Research Exposes Getty Fellow, McArthur Recipient Mike Davis As Purposefully Misleading Liar

By Brady Westwater


After publication of his surprise best seller City of Quartz in 1990, Mike Davis was anointed the prophet of Los Angeles. With the book's vision of a paramilitary L.A., the violence prone antichrist of American cities, it appeared unusually prescient when the Rodney King riots took place only two years later. The riots sealed Davis's fate; from then on hewas the unquestioned expert on anything Los Angeles.

His new book, Ecology of Fear, is five hundred pages of increasingly dire predictions of the demise of L.A.from acts of a vengeful nature, all of which, he would have you believe, Angelenos have brought upon themselves. Unsurprisingly, it is receiving rave reviews throughout the world. While some critics might quibble about an odd point, there are a few items on which they almost unanimously agree: Davis's books benefit from having L.A.as his "hometown" (New York Times); his books are "prodigiously researched" (also New York Times); "enormously convincing" (Business Week); they have "a multitude of facts, large and small" (NY Times Book Review); Mr. Davis "holds the keys to understanding the city of Los Angeles" (Lingua Franca) and they are "heavily footnoted" (almost everyone mentions this).

There is only one small problem with all these hosannas. None of them are true (other than the fact there are sure a hell of a lot of footnotes). Mr. Davis was not only not born in Los Angeles, he was not even raised anywhere near L.A. And of the heavily footnoted and researched facts, not just a handful, not just a few dozen here and there, but many hundreds (and hundreds) of them were simply made up. Or, if not made up, twisted, rationalized and distorted until they bear very little relation to the truth.

To begin with Davis's own paternity, in his City of Quartz bio, he did admit--as he had elsewhere--that he was born in the small town of Fontana in San Bernardino County and raised in a tiny hamlet called Bostonia in the outback of San Diego County.

For New Yorkers, that is the equivalent of saying someone born and raised in a dying farming town 60 miles north of Buffalo is a native New Yorker and thus uniquely qualified to write about the inner workings of Manhattan.

But the geographically challenged reviewers of City of Quartz seemed incapable of looking at a map and realizing Mike Davis's background could not be further from the reality of anyone actually born and raised in Los Angeles. Reviewers of his current book will have a harder time, though, divining the truth of his physical upbringing. In a very recent event (undoubtedly due to previously undetected paradigm shifts in the earth's tectonic plates), Davis' birth place (as listed on the book's jacket) has just been moved to the city of Los Angeles.
The reality of Davis' being born and raised in small desert fringe towns far from L.A. doesn't mean he can't--or shouldn't--write about L.A. but to sell books--as he does now--on the basis that he was born in L.A. and to further claim he is a native son with specific firsthand knowledge of L.A. is well, fraud.

Davis appears to have arrived in L.A. for his first visit in the mid 1960's (he was born in 1946) after leaving the greater Bostonia area for San Diego and a short stay at Reed College in Oregon. After some years of political activity throughout the Western United States--including managing a Communist Party book store--he became a long distance truck driver. In the 1970's he spent two more periods in L.A., both times as a student at UCLA, but for much/most of the decade he was in Europe, particularly England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The 1980's were spent in London. He returned to L.A. in 1987. In the following two years, he appears to have written City of Quartz (it was published in 1990). Our "native son" wrote the "ultimate insider" book on L.A. after just two years in the city.

Not surprising, then, is that Quartz appears to have been written in the research stacks of UCLA; it probably was. Almost everything he describes in and about L.A. happened while he wasn't even on the American continent, much less in L.A. So much for the alleged native son advantage.

To fully detail the extent of the errors, deceptions and mistakes in each book would require far more words than either book contains. The most economical way may be to take a handful of pages and demonstrate just how flawed each aspect of the research, analysis and writing is on those few pages. The main thrust of Quartz and an important part of Ecology is that the public spaces of L.A.are being replaced by heavily controlled, gated environments which exclude the bulk of the citizenry and, furthermore, that this process has speeded up since the riots of 1992.

His poster child for the new Blade Runner L.A. is Bunker Hill; a decaying slum which was replaced with new office buildings, museums, the Music Center, hotels, schools, and apartments. On Page 364 of Ecology he claims that after the 1965 Watts Riot, the downtown property owners decided to abandon plans to redevelop the old Spring Street Financial District and formed a secretive "Committee of 25" which manipulated the city to condemn Bunker Hill. The Committee then had the city clear the land of structures so they could buy the land at far below market value, thus having the city bail them out of their failed downtown investments.

Not one of Davis' "facts" has any resemblance to the truth. The Committee of 25 was formed in 1952, not in 1965. It was not "secretive"--its existence was well known by anyone involved in local affairs. It was also not a landowner's association, but was a committee of the largest corporations in the city. And it was not the driving force behind the Bunker Hill redevelopment; that was the Central City Association. lastly, the riots were actually the beginning of the Committee's end as leader of the city's power structure, not it's genesis.

As for abandoning any plans to redevelop the old Spring Street Financial District (located in the older east side of downtown), Davis is referring to a plan called Centropolis which was proposed in the area south of Bunker Hill long after the Bunker Hill redevelopment had already been approved and physically started. And even that new plan did not call for the financial district staying on Spring Street; the Bunker Hill project was always scheduled to be the new headquarters for downtown.

The Centropolis plan only showed a grand total of two buildings--hardly a financial district--being built on Spring Street, and even they were barely in the conceptual stage. The drawing Davis shows of projected high rises were actually proposed in the newer western portion of downtown. That new area, by the way, has since been redeveloped with highrises. The plan he claims was "abandoned" was later largely realized in spirit if not exact form.

And "saving" the banks' "investments???" All the buildings on Spring street were 30 to 60 years old, functionally obsolete and had long been fully depreciated. The only postwar bank building was the 1959 California Bank Building and when that much-merged bank did finally move, it bought a lot on 6th Street outside of the Bunker Hill redevelopment area, at fair market value.

And the claim Bunker Hill land was sold below market value each parcel was auctioned off to the highest bidder as required by law. As for Davis' statement that downtown business interests had gotten the city to condemn Bunker Hill to "save" them in 1965, the real decision to redevelop Bunker Hill had first been made in the 1930's and activated in 1959. The clearing of buildings started in 1961; by 1965 most of the land had been bought by the city, the bulk of the buildings had been cleared, the Music Center was under construction, the infrastructure was in place and the lots were getting ready to be auctioned off to builders. There was no way the property owners could have "gotten" the city to condemn Bunker Hill in 1965 for the simple reason the city already essentially owned Bunker Hill.

Since literally every single "fact" in his scenario is dead wrong, I was really curious to see where the footnote for all this misinformation would lead. A quick turn to the back of the book revealed Mike Davis' source was none other than Mike Davis, from an essay he had written some years earlier in a collection of essays, Out of Site.

The writings of Mike Davis are prime examples of someone having a point of view they wish to promulgate and then writing, not to find the truth, but to support their case. Whenever Davis needs a "fact" to boost some preformulated hypothesis, rather than going to all the messy bother of actually hunting them down, it seems as if he simply grows and rolls his own and then assigns whatever moderately plausible footnote happens to be lying around.

Even in his essay in Out of Site on downtown redevelopment, he starts with some of the correct facts, but his complete lack of understanding of real estate development, simple geography and the political process renders his thoughts on the subject impotent.

As an exercise, I decided to fact check both the first and last chapters of Ecology to see how far one could read before the first "errors" appeared. In both cases I didn't make it past the first (or final) paragraph. In the opening paragraph of the book, Davis states that a Kona storm front hitting L.A.during an El Nino "produces rainfall of a ferocity unrivaled anywhere on earth, even in the tropical monsoon belts." He doesn't state that rainfall in L.A. approaches tropical levels. He doesn't say that it is at monsoon levels. He says that tropical monsoons don't begin to rival the intensity of rain in L.A.

The "facts" in the obscure footnote he quotes (and Davis is a master of finding that one inaccurate footnote in a sea of facts to support his claims) are that the world record for one minute of rain is .64 inches, held by L.A. County and that the former world record for decades (also in L.A.County) is 26.08 inches for a full day. Both statements are totally, completely false, and, even if they were true, would still not logically support his claim.

In the tropics, the rain comes down so hard during any storm (much less monsoons), the gauges usually aren't even set up to register per hour counts, much less per minute counts. Estimates of two, three inches per minute are common in the literature. The American record (which for that reason is also the world record) is 1.23 inches in a minute--almost double the L.A. amount of .64 inches--in that famous tropical monsoon city of Unionville, Maryland. As for the 24-hour record, the 4 hour 30 minute record in the U.S. is 30.8 inches in Smethport, Pennsylvania; it occurred in 1942, one year before L.A.'s "for decades the world's record." The real world's 24 hour record is 73.62 inches in Le Reunion. After that misleading prologue, Davis launches into the first section of Ecology's first chapter.

In just one page, Davis first claims that in less than three years the L.A. area had three of the ten most costly disasters since the Civil War. He claims the Northridge Earthquake was far and away the costliest natural disaster in American history, was more expensive than the next four costliest disasters put together and affected the lives of more people than any previous national disaster in the United States. Four very strong claims--each of which is backed up by ample footnotes. And these are largely the facts his book is based upon.
And every one of these "facts" is totally false.

To accomplish this deception, Davis first has his multiple "definitions" of Los Angeles: the L.A. Metropolitan area, the greater L.A. area, Southern California, the South Coast and the Megalopolis--with totally different populations and characteristics which he picks and chooses to suit whatever he is trying to prove at the moment. If that isn't confusing enough, when it comes to his disaster statistics he isn't so much comparing apples and oranges, but Volvos and skateboards. The first list--from the New York Times--he uses to prove L.A. has three of the largest national disasters since the Civil War. The first problem is that the list ignores all post-Civil War 19th Century and early 20th Century disasters such as the Chicago Fire, San Francisco earthquake and others which dwarf any fire or storm L.A. has ever had.

Then, this outdated New York Times list he selectively chose, conveniently predates all disasters after the Northridge earthquake, such as the recent Midwest floods (even though in the very next paragraph he mentions the Midwest floods), which again far exceed the cost of any fire or flood to hit L.A. Finally, even if one uses non-inflation adjusted dollars, when one checks current disaster lists of total costs at the time of the writing of the book, such as the one issued by the Insurance Information Institute, they all show Southern California as only having one disaster on the top ten list, not three as Davis falsely claims.

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