finally finding it possible to move into the subdivisions where Beaver Cleaver and Ricky Nelson used to live.

But their experiences too often repeat the heartbreak and disillusionment of the original migrations to the central cities. What seemed from afar a promised land is, at closer sight, scorched earth. Like a maddening mirage, jobs and good schools are still a horizon away.

In the meantime, the stranded and forgotten white populations of these transitional communities are too easily tempted to confuse structural decay with the sudden presence of neighbors of color. In the absence of any serious reform vision, one of the most worrying prospects is that new-wave racism -- even some viral mutation of fascism -- may yet grow limbs of steel in the ruins of the suburban dream.

Copyright 1994 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
March 20, 1994, Sunday, Home Edition Correction Appended

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 4; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill).


In "The Threepenny Opera," Bertolt Brecht gave an oppressed hotel maid an exquisite dream of revenge. Pirate Jenny summons "a ship with eight black sails and 50 cannons" to render justice on her exploiters ("and when their heads roll, I'll say, 'Hoop-la!' "). In Los Angeles, as hotel corporations know too well, that militant ship of justice with the black sails is Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.

This week, Local 11 will launch one of the most dramatic organizing campaigns in recent history. The result of several years of intensive planning and rank-and-file debate, it is an experiment in 21st-Century labor protest. Traditional union tactics have been completely rethought. There will be no formal strike nor stationary picket line.

Instead, under the leadership of their young president, Maria Elena Durazo, the hotel workers will become a peaceful guerrilla army. They intend to confront the tourist industry with disciplined but unexpected actions. Across the city, there will be leafletting, human billboards, flying pickets, delegations to city officials and, inevitably, mass civil disobedience.

Indeed, the hotel workers speak of building not just a union but a social movement, like those of the 1930s and 1960s. If their immediate targets are a dozen or so non-union luxury hotels in Downtown and at LAX, their strategic goal is a living wage for all 50,000 hotel employees in Los Angeles County. (The union currently represents 13,000.) Unionization of the hotels, in turn, is visualized as the first step in lifting hundreds of thousands of other service workers out of their low-wage ghetto.

The national business press has recently hailed entertainment and tourism as the new engines of prosperity, offsetting losses in traditional manufacturing and defense production. In Los Angeles, however, the $8-billion tourist industry -- the second-largest sector in the regional economy -- is capitalized on poverty. The average worker earns a mere $5.35 an hour -- low enough to qualify for food stamps. If the annual incomes of hotel and theme-park employees are slightly above the official poverty line, those of restaurant workers are far below.

Working conditions, meanwhile, are too often indistinguishable from sweatshops or farms. Downtown's great luxury hotels, for example, scarcely look like the cotton plantations of the tourist economy. But ask any maid cleaning a $250-a-day room about her life.

In an ordinary shift, she may make 25 beds and scrub 18 toilets and bathtubs. Her back usually aches, and her hands and eyes are often irritated by caustic cleaning chemicals. She is harassed by management and sometimes by guests. This is stoop labor without the sunshine, and maids -- overwhelmingly from Mexico, Central America or the Philippines -- are campesinas in white smocks. Yet, there is no iron law of wages that consigns tourism workers to peonage. In heavily unionized tourist centers like Las Vegas, San Francisco, Honolulu and New York, wages average 50% higher than in Los Angeles. In New York, for example, union maids earn $12 an hour in first-class hotels -- a dignified compensation for their toil. In San Francisco and Las Vegas, waitresses, fry cooks and room-clerks can afford to own homes and support families.

Conversely, there is no indication that higher wages have wrecked mass tourism or destroyed profits in these travel destinations. Quite the contrary. But there is growing evidence -- as Local 11 pointed out a few years ago in the controversial video "City on the Edge" -- that poverty-wage levels and their social consequences are eroding the image of Los Angeles. The worst slums in the metropolis -- Lennox, Pico-Union, City College -- tend to have the largest concentrations of low-wage hotel and food-service employees.

Yet, the corporate sector of the local tourist industry enjoys huge public subsidies. The Community Redevelopment Agency has given Downtown's luxury hotels tens of millions of dollars worth of density bonuses and land discounts. One Downtown hotel, for example, was able to buy its prime Figueroa site for only $1.5 million in 1980. By 1990, the value of the land alone was estimated to have increased tenfold. The Convention Center expansion, meanwhile, has diverted tax increments from affordable housing and threatens to hijack general revenue to make up a likely shortfall between its out-of-control cost (now more than $500 billion) and less-than-anticipated bed-tax income. Rumors fly that another $100 million of public funding is being sought to construct a first-class hotel in the wasteland near the center. South Figueroa is beginning to look ominously like Los Angeles' fiscal Vietnam.

Taxpayers also directly subsidize the MediCal coverage and county hospital services that compensate for the health-care insurance that non-union tourism employees cannot afford to buy. It has been estimated that more than a quarter of the state's uninsured workers are employed by major corporations, like the big hotel and restaurant chains. One of the principal attractions of service-sector unions like the hotel workers, or SEIU's "Justice for Janitors" campaign, has been their success in winning employer-paid health benefits. For the maids and cleaners, this is often equivalent to a 20% raise -- though that still barely elevates them above the level of AFDC assistance.

Local 11 and its allies propose to take the working poor off welfare by forcing corporate employers to accept the principle of a living wage. As their campaign unfolds, they undoubtedly will be accused of trying to sabotage the economic recovery by scaring away tourists and disturbing luxury lifestyles. (Higher wages and union contracts, after all, are not part of the official tool kit for "Rebuilding Los Angeles.") Some critics, moreover, will conflate their actions with the threat by the police union to advertise the city as a lawless wilderness.

It is essential, however, to distinguish between legitimate social exposure and irresponsible fear-mongering. Hotel workers pose no danger to public safety. They have no power to empty the jails (as the sheriff has threatened in recent budget debates) or to turn their backs on disorder. If they are forced to engage in street protest, it is because official boosterism still ignores issues of poverty.

Media pundits drool over immigrant millionaires and emerging technologies, but rarely explain how a reinvented Los Angeles economy will help the multitudes stranded in low-paid service jobs. For how many generations will maids and busboys have to wait before their families can afford the price of admission to Disneyland or Magic Mountain?

As Local 11 sees it, Los Angeles is in danger of becoming Chiapas with freeways. That's why they are telling all the potential Pirate Jennys: "Your time is now!"

CORRECTION-DATE: March 27, 1994, Sunday, Home Edition


Convention Center: The cost of expanding the Los Angeles Convention Center was $500 million. The figure was incorrectly reported last week.

Copyright 1994 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
January 23, 1994, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 4; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill).


How many more Californians will have to die before the Legislature seriously debates seismic safety?

Last Monday's earthquake has a political as well as a tectonic history. If nature defines the hazard, it is human action -- or inaction -- that translates it into risk. People, after all, are seldom swallowed up by the Earth, they are usually killed by falling architecture. Design mediates geology and is, in turn, supposedly regulated by policy.

But who determines what are the socially "acceptable" levels of earthquake risk? Certainly not the folks who live in $600-a-month apartments in Northridge or trailer parks in Newhall. Not even those whose million-dollar homes perch precariously on the slopes of the Santa Monicas or the Palisades.

In California, seismic safety is an issue superbly insulated from the volatility of democratic politics. Few of us have ever heard a candidate take a position on disaster planning or the contents of a building code. None of us has ever had the opportunity to vote on the trade-offs between public safety and the economic costs of hazard reduction.

What should be an open arena of public controversy is, in fact, a closed circle of collusion between technocrats and the real-estate industry. Earthquake engineering and land-use planning pay homage, first and above all, to corporate bottom lines. Developers have the majority vote -- if not a de facto vote -- over the calculus of risks and expenses. Lives are literally balanced against rates of return in equations that radically underestimate the restlessness of the Pacific plate. But what of official reassurances that California is the "state of the art" in comprehensive planning for earthquake survival? Our elected representatives, perhaps unwittingly, are living a lie. For every mitigation achieved, public policy has also allowed an unnecessary magnification of a danger. Consider the four crucial areas of hazard zoning, the building code, disaster education and emergency mobilization.

First of all, local and state governments have utterly failed to manage land use for public safety. Sixty years ago, the nation's leading expert on urban form, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (whose father designed Central Park), urged Los Angeles to adopt "hazard zoning" to prevent the private development of foothills, river channels and wetlands. Recognizing that our landscape evolves through an inevitable cycle of fire, flood and earthquake, he proposed to minimize public risk while simultaneously preserving precious open space for future generations.

Instead of following Olmsted's advice, we have foolishly subdivided hither and yon -- placing thousands of combustible wooden homes in the hearth of mountain wildfires, and hundreds of flimsy concrete boxes in the unstable beds of former swamps and lagoons. Like the San Francisco Bay Area (remember the Marina District in 1989?), a large swathe of Los Angeles is built on foundations of jello. The Times could render a public service simply by publishing the official "liquefaction potential" map of the L.A. area.

Second, the seismic provisions of the Uniform Building Code have been minimalist, grudging concessions to catastrophe. The bureaucracy usually waits until a building type fails in a major earthquake before legislating new rules. Reform is driven by body counts.

Thus, scores of public schools had to be reduced to rubble in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake (120 dead) before Sacramento imposed any restrictions on their construction. Similarly, Los Angeles procrastinated until slab-concrete warehouses, a shopping center and two hospitals collapsed in the 1971 Sylmar disaster (64 dead) before addressing elementary deficiencies in their design.

Some have argued that such grim "report cards" are unfortunate prerequisites to understanding the rules of safe construction. This is nonsense. It does not take a Cal Tech degree, for example, to understand that homes or apartments constructed over garages (like many in the Valley) have little shear resistance to shaking. This was a major category of structural failure during the Loma Prieta earthquake, and it should have been anticipated in Southern California as well. Speculative building types, by definition, play chicken with seismic forces, and Los Angeles has its structural counter-parts to the killer mud huts of Third World cities. Was it really so difficult to foresee that shoddily built tenements of all ages -- from the brick rent-mines of Hollywood to that stucco deathtrap in Northridge -- would fall like dominoes in last week's quake?

Third, the public has been badly misinformed about the diversity of earthquake hazards in the Los Angeles Basin. The disaster bureaucracy has mesmerized us with its apocalyptic focus on the Big One, rather than providing detailed hazard maps to the faults in our own back yards. If the current tragedy has finally produced a televised teach-in about the treacherous jigsaw of deeply buried thrust faults, we still only know half the bad news.

According to the California Division of Mines, the single greatest geological threat to the Los Angeles Basin is a repeat of the 1933 earthquake along the Newport-Inglewood fault zone that passes directly through the Harbor and most of South-Central Los Angeles. A companion study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicts as many as 23,000 dead and $69 billion in property damage: "The worst disaster in the United States since the Civil War."

If we were better informed about these close-at-hand hazards, we might be more impelled to take grass-roots action to safeguard our homes, schools and workplaces. But -- my fourth point -- our current disaster-management system is designed to reduce us to role of passive victims waiting to be dug out of the rubble. Our sole responsibility is to hoard toilet paper and bottled water.

But if tens of thousands of citizens can be mobilized on a block level as Neighborhood Watches against crime, why can't they be organized as a pro-active network for disaster response? Wouldn't it be a good idea to have neighborhood volunteers who know where the senior citizens live and how to turn off the gas mains? To help translate live-saving instructions into Armenian or Korean?

Naive questions perhaps. It is inevitable that people taking an active role in their own safety will learn more about the details of the problem. And that might lead to a critical view of official policy. From there, it is only a short leap to political dissent and public debate -- what the system seems to dread most.

But it is a leap we may all have to make. At another hour, on a normal business day, last week's casualties might easily have been multiplied a hundredfold. Moreover, the Northridge earthquake has had an unexpected, leveling effect on our divided city. For the emergent paradigm of the Cal Tech professors makes us all more equal. Although it still does matter whether you dwell in a dingbat or a mansion, everywhere in Los Angeles -- Watts to Beverly Hills -- is now, potentially, epicentral.

Copyright 1993 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
November 14, 1993, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 4; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill).

BODY: Pete Wilson is right. There is an army of arsonists lurking in our foothills. But they are called wealthy homeowners.

Southern California is a fire ecology in the same way it is a land of sunshine. Our natural landscapes -- coastal sage, oak savanna and chaparral -- have co-evolved with wildfire. Periodic burning is necessary to recycle nutrients and germinate seeds. The native Californians were skilled fire farmers. They used fire to cultivate edible grass, increase browse for deer and produce better basket stalks. Their annual burning prevented fire catastrophe by limiting the accumulation of fuel.

The deadly foothill firestorms are the ironic consequence of massive expenditure on fire suppression.

In a famous study, a botanist once compared the fire histories of San Diego County and northern Baja California. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on fire suppression in San Diego's urbanized backcountry, while a natural fire cycle has been tolerated in Baja's wild hill areas. As a result, only San Diego County has had catastrophic fires.

Preventive burning has been successfully practiced in local national forests for decades. It is precluded in most of our foothills by the sheer density of housing, and the threat of lawsuits from powerful homeowners' associations. They are the principal political constituency for the continuation of costly and quixotic efforts at "total fire suppression."

Since 1945, 75,000 high-income homes have been constructed in the foothills and mountains. Even more than communing with nature, these homes represent -- as design critic Reyner Banham recognized -- a search for absolute "thickets of privacy," outside the fabric of common citizenship and urban life.

Hillside home-building has despoiled the natural heritage of the majority for the sake of a selfish few. The beautiful coastal sage and canyon-riparian ecosystems of the Santa Monicas have been supplanted by castles and "guard-gate prestige." Elsewhere -- in the Repetto, Verdugo, San Jose, Puente and San Joaquin hills -- tens of thousands of acres of oak and walnut woodland have been destroyed by developers' bulldozers.

Despite a season of firestorms, dozens of new hillside tracts remain under construction. In the foothills above Monrovia, 240 mature oak trees have been cut down for the sake of a ridiculously overscaled plantation of combustible "chateau-style" mansions. In Altadena, a glen is being transformed into a "total-security" suburb complete with its own private school.

Typically, development rights in the foothills have been secured through questionable campaign contributions. Instead of protecting our "significant ecological areas," as required by law, the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission has historically been the malleable tool of developers. Moreover, society as a whole must pay the huge costs of defending hillside developments from inevitable natural hazards. Since 1945, several billion dollars of general revenue have been invested in flood-control and fire-fighting efforts focused on elite foothill society.

There has been no comparable investment in the fire and earthquake safety of the inner city. Indeed, we tolerate two systems of hazard prevention, separate and unequal. The Times has recently exposed the scandal of unenforced fire laws in McArthur Park neighborhoods, where dozens have died in tenement fires.

Media discussion of the fire hazard has been dominated by a criminalized discourse that scapegoats the homeless as potential arsonists. Pundits reinforce the illusion that wildfire can be contained by yet more costly investments in high-tech fire-fighting technology. The pyrogenic nature of hillside development is largely ignored. Indeed, if the post-fire experience of the Oakland Hills is any guide, immolated properties will be rebuilt at twice their original size.

It is time that the flatland majority considered an alternative approach, based on intertwined principles of restoration ecology and social cost-benefit analysis:

* An immediate moratorium on further hillside development.

* "Fire zoning" to establish the fiscal responsibility of foothill homeowners to pay a larger share of the cost of protecting their own homes.

* Comprehensive enforcement of the fire code in every part of the city, with harsher sanctions against criminally negligent landlords.

* Prioritize environmental restoration through an expansion of the California Conservation Corps.

Copyright 1993 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
May 9, 1993, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill).


April was a magic month for the Los Angeles Police Department. A jury lifted the curse of the Rodney G. King case. The blue knights slew a mythic dragon called the second riot. And Chief Willie L. Williams became more popular than Santa Claus. The only sour note was the defeat of Proposition 1 on April 20. But if handful of voters, led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., managed to rain on the police parade, both Michael Woo and Richard Riordan have promised sunnier skies and new police uniforms. "More police" is their common mantra.

This renaissance of the LAPD is the ironic product of the King-beating crisis. A year ago, nothing would have seemed less likely. Parker Center, accused of both brutality and cowardice, was besieged from all sides.

Now it enjoys unprecedented support from community leaders in every part of the city. Williams basks in the warm glow of the same editorial pages that roasted his predecessor. Mainstream demands for police reform are no longer heard.

But does the department deserve such uncritical adulation? Is this really a "kinder, gentler" LAPD, or is it just the same old paramilitary organization under new, more talented management?

Take the most obvious litmus test: The right to life of nonwhite males in encounters with LAPD patrol units. Last November, an African-American tow-truck operator, John L. Daniels Jr., pulled into a service station on the corner of Florence and Normandie. While he was pumping gas, he was accosted by two white motorcycle officers. After an argument over his registration, Daniels became exasperated and attempted to leave. He was promptly shot dead by Douglas Iversen, a 15-year police veteran with a history of misconduct.

Residents of the area have described Daniels' death as a public execution, and the city hastened to negotiate a $1.3-million settlement with his aggrieved family. Yet, Iversen remains on the force, subject only to "tactical retraining." Williams and District Atty. Gilbert L. Garcetti have ignored demands for a criminal indictment.

More recently, the LAPD was also involved in the needless killing of Michael James Bryant, a popular Pasadena barber asphyxiated in the back seat of a police car after having been tasered, beaten, then hog-tied and laid on his stomach -- in violation of official policy. The coroner ruled his death a homicide, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has urged a Justice Department investigation. Despite troubling evidence that Daniels and Bryant may be the "Rodney Kings" on Williams' watch, the Police Commission has chosen to hide its head in the sand. It apparently prefers to "hear no evil, see no evil" rather than risk a confrontation that might embarrass Williams or expose the shortcomings of the Christopher Commission reforms.

Nor have the commissioners been any bolder in addressing persistent complaints of sexual harassment within the LAPD. Since 1988, at least six policewomen have charged colleagues with "acquaintance rape." The details are lurid. One case involves alleged sodomy in the woman's bathroom at the Police Academy; another, an alleged "sex pad" on the West Side.

In a case under investigation, a high-ranking officer is accused of assaulting a young, African-American patrolwoman. Her lawyer has protested to Williams about the "blame the victim" attitude adopted by heavy-handed Internal Affairs investigators. Quoting Plato, he wonders how we can expect "the police to rigorously and fairly police themselves?"

That remains the big question. It underlies the nearly 50-year struggle in Los Angeles, initiated by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People at the end of World War II, for a civilian-review board. Progressive cities elsewhere have all opted for the independent investigation of police misconduct. Even New York City, with the Mollen Commission, is rapidly moving toward establishing an auditor general's office to monitor police wrongdoing. From this perspective, Williams' proposals for "bold, community-based policing," may be less of a panacea than a placebo. As matters now stand, the crucial "police community councils," which will help the LAPD shape local policy, will be appointed, not elected, bodies. Like the current Neighborhood Watch groups, they will serve at the pleasure of division commanders, subject to censure or dismissal for the expression of politically incorrect ideas.

The police, in other words, will retain the freedom to define who represents the "community" as well as the parameters of its own accountability. This is more a strategy for building a political base than for genuinely sharing power. Police critics and civil libertarians will almost certainly be excluded.

Although Williams' image radiates a comforting broad-mindedness, he continues to quarantine dialogue with controversial groups. He has, for example, rejected every opportunity to meet with organizers of the South-Central gang truce. He even snubbed the new NAACP president, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., when the latter proposed to bring along some Watts gang members.

Perhaps, Los Angeles should be more cautious about embracing Williams as its civic messiah. In too many aspects, his new-model LAPD continues to smack of the ancient regime. Brutality and sexual-abuse cases routinely languish in the silent vaults of the Internal Affairs division. Community policing remains an unsatisfactory substitute for real accountability and community control.

Indeed, if we are not careful, the chief's popularity could become the light that blinds us to police abuse. That halo over Parker Center may, after all, be just a giant doughnut.

Copyright 1993 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
April 18, 1993, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 3; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hill).


For the last month, too many Angelenos have behaved like the monster-threatened, stampeding populace in a 1950s sci-fi thriller. They have mobbed gunstores, boarded their windows, overwhelmed "rumor con trol" centers, looted supermarket shelves of bottled water and toilet paper and prepared for imminent flight. The mass-hysteria level hasn't been this high since Orson Welles broadcast "War of the Worlds" two generations ago. Our "anticipation anxieties" -- to use the deadpan jingo of a prominent radio-shrink -- have been whipped into dementia by doomsday pronouncements from leading institutions. Thus the security department of one of our largest universities warns faculty to leave town a day ahead of the decision in the Rodney G. King federal civil-rights trial to avoid the "panic-stricken gridlock" of a mass exodus. Like skittish cattle, the employees of tony downtown law firms and advertising agencies prepare to bolt for the Valley at the slightest sneeze from a juror.

The current municipal nervous breakdown might be laughable (just call it the latest fad from the Coast), if it wasn't so fraught with cruel omens. The oldest demon of California history -- the Vigilante Man -- has reappeared on the crabgrass frontier between "us" and "them." Encouraged by politicians "tough enough" to send 15-year-olds to the gas chamber, white fear has been allowed to arm itself behind barricades and "No Trespass" signs. Openly racist paranoia has been patted on the back.

As a result, it is becoming more perilous for people of another color to innocently wander through certain hillside and valley neighborhoods. Mayor Tom Bradley's Neighbor-to-Neighbor volunteers are probably wasting their time appealing for calm in South Los Angeles, where it already exists. Instead, they should be going door to door in Hollywoodland, Porter Ranch and other affluent tracts where temperaments are the most hotheaded and intolerant. Let the city establish some "guns for jobs" programs on the Westside, and send some sports celebrities to Encino to help troubled homeowners say "no" to prejudice.

The relentless obsession with black rage and black violence is just that: an irrational obsession. In point of fact, it has been white rage and white violence -- grimly immortalized on two minutes of videotape -- that have brought this city to the brink of panic. And it is black people who have the most to fear in its streets.

Last fall, a white doorman at a trendy Hollywood nightclub owned by a famed movie star's brother murdered two black patrons. They were unarmed and, according to witnesses, begged for their lives. The club -- still open -- had long been accused of discriminatory practices.

As quickly as it takes to say the words "Reginald Denny," how many of us know the names of the victims or the name of the club?

"Hypocrisy," a famed local journalist once wrote, "spreads over the city like a vast fungus." Just call it the Blob that ate L.A.

Copyright 1993 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
March 28, 1993, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 4; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


Scaremongers should beware. A grass-roots revolt is brewing against the sensationalized press coverage of the Rodney G. King civil-rights trial -- particularly the incessant image of black gangs sup posedly armed for a "Tet offensive" against the city. In the past three weeks, exasperated church and community leaders from South Los Angeles have begun to publicly question whether the media army camped in front of the Federal Building downtown is here to objectively report news or irresponsibly solicit disorder.

It is easy to sympathize with community grievances. South Los Angeles is being mugged by tabloid television. Night after night, the "doom tube" (as some residents now call it) relentlessly portrays Los Angeles' southside as tottering on the brink of a second Apocalypse. As a result, investment and tourism continue to be scared away from the city, while gun stores and razor-wire manufacturers reap the free advertising.

Critics of the media, however, need to ponder why it has become so easy to push the world's panic button about a new riot. The current alarmism, after all, only recycles the stereotypes about South Los Angeles established amid the reporting of last spring's disturbances. It feeds less on the obvious excesses -- the posed gang photos and the lurid "get the police" sound-bites -- than on the endless repetition of half-truths posing as hard facts.

Like monstrous weeds -- kudzu on prime-time -- these deceits have obscured the real, and very complex, events of last year. They have become a Los Angeles riot mythology, justifying the current preparations for a military onslaught against African-American youth. It is time to chop a few of them down.

Myth 1: It was the Los Angeles riot.

Nothing seems more obvious. Yet, arrest data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union from the Sheriff's Department reveal that 55.2% of the 12,545 arrests in last year's uprising were made outside Los Angeles city limits. The Long Beach police alone booked 1,050 people, 300 for riot-related felonies. The Marines had to be landed in Compton, while the National Guard patrolled Huntington Park. Hundreds of arrests were made in the Firestone district, Inglewood, Lennox, Hawthorne, Lynwood and Pasadena. Serious rioting even crossed the hills to affect Pomona and the west end of San Bernardino, not to mention a full month of violence in Las Vegas. Unrest even spread to Atlanta, New York and Toronto.

Myth 2: The riot, within Los Angeles, was concentrated in South-Central neighborhoods.

According to the LAPD arrest database used by the Webster Commission, the greatest density of riot-related "incidents" occurred north of the Santa Monica Freeway within the Wilshire and Rampart LAPD areas, not in South Los Angeles. Indeed, nearly as many suspects were booked by Rampart alone as by all four of the stations included within the department's South Bureau. Even the Hollywood station made twice as many arrests as the 77th Street station, which patrolled the supposed riot epicenter at Florence and Normandie.

Myth 3: It was primarily a black riot.

Only 38% of those arrested by the LAPD were African-Americans. Within both the city and county jurisdictions, Latinos constituted the largest group of arrestees -- 51% and 45%, respectively. Municipal Court data show that more Spanish-surname individuals were charged with arson than blacks. Meanwhile, the large contingent of Anglos arrested (1,447 or nearly 13% of the county total) belies the idea that whites were merely passive bystanders or victims. The Crips, after all, did not loot Hollywood Boulevard.

Myth 4: Black gangs, at least, planned and instigated the riot.

Predictably, a tangled folklore of conspiracy has grown up about last year's disorders. At one point, many journalists saw an alleged Sheriff's Department intelligence report that blamed the riots on "Muslims." Now, a former deputy to Chief Daryl F. Gates has published an account claiming that black gang leaders met to systematically plot the burning and looting of the city. Yet, the FBI, which has had more than a hundred agents in the field for almost a year, denies finding any evidence of a coordinated conspiracy behind the riot.

Meanwhile, the media has largely ignored the year-old truce between the Crips and the Bloods that has been responsible for a dramatic reduction in gang-related homicides throughout South Los Angeles. Television, in particular, loves bloodcurdling sound-bites from purported gangbangers, but has yet to produce a rounded documentary about America's most important urban peace movement.

Myth 5: The cops underreacted.

Whatever your opinion of the belated police response on the first day of disorder, subsequent deployments were hardly timorous. Gates presided over the biggest mass arrest since the climax of anti-Vietnam war protests in 1971. The LAPD egregiously abused power with their suppression of a peaceful, city-licensed demonstration on May 1 and their indiscriminate "vacuuming" of the homeless for curfew violations. In addition, they violated longstanding city policy by joining Immigration and Naturalization Service agents in a dragnet of Central American neighborhoods around McArthur Park.

Despite the Police Commission's recent finding that the LAPD was justified in all of its riot-related shootings, folks in Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts are still seething over the deaths of Dennis Jackson and Anthony Taylor -- two local men caught drinking beer in a parking lot during a firefight between the police and alleged "snipers."

Myth 6: Los Angeles has become a Third-World city.

Contrary to the opinions recently expressed by Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner and "D-FENS" (Michael Douglas's character in "Falling Down"), the land of sunshine remains a white Raj. Though only 37% of the current city population and just 12% of the public-school enrollment, Anglos still comprise 70% of the active electorate and 80% of the federal jury pool for the King civil-rights trial. Needless to say, they also control 90% of the metropolis's fixed wealth and capital gains.

This list of media-endorsed myths could easily be extended. One other example would be the fantastic notion that the city can be "rebuilt" while its schools and human services are undergoing a fiscal apocalypse. Perhaps there is an ironic justice here: A city that has stubbornly refused to hear the cries and whispers of its own children is now the helpless prisoner of other peoples' caricatures and calumnies.

Copyright 1993 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
February 7, 1993, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 4; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


With the beginning of jury selection in the second trial concerning the Rodney G. King incident, a season of fear has officially opened.

Los Angeles, says the national press, is "a city in a race with time," "wracked with anxiety" and "braced for trouble." Time magazine warns of the armies of "idle and restless men" who may again set the city afire if "verdicts in two explosive new trials are not to their liking." Nightly news is saturated with images of the Los Angeles Police Department drilling with gas masks and shotguns in Elysian Park or test-firing their new rubber bullets against unruly supporters of the LA 4. Meanwhile, in casual conversations, friends confess elaborate preparations for fleeing the city at the first hint of new violence.

In our current state of growing apprehension, no one seems to have remembered Hegel's dictum that history repeats itself not as tragedy but as farce. Please don't misunderstand me: Tragedy is written large over too many lives -- especially young ones -- in Los Angeles these days. But the official scenario for the Third L.A. Riot suspiciously smacks of self-serving political theater.

By magnifying anxieties around the verdicts in the overlapping Reginald O. Denny and King-beating trials, all the institutions that failed so miserably last spring -- the courts, the LAPD, the mayoralty -- set the stage for their heroic vindication. In the Establishment's "win-win" version, a nobly "impartial" federal jury finally takes the LAPD's bad apples off the talk-show circuit, while Police Chief Willie L. Williams' new-model LAPD efficiently squelches any angry outburst at the corner of Florence and Normandie following the conviction of Damian Monroe (Football) Williams and the other men who allegedly beat up Denny. Despite dire predictions, a new riot is forestalled and the city is saved. This happy ending is designed, like the current mayoral election, to thrill a primarily white audience -- not those "idle and restless men" in the ghettos and barrios. The complex accumulation of grievances that fueled last year's explosion is reduced to a simple morality play in a federal courtroom, while the impossible burden of something called "justice" is shifted onto the backs of a nameless, sequestered jury.

What is really happening, of course, is that the politics of riot control have replaced the politics of reform. For all the brave words spoken over the ashes of last spring's uprising, we are in headlong retreat from its real issues.

The youth who instigated the rebellion are as ignored, vilified and unheard as before. There is no political leadership to resist the budget cuts that are dismantling the schools and public services of our inner-city neighborhood. And the slogan emblazoned over the current city election is "More Cops!" not jobs for kids.

Hanging Stacey C. Koon and convicting the three other policemen may assuage white guilt over the first verdict, but it is small recompense for all the false promises made to South Los Angeles over the past 10 months. There is no need to worry about the "next riot," because the city is still on fire.

Copyright 1992 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
October 4, 1992, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


I have never seen such pain in the neighborhoods of this city. From Sylmar to San Pedro, families sit around dinner tables, talking in somber voices. They are agonizing over bills they no longer know how to pay, jobs they know they may soon lose and schools that can no longer guarantee their kids a decent education. Everything seems clouded by recession, violence and fear. This is still Los Angeles, of course, and enough gilt remains on the dream to blind the foolish. But even before the days of rage last spring, a profound cultural metamorphosis was taking place. Working-class families see a future looted of hope. Not since the Great Depression have so many felt so powerless to control the direction of their lives.

At least there is no shortage of condescending saviors. The crush of applicants for Tom Bradley's seemingly unenviable job forms a line around City Hall. Every grizzled pol with $2 in his pocket is now a serious contender. Each one bleats, in turn, that the city's problems stem from a "crisis of leadership" and that he or she is the solution.

But there is no obvious bargain in the shopworn selection of good ol' boys and carpetbaggers on offer. What arrogance, indeed, that so many senior members of our ineffectual City Council should think they have earned the mandate of heaven. If things are half as bad as most pundits say, honorable men would pass the hemlock, not the campaign-collection plate.

Nor should we be seduced by wealthy amateurs who proclaim themselves the local edition of Ross Perot. And while it would be wonderful to see a woman's portrait -- or a Latino's or an Asian's -- greeting arrivals at LAX, this alone will not lift the current sense of siege or stop the headlong Balkanization as a community. In a profound sense, we are searching for a messiah. The "crisis of leadership" is ultimately a smoke screen that disguises a deeper malaise.

Before we debate candidates, we need to discuss community empowerment and structural political reform. It should be as plain as any departing bureaucrat's golden parachute that Los Angeles is the most undemocratic of big American cities. We lead the league in the sprawling, unrepresentable size of council districts, and in the vast numbers of adult residents disenfranchised by reason of registration or citizenship. No other major city remains so ethnically gerrymandered or tolerates such disparities between the composition of its population and its electorate.

Where else, this side of the Elbe, do a majority of neighborhoods count for so little in the calculus of power? Smirk all you want about Chicago's lazy snowplows and Tammany Hall's Thanksgiving turkeys, but the political machines in Chicago and New York at least routinely acknowledge their grass roots. Here, entire neighborhoods can be forgotten for decades. Just ask folks in Boyle Heights, Wilmington or Pacoima how they fared in the halcyon years of the Bradley regime.

Los Angeles is the great exception to the wave of reform that swept most Sun Belt cities in the 1970s and early 1980s. In contrast with Houston, we failed to expand the City Council to incorporate greater diversity, and, unlike Tucson and San Diego, we disdained the "neighborhood planning revolution" that gave residents a counterweight to the political clout of developers. To internationalize the comparison: If we were a country in Eastern Europe, we would be Albania.

Meanwhile, we are still governed by a City Charter crafted in the days of Harry Chandler and Calvin Coolidge. It is a period piece with such contemporary Los Angeles institutions as the open shop, the restrictive covenant and the Ku Klux Klan -- one of whose supporters was then mayor. As radical critics have been pointing out for generations, the essence of the 1925 Charter is not how it apportions power between the mayor and the City Council, but rather the ease with which it facilitates the rule of an invisible government of corporate leaders and wealthy developers.

Once upon a time, this parallel universe had a name (Committee of 25) and a "Mr. Big" (Asa Call) who gave marching orders to mayors and other underlings. There was a serendipitous fit between what was discussed in the Jonathan Club's smoking room and what happened in City Hall. In the last decade, however, a tsunami of off-shore capital has restructured traditional power in Hollywood and Downtown. The economic elites are unable to shape city policy as coherently as they did during the 1960s. No one is sure who is king of the mountain anymore. The City Council has exploited this confusion to increase its own prerogatives and raise the fee for its services. In particular, individual council members have brilliantly manipulated neighborhood protests against development to leverage bigger campaign contributions from developers. If, as a result, organizers became embittered, the alienation of their communities became literally incendiary.

Watching Los Angeles in flames this spring, a naive observer might have expected, at long last, some corrective shift of power back to the neighborhoods. Instead, the mayor and City Council threw themselves on the mercies of the Bush Administration and local capitalism. Peter V. Ueberroth was conscripted less to sweep debris than to restore the coherence of the invisible government.

Rebuild L.A. has only increased the turmoil at the grass roots. Myriad local groups, confused by the invisible rules of the game, have been plunged into a blind competition with each other for an unknown quanta of resources. With no democratic arena to sort out differences, rival ethnic claims have become aggravated and less reconcilable.

But real blame rests with a City Council too scared to govern and too selfish to share power -- except with its corporate campaign contributors. They subcontract elected responsibilities while drawing their checks on the commonweal.

In a city on the brink, it is time to begin sawing away deadwood. There are various theoretical paths to greater community empowerment, but only one currently has the sanction of most grass-roots movements. The arithmetic is simple:

Homeowners associations and slow-growth groups have long advocated elected community planning boards. Other reformers believe that community policing, as advocated by the Christopher Commission, will only work if citizen advisory boards are independent and locally elected. Inner-city housing and job advocates won't accept rebuilding from the top down; they want neighborhood control. Virtually everyone wants revitalization of local political participation.

Add all this up. It equals a new tier of elected community or neighborhood government with, at minimum, advisory power over local land use, environment, policing and development issues. If we were as bold as Portland, we would also include neighborhood-need assessments in the annual budget, and support grass-roots organization with a citywide Office of Neighborhood Associations. The fundamental point is that neighborhood government would mobilize the passion and creativity of thousands of ordinary people who want to build true social justice in Los Angeles. The current system merely corrodes their idealism and deters their participation.

Moreover, a neighborhood tier would guarantee previously voiceless groups -- Central American refugees, Korean merchants, inner-city youth, even the homeless -- an immediate, compelling presence in city politics. All the more so if participation were expanded by a residential rather than citizen franchise. And it would teach the democratic humility of canvassing a vote and building a mandate to serve. This, in turn, might reduce the current number of bogus "community leaders," these chiefs without tribes.

This proposal may strike some as a Trojan horse for yet more bureaucracy. But its intention is just the opposite. Neighborhood representation would begin to abolish the invisible government and rein in the City Council. One hundred-plus local boards are far more difficult for special interests to feed than 15 hungry politicians.

Finally, what of the argument that political devolution simply writes a prescription for anarchic parochialism? In fact, a parliament of neighborhoods reflecting the fine-grained texture of our diversity is more likely to encourage interethnic unity and negotiation of common interests than our current feudal council. Citizen soldiers have less interest in war and its spoils than generals. In this and other respects, neighborhood democracy could be a bridge over our troubled waters.

Copyright 1992 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
June 28, 1992, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 6; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


Over the last year, a disturbing seepage of power has occurred in City Hall. Confronted with the gravest civic crisis since the Depression, a weak, increasingly re clusive mayor and a shrewd but spineless City Council have abdicated power to a new proconsular elite of corporate lawyers, law-enforcement leaders and millionaire executives. With virtually no debate, responsibilities of democratic government have been subcontracted to the commissions or coalitions chaired by Warren Christopher, Robert E. Wycoff, William H. Webster and Peter V. Ueberroth.

They are invested with the power to develop city policy across a spectrum of vital and interrelated issues: police reform, public education and the future of South Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, these white knights have opted for narrow definitions of problems and their solutions.

Thus, the Christopher Commission abjured far-reaching institutional reforms, like a civilian review board or residency requirement, long advocated by police critics, in favor of minimal administrative changes acceptable to former police chief Ed Davis and other conservative critics of Daryl F. Gates.

The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, chaired by Arco President Wycoff, has seized the high ground in defining the contours of educational reform. This corporate-funded coalition asserts that restructuring, rather than new tax revenue, is the key to saving Los Angeles' collapsing schools. As teacher activists have pointed out, LEARN has undermined support for desperately needed school funding by its emphasis on organizational panaceas. For its part, the Webster Commission, headed by the former FBI and CIA director, is restricted in focus to problems of police riot deployment and response, set apart from any critical inquiry into the events and causes of the worst civil disturbance in modern U.S. history. In sharp contrast to 1965, there has been no initiative to establish a riot commission with a comprehensive mandate. Most city leaders seem to believe we should just concentrate on upgrading police performance and not waste time on a time-consuming and possibly recriminatory inquest into the uprising itself.

In lieu of such an investigation, however, the official "theory" of the riot will inevitably be elaborated by District Atty. Ira Reiner and U.S. Atty. Lourdes G. Baird in the prosecution of innumerable looting, arson and "gang conspiracy" cases. In their relentless push for maximum indictments and penalties, they deny any significant motivation for the rebellion other than opportunist criminality -- a punitive interpretation that returns our understanding of urban unrest to the pre-Kerner Commission dark ages.

Meanwhile, the imposition of Ueberroth as L.A.'s rebuilding czar virtually precludes serious debate about the relative roles of public and private sectors in addressing the current crisis. He has stated that the over-arching priority of his Rebuild L.A. committee will be the mobilization of political and economic incentives to bring private capital back to South Los Angeles. Given this premise, the public sector's role is reduced to leveraging the private sector through tax concessions, training subsidies, land-use variances and so on. Excluded is any serious consideration of the opposing argument, that revitalization might be more effectively achieved through public works and small-business loans financed by higher corporate and luxury taxes.

An ideological coup d'etat has taken place in Los Angeles, as elite commissions have been allowed to impose their interpretations on public policy. In every case, open debate over the fundamental parameters of analysis and action has been short-circuited or avoided. Police reform has been narrowed to a tinkering with the status quo, while redistributive solutions to the urban crisis have been excluded a priori. If there is some titular representation of selected "community leaders," testimony or participation from the grass roots is non-existent.

But conservative reform will almost certainly run aground on reefs of its own making. Consider two examples.

The Christopher Commission's chief antidote for widespread citizen alienation from the LAPD has been the revitalization of the "community-based" policing program that Gates previously discarded. The cornerstone is supposed to be the local police advisory council. But the Christopher Commission characteristically refrained from making these councils elected bodies or investing them with any independent power.

Thus, when the Venice Beach advisory council voted May 1 in support of the commission's Prop. F, they were immediately disbanded by Capt. Jan Carlson, commander of the LAPD's Pacific Division -- an action upheld by Parker Center. If public advisers are fired every time they disagree with LAPD brass, the future of "community-based policing" may be less than brilliant.

At the same time, while Ueberroth's choirs sing Rebuild L.A.'s new anthem, "Stand and Be Proud," the city continues to be torn apart. A tidal wave of deficit-driven cutbacks mandated by city, county and state governments -- will sweep away much of what remains of public education and human services in Los Angeles' blue-collar neighborhoods. A rational "rebuilding" strategy would seek to prevent this impending loss of $2 billion-$3 billion in vital community resources and public-sector jobs -- a magnitude of damage far in excess of April's riots. But the current Ueberroth-Pete Wilson-George Bush obsession with such private-sector incentives as tax subsidies dooms practical action to shore up the public sector with new taxes.

As these examples suggest, pygmy solutions are being applied to giant-sized problems. The work of police reform, far from being concluded with the passage of Prop. F, has yet to tackle the core question of how to make the LAPD more accountable to local citizenry -- elected community policing councils would be a good start. "Rebuild L.A." will be an empty slogan without a comparably energetic and broad-based commitment to save inner-city schools and public employment.

Moreover, elite crisis management risks stifling the voices at the bottom now struggling to be heard. It is hard to imagine how any healing process can take place until aggrieved groups -- whether gang youth, Central American immigrants or Korean merchants -- find a forum for their views.

For all these reasons it is urgent to open the debate. We need wide-ranging public hearings -- broadcast live on radio and cable television -- that offer diverse communities an opportunity to testify about the underlying causes of the rebellion and what "rebuilding" should mean.

Corporate Los Angeles and the law-enforcement Establishment have been given "bully pulpits" to expound their solutions to the current urban crisis. Now it is time to make room for alternative opinions. Some will complain that such hearings delay decisive action. But have no doubt about it: Nothing is more urgent than restoring the credibility -- which is to say, the inclusivity -- of local democracy.

Copyright 1992 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
May 15, 1992, Friday, Home Edition

SECTION: Special Section; Part T; Page 4; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


A paradox: The smoke clears but it becomes harder to see the actual city. Has the rebuilding begun, or are we in the throes of a counterrevolution? To take the first steps forward, we need to know which images we should heed: the reassuring tableaux on our TVs or the nasty scenes in the streets? The first scenario is almost too good to be true -- like an old-fashioned movie -- while the second may be too true to bode any good.

Scenario 1: A great metropolis, rushing to its appointment with the future, is waylaid by anger, sacked and half destroyed. But in the rubble, an old neighborly spirit, like that of the pioneers, is reborn. The haves show kindness to the have-nots. Millionaires emerge from tax shelters to teach welfare mothers to be entrepreneurs. Banks become partners with communities they have redlined. The mayor and police chief finally speak. In a stirring finale, Edward James Olmos, Peter V. Ueberroth and Rodney G. King, brooms in hand, lead the entire city forward, to redeem its multicultural promise. (On the soundtrack, George Bush croons, "You will eat, by and by, in that glorious enterprise zone in the sky.")

Scenario 2: Three hundred demonstrators -- an ethnic rainbow of high-school and college kids -- are trying to hold a peaceful protest downtown. Riot-helmeted police push them back, block-by-block, from the edge of the Civic Center into the Broadway shopping district. Each time the protesters attempt to regroup, the police declare an unlawful assembly and arrest a segment. The final 20 demonstrators make a last stand on the corner of Third and Broadway. A flying column of 150 riot police, imported from various cow towns, encircle them. Spectators, as well as Justice Department legal observers, are incredulous at the police power deployed against a few kids. An older Latino man, who was wounded at Guadalcanal, sobs and shakes his fist.

For the last 10 days, we have had to live with these two contradictory accounts of what has been happening in Los Angeles. Scenario 1, which corresponds to the smog bank of sanctimonious rhetoric obscuring our view, depicts us all as one big happy cleanup crew. Scenario 2 reminds us that we live in a city where selective suspension of civil liberties has become routine. Far from being brought back together as a community, we are only being pried farther apart.

Eighteen-thousand people, five times the 1965 number, have been arrested in connection with the riots. They are the "weeds" Bush says we must pull from the soil of our cities before it can be sowed with the "seeds" of enterprise zones and tax breaks. But they are also our neighbors and fellow citizens. Some are street people, picked up for curfew violation, or mothers arrested for looting food for their children. Many are pathetic scavengers, caught as they poked through burnt debris. Others are bona fide Crips and Bloods, arrested while attempting to negotiate an end to the city's gang war.

"Hypocrisy," as a native son pointed out during the anti-labor hysteria that followed the bombing of The Times in 1910, "spreads like a vast fungus over the surface of L.A." Today's mass arrests seem driven forward as much by our leaders' wide-ranging ambitions as by any consideration of public safety. District Atty. Ira Reiner and City Atty. James K. Hahn, both openly coveting Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren's desk in Sacramento, vie to be hailed in the suburbs as king of the riot busters. Daryl F. Gates and his feuding commanders sandbag what remains of their fierce reputations with arrest numbers that could rival Gen. William C. Westmoreland's shifting body counts in Vietnam. Finally, Bush leaves no doubt that Los Angeles is just a campaign stop on the road to reelection.

If repression, fueled by political spoils-mongering, continues at its current rate, it may become as costly -- at least in damage to the city's human and moral fabric -- as the riot itself. The Draconian punishments being sought by Reiner and Hahn -- with the encouragement of the Bush Administration -- are punitive in the most biased sense of class justice. They are intended to re-instill respect for the police baton, not for any "rule of law."

Yet most of our political and business leaders have suddenly given lip service to portentous ideas like "the war between the haves and the have-nots." If they are serious, then surely they must recognize what Los Angeles most desperately needs is not a Pyrrhic "victory" over rioters, but a truce between hostile ethnic and economic strata that can become a framework for negotiating a new social contract to replace the faded vision of the Bradley years. Here are some peace proposals:

First, city and county authorities should call off the dogs of war and abandon their vindictive prosecution of petty offenders. Those indicted for crimes against property (not involving injury to other people) should be allowed to volunteer for public service in their own communities. Upon completion, any record of their arrest should be destroyed.

Second, exercise of First Amendment and other constitutional rights should be restored in the city. The Webster Commission will undoubtedly investigate the L.A. Police Department's misconduct in this tragedy. It must not be allowed to focus exclusively on the shortcomings of the department's riot planning and implementation, but must include testimony on the many alleged instances of unlawful conduct. Specifically, we need to know under whose authority police suppressed peaceful demonstrations and, in violation of city ordinance, cooperated with the Border Patrol in deporting hundreds of undocumented residents. Equally, every single death attributed to the riot needs to be accounted for in public hearings.

The third proposal is the most difficult but important. We must abandon the LAPD's unwinnable "war on gangs" and offer gang youth a legitimate podium to explain their proposals for social reconstruction. Like the 1965 Watts riot, this conflict has united warring gangs around a vision of black power and community self-determination. Many young Crips and Bloods have suspended hostilities to explore the possibilities of joining in a "black thing."

Some are circulating a program ("Give Us the Hammer and the Nails, We Will Rebuild the City") that makes more sense than anything Bill Clinton or Bush have proposed. The Crips and Bloods offer to eliminate crack dealing and gang warfare in Los Angeles in exchange for $3.7 billion worth of new social investment in the inner city. In their eyes, the fiscal equivalent of a few Stealth bombers is not a lot to spend in return for liberating neighborhoods from their greatest scourges and returning hope to a lost generation.

These kids don't have a lot of patience. They are in a hurry and want to talk now. They have taken great risks getting this far, and they expect us to take a few risks in return. If we do, they may prove to be the angels the city was named after. If we don't, they may be our gravediggers.

Copyright 1992 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
April 26, 1992, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 6; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


The most controversial word in our local dialect is density. Let a politician say it too loud and homeowners from Pomona to the Palisades start sharpening their knives. Los Angeles County suffers from an acute shortage of affordable housing, but proposals for a denser urban fabric invariably evoke the nightmare image of "Blade Runner." This fear of urbanization stems partly from racial intolerance, partly from tract-home parochialism. But, increasingly, it arises from a shared pessimism about the city's future that transcends class and ethnic divides. Just look around.

In Hollywood and the Miracle Mile, an invasion of unaffordable, four-story "super-cubes" are quadrupling lot densities and devouring whole neighborhoods of elegant Deco apartment buildings. In the rest of the inner city, as well as in older parts of the valleys, single-family residential streets continue to be blasted apart by poorly-built stucco tenements. Everywhere, except perhaps the beach, rising density means a degraded environment and a declining quality of life.

Most architects, however, will argue this is faulty reasoning. In their view, the real issue is not density, but bad design run amok. If the Land of Sunshine is imperiled by any dark force, it is the current glut of shoddy structures erected without any respect for neighborhood history or sensibility. Good design, sensitive in its context, should make greater density nutritious to the soul.

So what went wrong? What has prevented "design" from bringing about a new consensus for a more urbanized and better housed Los Angeles? Forget, for now, the obvious sins of developers (the scourge of homeowners) and planners (the bete noire of developers) and consider two other groups.

First, mortgage bankers and other real-estate financiers are the real arbiters of urban design. To an extent that few outside the building industry appreciate, they curtail the product range available to the public -- they can censor innovation in favor of standardized designs with proven rates of return. More than the other major players in the land development process, they can perpetuate mediocrity and worse -- if only through inertia.

But the other villains are architects themselves, especially the elite stratum who shape monumental complexes and entire residential communities. They are largely responsible for the prevalent conceit that Los Angeles is an architectural free-fire zone, without consequent natural or given history, where it is permissible to impose any personal or corporate fetish.

Fortunately, there is an emerging movement of younger architects who disown these megalomaniac pretensions in the hope of reestablishing a dialogue with their much abused polis. They share the simple, but decisive, insight that Los Angeles possesses a rich, if neglected, thesaurus of design solutions to its problems. In particular, they are rediscovering the wonderful qualities of the California bungalow -- not just as cheap shelter, but as the building block of attractive, variable-density neighborhoods.

Indeed, the bungalow may be Southern California's most underestimated invention. Melding "multicultural" influences as diverse as Japan, Switzerland and Sikkim, the bungalow was the first mass housing form to celebrate the casual outdoor culture of Southern California. Patios and sleeping porches opened the home to the sensuous Mediterranean climate; indigenous materials, such as arroyo cobblestone, harmonized it with the landscape.

The Southern California bungalow also radically democratized the Victorian house. It replaced Gothic hierarchy with an open floor plan and supplanted gingerbread with functional wood craftsmanship. Unlike the monotonous postwar ranch house, the bungalow, circa 1900-1925, came in an astonishing range of sizes (from mansion to shack), lot configurations (from estate to court) and designs (no one has succeeded in counting them all).

After adjusting for 60 years of inflation and rising land values, the bungalow remains the best housing bargain ever. In the decade after World War I, the leading Los Angeles bungalow manufacturer, Pacific Ready-Cut Homes (it compared its Vernon plant to a Ford assembly line) sold almost 50,000 prefabricated home kits -- complete with furniture, nails and paint -- for under $2,000 each. While Ford's Model-T may be extinct, neighborhoods of Pacific's owner-customized bungalows -- buyers could choose from scores of designs -- still flourish.

In Pasadena -- a city gang-raped between 1950 and 1985 by the worst of architectural modernism -- a trio of young architects, Chris Alexander, Daniel Solomon and Phoebe Wall, have revived the bungalow aesthetic. Hired by the city to study alternatives to the "dingbat" apartment -- half parking structure, half dumb box -- that blights so many streets, they realized, "The problem wasn't density, it was building type." Their solution, incorporated into Pasadena's groundbreaking "City of Gardens" ordinance, is to require builders to conform to the street-enhancing design of the city's older bungalow courts, with an obligatory front garden given primacy over parking.

Across town, meanwhile, the team of architects and planners led by Elizabeth Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides has tried to apply the best of Los Angeles on a heroic scale in their design for the huge Playa Vista project. Rejecting the traditional polarized options of the housing market (dingbats or detached homes) as "equally pathological," they have, instead, created a new neighborhood fabric, heterogenous in form and social composition, based on the bungalow and Spanish colonial courtyard apartment complexes popular in the 1920s. Seeking to define Playa Vista's playful experimentation with continuity within innovation (or vice versa), Polyzoides speaks in one context about creating "an unmonumental garden city without nostalgia," and, in another, about "reurbanizing badly urbanized land." But whatever the catch phrase, the design's merit, like Pasadena's City of Gardens, is that it has used history, not as nostalgia or kitsch (as in so much postmodernism), but to replenish a vision of community.

Of course, neither the bungalow redux nor socially responsible architecture can solve major urban problems. But if partisans of affordable housing want to escape the conceptual trap of debating density in the abstract, they must forge an alliance with progressive architects sensitive to the city's history. Los Angeles desperately needs the challenge of a practical utopia: Social justice embodied in viable urban designs.

Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
December 20, 1991, Friday, Home Edition

SECTION: Metro; Part B; Page 7; Column 3; Op-Ed Desk


BYLINE: By MIKE DAVIS, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


There is a new fire burning in Los Angeles' traditional industrial heartland. The recall of four Anglo City Council members in Bell Gardens signals an emerging Latino determination to achieve majority rule in the blue-collar suburbs that straddle the Long Beach Freeway from Vernon to South Gate. Here, in our own "rust belt," the social fabric has changed radically over the last generation. The old, unionized heavy-industry economy, fatally wounded by cheap imports, has been replaced by light-industry sweatshops. Real hourly wage and median family income levels have fallen by half since 1970. At the same time, there has been an extraordinary ethnic recomposition as 204,000 Anglos have moved out and 328,000 Latinos -- primarily Mexican immigrants -- have moved in.

Despite the dramatic population increase in this so-called Hub Cities region, the active electorate over the last decade has fluctuated at only about half of its 1960-'70 levels. Moreover, a geriatric Anglo residue -- ranging from 13% in South Gate to 5% in Maywood -- has continued to hold the balance of municipal power despite the rise of overwhelming Latino majorities. Until last year, when two Latinos were elected in Huntington Park, one-third of a million Spanish-surname residents were left virtually without representation in local government.

This "rotten borough" system, based on atrophied democracy and the white bloc vote, has allowed small, powerful cliques to monopolize local government.

In Huntington Park, for example, the same five "good ol' boys" on the city council (with one substitution) ran the city without effective competition from 1970 to 1990, while in Bell Gardens, Claude Booker ("King Claude" to his opponents) -- serving variously as councilman, mayor and now, as city manager -- has been the dominant figure for almost a quarter of a century.

With minimum public accountability, city hall cliques have exploited redevelopment law to eliminate "fiscal burdens" (like low-income apartments), subsidize new "tax assets" (like poker casinos) and, sometimes, lavishly feather their own nests (the former mayor of Bell, who went to prison for secretly holding shares in the city's casino).

If the first significant Latino gains were won without clamor last year in Huntington Park, Bell Gardens was ripe for a loud explosion. Although the city of 43,000 is the third poorest suburb in the nation, it possesses a golden goose in the form of the giant Bicycle Club poker casino, with an annual gross profit of $100 million.

Latinos have long been upset by the city's aggressive use of Bicycle Club revenue to finance commercial redevelopment that has torn down hundreds of residential units. When the council -- whose members were elected by less than 2% of the population -- adopted a rezoning map last December that mandated the eventual removal of an additional 300 to 400 "nonconforming" units, open rebellion broke out.

The stunning, unexpected victory of the recall forces, especially their success in registering 1,500 new Latino voters, may well herald a dramatic acceleration of ethnic succession in cities where Anglo power defies demographics. Yet at the same time, it is important to acknowledge the relatively constricted, and conservative, social base of the Bell Gardens movement.

Interviews with participants, as well as careful analysis of financial disclosure statements, reveal the dominant role of Latino small landlords -- a stratum 500 to 600 strong in Bell Gardens -- in organizing the recall. Moreover, the triumphant No Rezoning Committee received the bulk of its financial support, at least $35,000, from wealthy, absentee Anglo apartment owners angry about the city's proposed downzoning of their property. The true silent majority in Bell Gardens -- the 80% of the population who are low-income immigrant renters -- played, at best, a minor supporting role in the recall mobilization.

Indeed, in a region where about 50% to 60% of the adult residents do not yet possess citizen rights, it should not be surprising that "Latino power" often takes the narrow form of ascendant small-business and landlord groups.

In Huntington Park, for example, the two elected Latino members of the council (a third is an appointee), are political conservatives, and one has particularly strong ties to the check-cashing industry.

No wonder Republicans consider the old industrial belt an ideal terrain for finally implementing their much-vaunted "Latino strategy."

My point is not to belittle the electoral breakthrough in Bell Gardens, or to imply that it must necessarily stop at the border of the Latino middle class. But empowerment is a big word, often loosely used. An authentic democratic revolution in these gritty suburbs must take account of the majority's class interests as well as its ethnic identity. The fight for electoral inclusion must also begin to challenge poverty and exploitation. But the immigrant working class cannot afford to wait a generation to slowly accumulate voting rights.

A more audacious perspective is both necessary and possible. The real issue in Bell Gardens and elsewhere is the expansion of suffrage, not just voter registration.

As in other states, the California Constitution leaves open the possibility of a residential franchise. Indeed, non-citizen property owners already exercise the vote in some special assessment districts. Why not extend this right to all resident adults in school board and city council elections?

Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
October 20, 1991, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 6; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


On Tuesday, voters in South Gate will weigh conflicting claims of civic morality and municipal survival in an extraordinary special election. If Measure A passes, the "All-America City" with 90,000 residents will join six other communities in southern Los Angeles County's "rust belt" that have legalized card casinos in desperate attempts to ballast local economies devastated by plant closures.

It will be one of the most expensive local elections in the history of Southern California. With a week of intensive campaigning still ahead, the South Gate City Clerk reported on Wednesday that opposing sides had already invested nearly $300,000 in an unprecedented direct-mail blitz. Considering turnouts for previous special elections, each vote on Oct. 22 will probably cost opponents $75-$115.

This high-stakes electoral poker is the culmination of a bleak saga of decline and fall in a city that once epitomized the blue-collar version of the Southern California dream.

Twenty years ago, South Gate's prosperity seemed solidly anchored by a huge General Motors assembly plant, as well as Firestone Tire and Weiser Lock factories. Then, between 1979 and 1982, as a tsunami of Japanese imports swept away most of California's heavy manufacturing, the lights began to go out in South Gate and other industrial suburbs along the Los Angeles River. With little warning, GM and Firestone shut down and Weiser Lock moved to Orange County. Having lost its three major employers and 12,500 (peak figure) high-wage jobs, South Gate frantically reached for a life preserver called community redevelopment. But after a decade of bright promises and the expenditure of $26 million, redevelopment efforts have produced few results -- though they have greatly embittered local politics.

Despite clearance of a residential neighborhood to make way for a proposed expansion, Weiser Lock left South Gate. A $2.7 million federal grant to revitalize the Firestone plant was used to subsidize a non-union furniture manufacturer to move 250 low-wage jobs from Iowa.

Under the slogan "From Smokestacks to Short Stacks," the city has sought to reinforce its retail base, but as one redevelopment official admits, extravagant ground rent and tax writeoffs have virtually annulled any fiscal benefit from a major shopping center along Long Beach Boulevard. Meanwhile, hopes have melted that the former General Motors' site at Tweedy Boulevard and Alameda Street -- now a mostly vacant lot covered with salt grass and jimson weed -- will ever metamorphose into the 2,700-employee business park visualized in 1985.

Finally, early in the summer, the Pete Ellis auto dealership, South Gate's largest sales-tax generator, declared bankruptcy -- despite $550,000 in outright grants and last-minute unsecured loans from the redevelopment agency. Dial-Purex, one of the city's few surviving medium-sized manufacturers, immediately rubbed salt in the wound with the announcement that it would close its plant by the end of the year.

Although redevelopment officials have a few remaining rabbits up their sleeves (including a proposed medical-waste incinerator and a privatized prison), it has long been an open secret that the current City Hall regime -- dominated by a conservative council member and former redevelopment director, Robert A. Phillip -- has been waiting for an opportune moment to sell embattled South Gaters the panacea of a major hotel-casino complex.

Proponents of Measure A point to the example of Bell Gardens' fabulous Bicycle Club, which pumps $11 million annually into that city's coffers -- 55% of its municipal budget. Warning of an otherwise imminent fiscal crunch, City Manager Todd W. Argow argued, during a recent interview, that casinos' income -- especially from the lucrative Asian games like pai-gow -- could be used to "get the gangs out of town, clean up graffiti and make South Gate look classy again." The alternative, in his view, is a drastic cutback in police services and inevitable decline to the status of a nightmare, urban Third World, epitomized by Watts nearby.

Opponents of Measure A, on the other hand, including veteran Democratic chieftain John Sheehy and UAW leader Henry C. Gonzalez, claim the proposed casino will only produce an epidemic of "drug dealing, loan sharking and prostitution." They specifically cite racketeering indictments involving the City of Commerce casino in 1984.

The unprecedented magnitude of campaign contributions from outside South Gate has only added kerosene to the fire. The pro-Measure A forces are financed to the tune of $117,775, by developer Mary Wang, who represents the consortium of Asian investors who will build the $60-million hotel-casino if voters approve.

The "No on Measure A" Committee has so far received $130,700 from John P. Cunningham, president of International Window Corp., whose modern-looking and highly profitable aluminum-window factory, with its ideal freeway location, will be part of the "blight" redeveloped under eminent domain to build the hotel-casino. Meanwhile, George Hardie, flamboyant proprietor of the Bicycle Club and an aggressive defender of his bottom line, is filibustering in South Gate with a separate $41,000 No-on-A campaign.

With so many puppeteers manipulating so many strings, it is hard to discern the real sentiment at the grass roots. Perhaps the most genuinely populist gesture so far was the No-on-A demonstration Tuesday at the South Gate City Hall, organized by International Window employees belonging to Teamster Local 986.

Terrified by their company's claim that it might have to relocate as far away as Fontana, the rank-and-file workers -- mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants from central Mexico who live in South Gate and towns nearby -- were incredulous that a city ravaged by deindustrialization, and confronting recession, would propose to displace 300 unionized jobs. In interviews over the last week, they spoke anxiously of shrinking job opportunities and failing schools, of the gnawing fear of losing the vital margin of economic stability accumulated over years of toil.

At any event, few International Window workers -- or unemployed Dial-Purex employees, for that matter -- will be eligible to vote in Tuesday's plebiscite. Although Mexican immigrants and their children now comprise 83% of South Gate's population, an aging Anglo minority still does most of the voting and holds the balance of political power. Only 4% of the population voted in the last municipal election and there is only one Latino on the current council -- Vice Mayor, and casino supporter, Johnny Ramirez.

But South Gate is not atypical. Throughout Los Angeles County's old industrial heartland, while population has doubled in the last 25 years, the active electorate has fallen by half. In addition, voters are disproportionately Anglo, with the increased Latino population not represented. Yet, with Tuesday's vote, this shrunken electorate will make what both sides agree is an "epochal decision" about South Gate's future.

Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
September 29, 1991, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 4; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


In the dark attic of Los Angeles' past, amid the relics of long-ago water conspiracies, real-estate swindles and the Open Shop, are two particularly troubling and persistent shadows. The first, of course, is the frustrated struggle, dating back to the labor wars of the early 20th Century, to make our police and sheriffs heed the Constitution and its guarantees of freedom of speech and equal protection under law. Here, the Rodney G. King case, Los Angeles' latter-day counterpart to the L'affaire Dreyfus, has forced a reluctant city to acknowledge aspects of a guilty history.

Yet Los Angeles should be equally concerned about the skeletons rattling around in the closets of the Department of Planning. Indeed, to use a noir metaphor, the venalities of planning have tended to play the "Two Jakes" to police abuse's "Chinatown." Consider the sobering examples of the city's two major historical attempts to impose a coherent design on runaway urbanization.

The first was in 1945, just a month before Hiroshima. Planners foresaw that V-J Day would bring a huge land rush of developers and house-hunting ex-GIs to the still-agricultural San Fernando Valley. The president of the city planning commission, respected architect and public-housing advocate Robert E. Alexander, believed it was urgent to prevent suburbanization from completely destroying the Valley's rural character.

The comprehensive zoning ordinance adopted in July, 1945 -- and ratified by the City Council in early 1946 -- therefore proposed to concentrate postwar growth in compact master-planned "garden cities," separated by agricultural greenbelts that preserved farms and orchards. If implemented as intended, Alexander's idyllic plan would have allowed the Valley -- with a land area equal to Chicago's -- to absorb several hundred thousand new families while ensuring that their children -- and, indeed, their children's children -- could still smell alfalfa in the fields and play hide and seek in orange groves.

Developers, however, immediately recognized that the plan could be subverted to their enormous profit. Buying up the cheapest agriculture-zoned property, they exploited the hysteria of the housing crisis to get it rezoned as more valuable residential land. As Alexander recalled in a memoir, the developers would appear at City Hall "accompanied by a veteran wearing an American Legion hat," ready to denounce opponents of rezoning as "communists."

Although Alexander stood firm -- "I did not become president to preside over the dissolution of the Valley" -- the rest of the planning commission capitulated to "patriotic pressure." Like a colony of termites devouring a log, the developers used exemptions as sharp teeth to whittle away the zoning ordinance. By 1960, as a result, the proposed greenbelts had become dense housing tracts and the rural Valley was lost forever.

The second and more recent case is, of course, Proposition U. Five years ago this November, Angelenos voted overwhelmingly to cut developable commercial density in most of the city by half. Outraged by skyscrapers in their front yards and torrents of commuter traffic on their streets, neighborhoods from Westchester to Lincoln Heights rose in revolt. Despite warnings that Prop. U ("Initiative for Reasonable Limits") would kill the boom and further polarize the city between haves and have-nots, a 70% majority, including most Chicano and black homeowners, approved slamming the breaks on commercial overdevelopment.

What has been the result?

As Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky -- the initiative's original co-sponsor -- argued in a recent interview, it is probably true that Prop. U has helped tame high-rise strip development and forestalled the destruction of the boutique renaissance on Melrose and La Brea boulevards. It also mobilized the grass-roots pressure that forced reluctant city officials to approve new controls on minimalls, a landmark parking-conformity ordinance and a growth-moderating "specific plan" for Ventura Boulevard.

On the other hand, Prop. U -- like Alexander's Valley greenbelt plan before it -- has become so much Swiss cheese, as its restrictions are nibbled away by exemptive maneuvers. Not surprisingly, this is fine with most council members, who relish their power to broker the dilution of Prop. U -- justified, predictably, as "negotiating amenities" for the community.

Moreover, Prop. U applies only to existing commercial zoning outside the biggest high-rise centers. It provides no relief against the blobs currently invading Hollywood and the Miracle Mile. Nor does it provide any mechanism to translate commercial downzoning into encouragement for affordable, medium-density residences that the city so desperately needs.

Prop. U has also failed as a catalyst of political realignment. Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who used Prop. U to topple the mighty Pat Russell, has disappointed expectations that she would become the citywide tribune of growth control. At the same time, the neighborhood ground swell behind Prop. U has largely subsided into the selfish parochialism of homeowner associations, insensitive to the housing crisis in the rest of the city.

At City Hall, meanwhile, faith in comprehensive planning seems near collapse. Explaining why Galanter has abdicated a larger leadership role, one of her chief deputies argued, "Los Angeles is simply not amenable to citywide policies or solutions." The mayor's planning deputy, Jane Blumenfeld, warned that the city had fallen 10 years behind in land-use planning for its new Metro Rail system, and even further in the provision of new affordable housing.

For his part, Yaroslavsky was predictably colorful: "Los Angeles makes the U.S.S.R.'s problems look simple. Like the Soviets' dying empire, we also have secessionist republics, a collapsing center and vacillating leadership. We need an overhaul every bit as sweeping as Russia's." But what kind of overhaul? Surprisingly, both Yaroslavsky and his occasional antagonist, Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani, express last-ditch hope in the appointment of a superplanner -- a "gutsy, butt-kicking" (Yaroslavsky), "fearless and independent" (Fabiani) director of planning to rescue that agency from total demoralization. Yaroslavsky insists the current search for a successor to Kenneth C. Topping "is every bit as important as finding a replacement for Chief Daryl Gates. Landscaping may not seem as significant as chokeholds, but a mediocre police chief is not as dangerous to the city as another mediocre planning director."

Be that as it may, it is still difficult to imagine that the Moldovians in Eagle Rock and the Uzebeckis in Tarzana -- not to mention the developers and their lobbyists in City Hall -- won't eat alive any planning director ever made. The implacable history lesson that Prop. U seems to reinforce is that the micropolitics of planning -- that is to say, the incessant erosion of general principles by special-interest pressures -- is antipathetic to both vision and democracy. As Jake Gittes learned the hard way, that's simply how it has always been in "Chinatown."

Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
August 11, 1991, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


Southern California's local governments have become their own worst enemies. Deprived of a progressive property tax by Howard Jarvis, and stripped of federal aid by Ronald Reagan, they pauperize each other in Darwinian struggles over scarce tax resources.

While bigger cities battle over convention centers, theme parks and hotels, the smaller fry compete for auto malls, even supermarkets. Paradoxically, they woo these tax generators by offering them tax subsidies, abatements, even outright gifts. Far too often, the costs of seduction cancel the benefits of marriage.

The private sector has become increasingly adroit at stimulating and exploiting these mindless municipal rivalries. Consider, for example, Disney's current manipulation of tax-hungry city halls in Anaheim and Long Beach.

Magic Kingdom Chief Executive Officer Michael D. Eisner boasted last year that the 1990s would be the "Disney Decade," promising shareholders a doubling of corporate income by 1995 -- to approximately $11 billion. A large part of this expansion is to be a second Disney theme park in Southern California.

Disney officials have long been critical of their founder's improvidence in failing to control the periphery of his original park. Unlike the 28,000-acre self-contained -- indeed, virtually sovereign -- realm of Walt Disney World in Orlando, 80-acre Disneyland in Anaheim "leaks" sales to an adjacent sprawl of mom-and-pop motels, restaurants and curio shops. Moreover, Disneyland visitors typically stay only one or two days, while in Florida, with the multiple enticements of EPCOT, the Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios, affluent tourists often remain a week or more.

Thus Disney wants to build a better mousetrap in Southern California: a "second gate" theme park along with a Disney World-like complex of proprietary resort hotels, shopping and entertainment centers. And just as in Florida, where Disney World was allowed to reap the tax advantages of incorporation as a local government -- the Reedy Creek Improvement District -- planners of Southern California's second Disneyland are as fixated with externalization of costs as with internalization of sales and profits.

That is to say, faced with the formidable obstacles of land acquisition and infrastructure upgrading, as well as with Eisner's inviolable injunction that all Disney enterprises must return a 20% annualized profit on investment, Disney officials are trying to displace hundreds of millions of dollars of development costs onto local and state governments. Toward this end, they unveiled last year a high-powered lobbying apparatus in Sacramento, and quintupled their contributions to local politicians.

More cannily, Disney -- repeating the same strategy that had pitted France and Spain in bitter competition for Euro Disneyland -- has offered two master plans for their proposed $3-billion expansion. Disneyland Resort in Anaheim would combine 4,100 new hotel rooms with a second, World's Fair-like theme park (Westcot Center) built over the current parking lot. Alternately, Port Disney, fronting both sides of the Los Angeles River mouth in Long Beach Harbor, would include the DisneySea amusement park, five hotels, a retail mall and several marinas.

To make mouths water in Anaheim and Long Beach, Disney has advertised each project as an "engine of regional economic revival" -- promoting the idea that the victorious community will be awash in construction wages, hotel and sales taxes, and thousands of new service jobs.

Although Disney spokesperson Alan G. Epstein says, "creative development potential" will be the ultimate criterion of selection, Eisner has not been so euphemistic; he said the winner would be the community that "wants us more."

Practically, this translates into local willingness to absorb the staggering costs of inserting Disneyland II into a mature, overdeveloped and auto-congested urban fabric. Aside from the increased demand on municipal services, local and state governments will also be expected to shoulder freeway, street, sewer and utility improvements -- as well as the cost of two giant parking structures in Anaheim (where land costs $1.6 million an acre), or, conversely, part of the landfill and environmental mitigation requirements of Port Disney. According to estimates of Anaheim city officials, the public sector's direct contribution could exceed $500 million. Epstein, while pointing out Disney will not discuss dollar figures, assures questioners that the government share can be financed out of future tax increments.

Fiscal-impact reports prepared for Disney, however, only take into account the increase in municipal services. They do not measure increased demand on county and state services, or the social costs of associated development outside the Disney perimeter. While the reports allude to the positive fiscal effects of induced land inflation, they do not discuss the deleterious impact on affordable housing. Perhaps most brazenly, since both schemes rely on the family car, they glide over the costs in regional mobility and air quality of millions of additional freeway trips. For aficionados of the Santa Ana Freeway in particular, the prospect of Disneyland Resort is almost apocalyptic.

From this perspective, it is unclear whether the winner of the Disney competition can expect any real net fiscal gain. Meanwhile, nervous neighborhood activists are beginning to find out more about the dark side of Orlando's Disney World experience. In Florida, the corporation made the same initial promises about tax windfalls and breakneck economic development. In reality, Orlando has been swamped by unexpected social costs, ranging from gridlock to an acute housing shortage for Disney's army of low-wage workers. Disney World's puppet government has also earned notoriety for grabbing nearly $60 million in tax-free municipal bonds to build a sewage-treatment plant when other counties desperately wanted the money for affordable housing.

Californians are also beginning to learn what it is like to play hard ball in Eisner's league. When Peter M. Douglas, the outspoken Coastal Commission chief, joined environmentalists in opposition to the Port Disney landfill, pro-Disney commission members moved to fire him.

Although the environmental lobby has temporarily blocked Port Disney legislation in Sacramento, the corporation seems likely to achieve its objectives. Dealing with a fragmented and competitive array of public agencies and interests, Disney will shift hundreds of millions of dollars of development costs -- seen and unforeseen -- onto California taxpayers.

Whichever city emerges the victor -- Anaheim (most likely) or Long Beach -- will discover, too late, that they have swallowed an elephant to give birth to a lot of dead-end, poorly paid jobs. The two questions likely never to be seriously debated are, first, why a firm that can pay Eisner $11.2 million in salary and bonus compensation in 1990 needs any public subsidy; and, second, why local government should have to provide dowries to wealthy corporations?

Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
August 11, 1991, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7; Page 6; Column 1; Book Review Desk

HEADLINE: Bringing Home the Hate

BYLINE: By Mike Davis; Mike Davis is the author of " City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles."


By Leon Bing.
277 pp. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. $19.95.

The streets of Los Angeles are awash with blood. In the four years since the motion picture "Colors" sensationalized the murderous vendettas between the Crips and the Bloods, gang culture has metastasized ominously. Two youngsters a day, on average, now end up on cold coroner's slabs in Los Angeles County -- double the 1988 rate. Despite a Draconian state law that criminalizes gang membership as "street terrorism," an estimated 100,000 young people, some as young as 8 or 9 years of age, have sworn terrible allegiances to "do or die."

In the face of this warfare in the streets, it has been easy for police officers, politicians, even despairing parents and community workers to write off gang youth as a criminal underclass, a dangerous, incorrigible Other. Yet as Leon Bing's "Do or Die," a poignant, sometimes chilling record of conversations with hard-core gang members in south central Los Angeles, constantly reminds us, these are our own appalling damaged and lost children. Moreover, gang members profess their own fierce codes of honor and reciprocal love.

Much of "Do or Die" consists of soliloquies about what might be called the moral economy of gang warfare. Thus the 15-year-old Crip G-Roc ("as lean and dark as a Doberman pinscher") disparages drive-by shootings as a cowardly endangerment of innocents, while Bopete, a 14-year-old Blood from the apartment labyrinth known as "the Jungle," is horrified by the idea of holding up old ladies in their cars. Sidewinder, who boasts to Ms. Bing that he was initiated into gang life at the age of 8, confesses that after his fellow gang members had mugged a vagrant, "I went back over there later, gave him some of the money I done stacked up. Dope money."

The more articulate gang members explicitly compare being "down for the 'hood" with patriotism. Bopete, for example, carefully explains that the Jungle is not just turf, but a "nation" -- an all-encompassing, absolute rationale for sacrifice and destruction. Monster Kody, a famous veteran Crip turned black revolutionary in prison, emphasizes that in any epoch or context he would have belonged to the extreme fringe of nationalism (his examples are the Nazis, the Jewish Defense League and the Black Panthers). Meanwhile his young successors dream about "a big, humongous meeting" to bring all the warring gang factions together in one all-powerful Crip nation.

Yet with the exception of Kody -- who devoured books on African-American culture in a solitary confinement cell in San Quentin -- the youngsters interviewed by Ms. Bing know tragically little about black history. G-Roc and Tiny Vamp, for instance, have never heard of Malcolm X, and think the Panthers were, in G-Roc's words, a group "in Detroit or something. . . . Wasn't they all about beatin' people up to get some action?" And while G-Roc dimly recognizes that "the big enemy is the system . . . this system, this government," he also firmly avows that "the world is like it should be."

Fatalism, bonding by violence, xenophobia -- the ingredients of gang culture evoked by Ms. Bing's informants define a kind of pathological Gemeinschaft not dissimilar to what most of us admire in the Marines or in police officers. But the warrior ethos of the Crips and Bloods is destabilized by its own escalating nihilism. If G-Roc still aspires to a chivalric ideal of street combat, many of his hyperviolent fellow gang members only care about building their reputations as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.

Ms. Bing, a free-lance journalist, relates the grisly case of a Crip named Teiquon Cox, who sits on death row for the 1984 slaughter of the mother and three other relatives of the football star Kermit Alexander. (In fact Mr. Cox had meant to assassinate a family two doors away; he misread the address.) The author also introduces us to Faro, a homeless 17-year-old who is emotionally disfigured after crippling a mother and her baby in a wanton drive-by shooting.

Like the anxious, tormented parents who hover in the background of this book, Ms. Bing has also grieved for a child fallen into "the black hole" of gang life. In the course of repeated trips to a county youth camp, she befriends a nervous, frightened 13-year-old called Hart. The most painful scene in the book is Hart's final loss of innocence and self-respect. In front of his disgusted fellow gang members, the slightly-built Hart is physically humiliated -- indeed, virtually crushed -- by his ferocious half sister Bijou. (Hart, we are told, now serves time for selling drugs.)

Ms. Bing's "dangerous sympathies" with the teen-age underclass -- forged in the course of four years of continuous dialogue and companionship -- will not win praise from law enforcement types. Nor, ultimately, does she provide much succor to those who think that counseling and a few model social programs can reverse the momentum of gang culture. Although the example of Monster Kody -- a supposedly unredeemable gang member turned ghetto intellectual and peacemaker -- is meant to keep hope alive, it is really G-Roc, the fatalist philosopher, who has the last word about gang violence.

"Don't matter if anybody understand it or not," he says. "We just bringin' home the hate. . . . That's the kind of world we live in."


"See them two dudes?" Faro's voice, unaccountably, has dropped to a whisper. . . . "I'm gonna look crazy at 'em. You watch what they do." He turns away from me. . . . The driver, sensing that someone is looking at him, glances over at my car. His eyes connect with Faro's, widen for an instant. Then he breaks the contact, looks down, looks away. And there is no mistaking what I saw there in his eyes: it was fear. Whatever he saw in Faro's face, he wasn't about to mess with it.

Faro giggles and turns back toward me. He looks the same as he did before to me: a skinny, slightly goofy-looking kid. . . . I ask Faro to "look crazy" for me. He simply narrows his eyes. That's all. He narrows his eyes, and he looks straight at me and everything about his face shifts and changes, as if by some trick of time-lapse photography. It becomes a nightmare face, and it is a scary thing to see. It tells you that if you return his stare, if you challenge this kid, you'd better be ready to stand your ground. His look tells you that he doesn't care about anything, not your life and not his. -- From "Do or Die."

Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
July 14, 1991, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 6; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).


Will a few minutes of homemade videotape continue to darken the image of Los Angeles for years to come?

Parts of the daunting mandate of the Christopher Commission is to reassure the world that underneath the surface brutality of its streets -- and its police -- Los Angeles remains the Land of Sunshine. It won't be easy. In a profound sense, the commission is 26 years too late. Its principal finding -- that violence and racism are pervasive in the policing of the inner city -- should have been the verdict of the McCone Commission after the Watts riots in 1965. But the McCone commissioners, drawn from the Downtown corporate elite -- and including the young Warren Christopher -- were eager to placate the LAPD's powerful Police Chief William Parker, and they ignored overwhelming evidence of police misconduct. The riots were blamed instead on ghetto "riffraff," and the LAPD was allowed to escalate its warlike patrol tactics in the black and Latino communities.

The best-intentioned supporters of the Christopher Commission report hope that it will not only force Chief Daryl F. Gates to resign, but will finally drive a silver stake through the malign legacy of Parker, which still suffuses the police headquarters bearing his name. To many out-of-town observers, however, the current commission's efforts only appear heroic relative to the extreme timidity of Los Angeles politics.

Despite much tinkering to rebalance the power of the mayor and his appointees over the LAPD, no far-reaching structural reforms are advocated by the commission. There is no proposal, for example, for a city residence requirement to de-mercenarize the police force, nor for the creation of a civilian police review board -- as recently established by popular referendum in Long Beach. Moreover, the focus on the charismatic role of the chief, and the accompanying reification of "management practices," tends to detract from the larger context of police lawlessness. Sheriff Sherman Block, for example, is universally praised for his calm, intelligent disquisitions on law and order, yet, despite his "reasonableness," Block's department -- in Lynwood, the Antelope Valley and elsewhere -- is alleged to be as out of control as any of the LAPD's rogue detachments.

It is not clear that, in a metropolis as riven with class and racial division as Los Angeles, the police can be expected to act as impartial guardians. The enforcers of oppressive conditions are, after all, oppressors by definition. As a famous civil-rights leader, Bayard Rustin, pointed out in the aftermath of the Watts riots, even if policemen acted like "angels," the ghetto "would still be a zoo . . . and they would be the blue-coated zoo-keepers."

Until the oppressive conditions themselves -- including soaring poverty among youth, collapsing schools, coolie wages, growing homelessness -- are directly addressed, Los Angeles will remain a city of the night, a super-Beirut mesmerizing a guilty world with its spectacles of communal self-destruction.

Copyright 1991 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
June 2, 1991, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Column 5; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles.


In the wake of the Rodney G. King beating, there's only one viable consensus left in Los Angeles. It is the shared perception, both at the grass-roots and in the smoke-filled rooms, that city government is careening out of control.

The euphoric and largely hypocritical civic unity of the 1984 Olympics now seems like a dream from another lifetime. All the vicious little power struggles of the last few years are coming to culmination in a Hobbesian state of disorder.

Mayor Tom Bradley's belated attempt to make Parker Center accountable to the Police Commission -- a 1973 campaign promise honored 18 years later -- has become the pretext for a virtual coup d'etat, in collusion with the city attorney and supporters of the police chief, by the City Council.

The city is becoming ungovernable in three fundamental senses.

First, the "algebraic" and countervailing balance of power between the mayor and the council established by the 1925 Freeholders' Charter has been decisively shifted in favor of the latter. The center no longer holds, and Los Angeles will soon resemble a medieval Polish monarchy -- where a powerless figurehead presided over a quarrelsome and anarchic nobility, whose allegiance to the realm was strictly their devotion to their own estates. At this point in the city's devolution, the council represents little more than an unholy alliance between erstwhile liberals and authentic conservatives in pursuit of feudal prerogatives.

Second, the council's overriding of the Police Commission suspension of Chief Daryl F. Gates -- prompted, we are told, by the mobilized opposition of the business community and white homeowners -- drove back race relations to 1964, the year before the Watts rebellion, when two-thirds of white Californians voted to repeal the state's fair-housing law. Like Proposition 14 a quarter-century ago, the council action -- despite what the Christopher Commission may recommend -- spits in the face of black demands for elementary democratic redress. Council members Zev Yaroslavsky, Joy Picus and Joel Wachs -- to name three who should have known better -- might as well have awarded Gates a medal.

Third, the underlying cohesion of Los Angeles' government over the past generation -- the cross-town Bradley coalition of liberals, Jews and blacks -- has vanished almost without trace. Ironically, the Westside, where progressive lawns now sprout thickets of little armed-response signs, has deserted Bradley over the one issue that once most easily united blacks and white liberals -- after all, police batons cracked the heads of Yenta peaceniks at Century City in 1967 as well as street brothers in Watts.

What we're left with, instead, is a sprawling, confused disalignment of constituencies: liberals who are, in large part, no longer liberals; conservative Valley homeowners who admire Gates as much as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf; blacks watching their electoral dreams reduced to ashes; Chicanos represented by cautious agnostics; new-immigrant Latinos represented by nobody and a business community -- or should we say an invisible government -- still so omnipotent that one phone call from a power broker like Richard Riordan can force the mayor into ameliorating penance in front of Gates and Council President John Ferraro.

To make matters worse, Los Angeles is plunging into a recession that all our court astrologers claim was impossible. Last year, the UCLA econometric model was still predicting an endless summer, while the newly minted "L.A. 2000" reports proclaimed that the city was a perpetual-motion machine, "self-energized by its bigness, drawing to itself more people, energy and wealth to become even bigger and more powerful."

Now we know the two mainsprings of our economy -- real estate and aerospace -- have gone haywire. Dirt no longer turns into gold. Home starts are plummeting, mini-malls have become investment death traps, the Japanese are retreating to Ginza and reckless dreams are being burnt to a crisp as key developers abandon Central City West and downtown. Meanwhile, the region faces a new wave of deindustrialization as key military contracts shift out of state. Aerospace is expected to hemorrhage almost 100,000 jobs by the middle of the decade, and dark rumors fly about the possible closure of one or more giant defense factories.

Politically, this bursting of the city's bubble will translate into even more tight-fisted middle-class demands for fiscal austerity, while the competition between blacks and Latinos over their relative shares of the downsized public sector will accelerate. Drastic deficit-driven reductions in the supply of government services will coincide with desperate demands for more welfare.

The very poor -- those who experienced the glitzy 1980s as an undeclared depression -- will be driven further to the wall. In particular, tens of thousands of recent immigrants trapped in the lower depths of the underground economy -- including those who stand in street-corner "slave markets" or sell oranges from freeway ramps -- will soon swell the ranks of the hungry and homeless. A collapsing school system, ravaged by a new tier of cutbacks and sacrifices, will graduate even more of our kids to the street gangs and, eventually, the prisons.

In the face of the centrifugal forces pulling Los Angeles apart, is there anyway to put the city back together? Two scenarios come to mind: One ominously plausible, the other plausibly utopian.

In the first case, what might be called the "Chicago scenario," minority white rule in the city is re-established by the continuing collusion of neo-liberal and conservative council members. The Hollywood Hills cease to be an important ideological divide as the white Westside and Valley are reconciled by the support for the L.A. Police Department's all-out war on crime. A tough death-penalty Democrat like James K. Hahn breaks away from the gridlock of mayoral aspirants to win crucial endorsements from law-enforcement and homeowner associations. As poverty and violence soar in the inner city, increasingly hysterical suburban cries for security drown out all other demands. The First World and Third World cities pull farther apart -- spatially and economically. Los Angeles is governable only by repression.

In the second scenario, still just a dream deferred, a new generation of activists -- recognizing the dangers of white restoration and a law-and-order Armageddon -- start to lay the foundation for a durable rainbow coalition whose fulcrum is a black-Latino alliance.

They refuse to accept the zero-sum game of competing for diminishing public resources, proposing instead a "critical needs" agenda for the city that recognizes basic entitlements to education, welfare, recreation, health, housing and employment as human rights. They also provide an ark to preserve many of the imaginative environmental and housing policies developed by the fifth Bradley administration, which now risk being swept away in the deluge.

Structurally, a new progressive coalition in Los Angeles would have to address charter reform issues that lay beyond the mere division of power between the mayor and the council. If an elected civilian review board is the most immediate demand, an erratically enlarged City Council -- coincident with community plan areas, if not with neighborhoods -- would be the most empowering. Paradoxically, a parliamentary council system of, say, 60 members would better represent general interests, as well as greater diversity, than the current presidium of 15.

A genuinely democratic city government would take advantage of the state Constitution to locally enfranchise, by charter amendment, its hundreds of thousands of hard-working non-citizen residents.

Los Angeles, in reality, is only governable by justice.

Copyright 1990 The Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
December 9, 1990, Sunday, Home Edition

SECTION: Opinion; Part M; Page 5; Column 1; Opinion Desk


BYLINE: By Mike Davis, Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz, teaches urban theory at the Southern California Institute of Architecture; he has also written Prisoners of the American Dream (Verso). In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis explores the city's dreams and realities. The hyped gang problem, and the police reaction to it, is one face of L.A. An excerpt:


A thousand extra-duty patrolmen, backed by elite tactical squads and a special anti-gang task force, bring down the first act of "Operation HAMMER" on 10 square miles of South-Central Los Angeles between Exposition Park and North Long Beach, arresting more black youths than at any time since the Watts rebellion of 1965.

Like a Vietnam-era search-and-destroy mission -- and many senior police are proud Vietnam veterans -- Chief (Daryl) Gates saturates the street with his "Blue Machine," jacking up thousands of local teen-agers at random like so many surprised peasants. Kids are humiliatingly forced to "kiss the sidewalk" or spread-eagle against police cruisers while officers check their names against computerized files of gang members.

There are 1,453 arrests; the kids are processed in mobile booking centers, mostly for trivial offenses like delinquent parking tickets or curfew violations. Hundreds more, uncharged, have their names and addresses entered into the electronic gang roster for future surveillance.

Gates, who earlier in the year had urged the "invasion" of Colombia (in 1980 he offered Jimmy Carter the LAPD SWAT team to liberate the hostages in Tehran), derided civil libertarian protests: "This is war . . . we're exceedingly angry. . . . We want to get the message out to the cowards out there, and that's what they are, rotten little cowards -- we want the message to go out that we're going to come and get them." To reinforce the metaphor, but meaning it literally, the chief of the D.A.'s hard-core drug unit added: "This is Vietnam here."

The "them" -- what a local mayor calls "the Viet Cong abroad in our society" -- are the members of local black gangs, segmented into several hundred fighting "sets" while loosely aligned into two hostile super-gangs, the Crips and the Bloods -- universally distinguished, as every viewer of Dennis Hopper's "Colors" now knows, by their color-coding of shoelaces, T-shirts and bandannas (red for Bloods, blue for Crips).

In the official version, which Hollywood is incessantly reheating and further sensationalizing, these gangs comprise veritable urban guerrilla armies organized for the sale of crack and outgunning the police with huge arsenals of Uzi and Mac-10 automatics. Although gang cohorts are typically hardly more than high school sophomores, local politicians frequently compare them to the "murderous militias of Beirut."

Across town, or increasingly in South-Central itself, there is another large, traditional constituency of Latino gang membership, frequently depicted in the same lurid images. Indeed, the primary focus of gang hysteria in the 1970s was the rising violence among the third generation of East L.A. vatos locos (crazy guys). But a major community counteroffensive, unabetted by the police, and led instead by priests, parents and gang veteranos appealing to "Chicano unity," managed to dramatically reduce Eastside gang killings from 24 in 1978 to zero in 1988. A major recrudescence of Latino gang warfare in recent days may be directly attributable to new liaisons with the crack trade.

If anything made ghetto turf rivalries so much more deadly than the Eastside's during the 1980s, it was the incomparably higher economic stakes involved in control of the retail cocaine trade. "Gangbangin' " rose in a murderous arc from 1984 in rough synchronization with the emergence of crack as the narcotic equivalent of fast food and the rerouting of the main cocaine trail from Florida to Southern California via Mexico. Since the beginning of 1987, "gang-related" slayings, principally in Southside city and county areas, have averaged over one per day.

This very real epidemic of youth violence, with its deep roots in exploding youth poverty, has been inflated by law-enforcement agencies and the media into something quite phantasmagoric. In a numbers game that ceases to distinguish the authentic "high rollers" and "stone killers" of the gang world from the "claimers" and "wannabees," the city attorney's office has steadily escalated its estimates of hard-core gang membership from 10,000 to 50,000. Local media have amplified this figure to 70,000-80,000, while sheriff's "gang experts" have invoked the specter of 100,000 "rotten little cowards" overruning Los Angeles County. Meanwhile, an Andromeda strain of Crips and Bloods is reported to have infected the entire West, from Tucson to Anchorage, before invading Middle America itself (with new sightings from Kansas City to Buffalo).

Like the tramp scares in the 19th Century, or the Red scares in the 20th, the contemporary gang scare has become an imaginary class relationship, a terrain of pseudo-knowledge and fantasy projection. But as long as the actual violence was more or less confined to the ghetto, the gang wars were also a voyeuristic titillation to white suburbanites devouring lurid imagery in their newspapers or on television.

Then in December, 1987, frisson became fear as Southside gang hit-men mistakenly gunned down a young woman outside a theater in the posh Westwood Village entertainment district near UCLA. Westwood's influential merchants, who had recently induced the LAPD to enforce curfew ordinances to repel nonwhite youth from the village, clamored for extra police protection, while local Council member Zev Yaroslavsky, then essaying a challenge to Mayor Bradley, posted a huge reward for apprehension of the "urban terrorists."

The dramatically different press coverage of, and preferential police response to, the Westwood shooting ignited the simmering resentment of black community leaders, who blasted Yaroslavsky, Bradley and the LAPD for failing to respond comparably to the mayhem in their neighborhoods. For several weeks the council chambers resounded to an arcane debate over relative police response times in different divisions and the comparative allocations of department personnel. This ideologically circumscribed and loaded debate, focusing exclusively on the demand for a more equal and vigorous prosecution of the war against gangs, was a cue for the ambitious and media-hungry chief to reclaim center stage.

From " City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles," by Mike Davis, 1990, Verso.