Recently the New York Times reported a type of story that Southern Californians like me know well. It was about earthquakes, and the gist has often been told in newspapers and on national television, each time as if the news really were new. “Seismic Team Detects a Killer Beneath Los Angeles,” the front-page headline declaimed. You see, there’s this “blind thrust” fault, nine miles deep and right below downtown. Such faults under L.A. have been known for years. To justify front-page treatment, the Times needed some fresh angle. Aha! The angle was that geological information long “jealously guarded by oil and gas companies” had been revealed to scientists, who could at last confirm the existence of the “killer” fault.
The type of newspaper article that reports the forthcoming destruction of Los Angeles by earthquake is just a subcategory of another classification, the “L.A. Is Doomed!” article, which may also take the form of a magazine piece, movie, novel, or other book. In these, destruction threatens my hometown by earthquake, flood, fire, volcano, or tornado. It doesn’t matter which, since their effects are depicted as interchangeable. Though most of this material is fictional storytelling, let’s stipulate that the genre wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t somehow satisfy a widespread wish to see the real L.A. in ruins.
Hollywood is a reliable producer of such stuff, as in recent films like The Crow: City of Angels (earthquake), Escape from L.A. (earthquake), Independence Day (evil space aliens), and Volcano (volcano). But creative folks have been destroying L.A. for fun and profit for more than half a century. A chapter in Mike Davis’s book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster lists 138 depictions-in movies and novels-of Los Angeles laid waste since 1909.
Scanning this list is like watching boys torture a stray cat: How many ways can they figure out to make it scream? Sometimes destruction comes at Nature’s hand. The first instance of L.A. getting washed into the Pacific-”swiftly, relentlessly”-occurred in Myron Brinig’s 1933 novel The Flutter of an Eyelid. Nathanael West burnt the place down in The Day of the Locust (1939), while in the 1954 B-movie Them! giant ants consumed the populace. I distinctly remember another film, Earthquake. Released in 1974 when I was 9, it introduced Sensurround, a system of large speakers under the theater seats, emitting bass noises famous for terrorizing moviegoers by making their behinds quiver.
Almost as often, L.A. has been subjected to ruination by human evil, whether environmental degradation (Blade Runner, 1982), religious cults (Gore Vidal’s 1954 Messiah), or racial holocaust (as in the popular neo-Nazi fantasy novel The Turner Diaries, 1978). Nor have highbrow writers disdained the trashing of Southern California. Mike Davis cites a “quorum” of the region’s fanciest authors-Octavia Butler, Carolyn See, Steve Erickson, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Cynthia Kadohata-who have set their novels amid the debris of the city’s nightmare future. The best known may be Carolyn See’s Golden Days, in which, following a nuclear war, a pair of earth-mother gals establish an eco-sensitive matriarchy.
With the publication of Ecology of Fear and a previous book, City of Quartz, in 1998 and 1990 respectively, Davis himself became the most distinguished example of the creative entrepreneur cashing in on the public’s apparent hope that L.A. will be destroyed. For insisting that overdevelopment by nefarious capitalists has set the city on a freeway to ruin, he has been rewarded with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award ($315,000) and (in the case of Ecology of Fear) 14 weeks as an L.A. Times bestseller.
Taking Davis as representative of the “L.A. Is Doomed!” school of thought, I wondered what would be revealed by a few days in a rental car, touring some of the localities he describes as being perfumed with the scent of apocalypse. After all, cultural pileups like the pattern described above occur for a reason. This reason tends to have something to do with underlying social dynamics-rather than with chance and randomness alone, as in an auto pileup on the Golden State Freeway where one car spins out of control, another crashes into it, another into that one, and so on. In a culture like our own, beset by symptoms of a spiritual illness, secular liberalism, such phenomena inevitably reveal an aspect of the disease. That’s why I flew to Los Angeles for a diagnostic drive.
When you look out the window of an airplane at night over Los Angeles, the city and its environs appear below as an endless grid of light. A rabbi I know says that no view is more conducive to belief in God than the Manhattan skyline, but L.A. must share the honor. There is no grid to be found in the natural world; that pattern can only be a human artifact. As powerfully as the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, Los Angeles by night unfolds at your feet testimony of the divine spark in man. Without that spark there would be no possibility of our triumphing so utterly over nature. The grid turns out to be the key to the diagnosis.
For Davis, triumph over nature is exactly the problem, in particular man’s hubris in constructing an enormous city on this location, which is vulnerable to earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes. In his view, greed and a willingness on the part of developers to let poor people shoulder the brunt of the inevitable cycle of natural disasters have guided the city’s growth.
As with the “L.A. Is Doomed!” genre in fiction and film, all the exploitation of people and nature leads to a situation of ultimate urban dread. Readers with a taste for such dread, poetically expressed, will enjoy Mike Davis. Wherever he goes the landscape is “eerie,” “ghostly.” During “the infernal season” from late August to early October, along skyscraper-lined Wilshire Boulevard “homeless people huddle miserably in every available shadow.” Police “helicopter gunships” “patrol” the beaches, which are closed after dark. In the “industrial wastelands” of South-Central L.A., “wild dog packs now threaten the lives of small children.” In short, “fear eats the soul of Los Angeles.”
Oh, does it really? In actual fact, L.A. is a pleasant, livable city from which the aroma of disaster is totally absent. By a quirk, I arrived in the real Los Angeles even before I left New York. An originally L.A. institution called Super Shuttle has recently been grafted onto New York. It’ll never work. By nature, New York constantly harasses and impedes you. It does so by means of traffic, crowds of pushy pedestrians, sullen cash-register attendants, passive-aggressive subway Metrocard vendors, telephone-cable disruptions. On the other hand, Los Angeles is a city that works. At stores, the guy or gal behind the register smiles and sincerely wants to help. Freeways mean more freedom from traffic than you might expect. Public utilities can be relied on. It’s also much easier to fly in or out because the blue vans called Super Shuttles transport citizens who wish to share a ride to or from the airport, cheaply, efficiently, and pleasantly.
I shared a Super Shuttle ($15), progressing slowly up Manhattan’s West End Avenue, with a smartly dressed woman in her 60s and an effeminate man in his 30s. They couldn’t get over the Super Shuttle or its driver, who was pleasant in a Los Angeles sort of way. “He’s so amiable!” said the effeminate man. “And polite!” said the woman. The man agreed: “It’s a lot cheaper than taxis and they speak English!”
Later that day I was really in L.A., specifically Santa Monica, in the latter’s beautifully refurbished seaside downtown. Around 10 at night I walked the few blocks to the beach, as I’ve done lots of times before here, and found as usual the beaches open. Pace Mike Davis, it’s nearly impossible to “close” a beach. I saw no “helicopter gunships” on “patrol,” nor have I ever seen one.
Next day I drove to the rural Santa Clara Valley, in northern L.A. County. On the way I stopped at the old Mission San Fernando, founded in 1797, now in the middle of the valley which bears the mission’s name. A photo in the museum there showed the San Fernando Valley as it appeared more than a century ago: empty even of trees, with the little complex of half-ruined mission buildings the only point of visual interest. By the 1930s, the valley was covered by orange groves. By the 1950s it was being rather abruptly filled with tract homes. Nature had been transformed with a speed that makes some visitors uneasy. Mike Davis says he fears that the same fate awaits the Santa Clara Valley and its orange groves.
There is an intoxicating quality to those groves, the colors green and orange being particularly beautiful when juxtaposed in the form of an orange tree and set off by angular brown and green hills. Anyone who cares for natural beauty will be concerned at Davis’s news that the Newhall Land & Farming Company plans next year to start construction on a big housing tract where the valley intersects with the 405 Freeway. Then this “last authentic landscape of [the] prewar way of life-Eden’s last garden-will be destroyed.”
But this is more poetry than reality. It’s just not true that the Santa Clara Valley is Southern California’s “last garden.” One morning when I was there, the L.A. Times ran a story about another “last garden.” This one, Trabuco Canyon in Orange County, is menaced by zoning changes. But even if Trabuco Canyon were paved over tomorrow, there would still be plenty of wilderness left in the area. One glance at a map on page 203 of Ecology of Fear, intended to explain where deadly mountain lions might emerge into suburban tract lanes, makes the point. Los Angeles is gated all the way around by mountain ranges. Their enormous area is immune to development because you can’t build tract houses on a mountaintop.
Admittedly, apart from the mountains, just about wherever you go the spread of tract developments is striking. L.A.’s doomsayers loathe housing developments. In City of Quartz, Davis denounces the Antelope Valley, in the Mojave Desert, where since 1984 there’s been a “landrush.” The result: “traffic jams, smog, rising crime, job competition, noise, soil erosion, a water shortage and the attrition of a distinctly countrified lifestyle”-along with the despised “gated subdivisions.”
I visited the Antelope Valley. Its two main towns, Lancaster and (palmless) Palmdale, are drab and strip-mall infested, patched with wide squares of desert: queer, vaguely retarded-looking Joshua trees and tumbleweeds that haven’t yet become detached from the yellow earth. What draws Californians isn’t the scenery. They come for the prices, homes in subdivisions for $200,000, about which one can only say it seems rather hardhearted of this self-identified Marxist to deny working families the opportunity to purchase a house they can afford.
In Fontana, a town that gets a chapter to itself in City of Quartz, the houses are even cheaper. According to billboards, the cheapest development offers “Large Homes on Large Lots” for $124,950. But Mike Davis is disgusted because Fontana was once a utopian, semi-cooperative community of lemon growers and chicken farmers, decimated by capitalism at the dawn of World War II when Henry Kaiser’s steel mill opened. The mill closed in the early Eighties, having reduced the lemon groves to what Joan Didion in an essay once called “the greenery of nightmare.” Didion paid special attention to the stones nearby the trees, which “look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned catastrophe.”
When I went to Fontana, out in the San Bernardino County, I looked hard for Didion’s sinister stones, but couldn’t find any. In this “junkyard of dreams,” as Mike Davis puts it-of dreams junked by capitalism-I looked for the “vast number of dismantled or moribund cars deliberately strewn in people’s yards like family heirlooms,” but saw only two or three. On Valley Boulevard, I looked for the “boring repetition of adult bookstores,” but saw only one (“Fine Adult Entertainment”). Like the homeless crowding “every available shadow” along Wilshire and the beach-patrolling “helicopter gunships,” the sinister stones and junked cars and innumerable adult bookstores exist only in the mind of a creative writer.
So then are the many readers of Davis’s books stupid, especially the ones who actually live in Los Angeles? No. But locals here are often remarkably ignorant of what might seem to an outsider to be “local” conditions. It’s not their fault.
Because of the vastness of metropolitan Los Angeles, one tends to stay in one’s own pocket of it. And ignorance here means not bliss but terror, as evidenced by the violence and salaciousness of local TV news, much worse than in New York. Four mornings in a row I watched KTLA, Channel 5. There was the story about a seedy white guy who tried to lure into his car an 11-year-old black boy, Rahssan Davis, who explained to a TV reporter: “I think he was going to kill me! Then he was going to pick up somebody else and kill him too!” There was the half a human brain found by a tow-truck driver in an abandoned car in Van Nuys. There were the three pit bulls found on the loose in South- Central, having escaped from their owners’ backyards. In Los Angeles, stories like these don’t seem too freakish to bother with because most Angelenos are prepared to believe the worst about prevailing conditions in places they’ve never seen.
This explains the how of the “L.A. Is Doomed!” articles, books, and movies-how residents of L.A., never mind East Coasters, could be so gullible-but not the why: why so many people crave hints of apocalypse. Stuff like this is a kind of poetry, and poetry evokes a sentiment that its readers find pleasurable. Just what sentiment that may be is hinted at by the sight of L.A. from the air, that unnatural grid and all it has to tell us about creativity and createdness.
L.A. is the ultimate city of creativity. Of course, one thinks of Hollywood, where the screen universe is brought into existence in a flash out of nothing. Just as important is the grid itself, which didn’t exist fifty years ago. Because it was built almost overnight, Los Angeles can’t be confused with anything natural. New York was also once a wilderness. But that city and its suburbs grew up gradually. Since there was never an analogue in Brooklyn or Queens for the instantaneous eruption of the suburbanized San Fernando Valley, you can entertain the impression that New York came about organically.
L.A. makes many of us distinctly uncomfortable. In a nation whose spiritual health is troubled by spreading secularism, it must. At a time when high-toned opinion is turned violently against the notion of man as a created being, this city of creativity can’t help but give offense. For there could be no real creativity without a Creator. It has been a longstanding belief, suppressed in the past century only through tireless secular propaganda, that one sense in which man is the “image” of God can be found in the first line of Genesis: He created, and so do we. On one reading, the one encouraged by an auto tour of L.A., the cultural conflict that wracks our ailing country comes down to a dispute about creativity. If man has a Creator, then human creativity is our tribute to Him. If man has a Creator, then we urbane Americans must before long reassess our cherished secular assumptions.
The city of creativity thus promotes the formation of neurotic cultural symptoms-”L.A. Is Doomed!” pronounced in hundreds of books, movies, and periodicals-as a defense against the true meaning of creativity. For that part of the public which consumes newspapers like the New York Times and books like Mike Davis’s, it would be deeply reassuring if such a place were destroyed-whether by earthquake or fire, wild beasts or overdevelopment . . . it really doesn’t matter.