Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles is about “the contradictory impact of economic globalization upon different segments of Los Angeles Society,” where LA is both a specific place (that David clearly loves and is frustrated by) and a global city that “has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism.” Davis researched this book in the 1980s, when Reaganomics, the crack wars, increased socioeconomic disparity, law-and-order policing, and other anti-urban developments were wreaking havoc on LA; by putting LA in a global economic context, he is able to show that many of these problems are related to globalization, not poor domestic policy, and that fighting capitalism will have the biggest impact on urban welfare.
In an allusion to LA’s film industry, Davis calls his method “noir,” because 1940s film noir “insinuated contempt for a depraved business culture while it simultaneously searched for a critical mode of writing or filmmaking within it.” Accordingly, the book is both a critique of LA and an investigation of how to make it better. Davis details the migration of LA’s power elites from a post-WWI Downtown/Westside divide to suburbia to international banks, land monopolies, and global real estate holdings; the development of SoCal homeowners associations as racist, classist privatization; “fortress LA” and the privatization and militarization of urban life as a spatialized class war; the history of cocaine in LA as evidence of increasing wealth disparity; the dirty politics of LA’s Catholic archdiocese, which is a huge employer and landholder in LA that prefers to be a space of law-and-order rather than one of resistance; and the plight of the suburbanized working class in an era of deindustrialization and decay.
Throughout, Davis’ muckraking journalism digs through LA’s many layers of complexity in expose after expose. As against other urban studies folks who write about globalization (like Saskia Sassen, for instance), Davis brings LA alive, reminding us of the power of its residents even as he implicates the city’s elites in global networks of power.