A brilliant radical reporter with a novelist’s eye and a historian’s memory

By Jon Wiener at the Nation. Photo: Adam Perez

Mike Davis, author and activist, radical hero and family man, died October 25 after a long struggle with esophageal cancer; he was 76. He’s best known for his 1990 book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz. Marshall Berman, reviewing it for The Nation, said it combined “the radical citizen who wants to grasp the totality of his city’s life, and the urban guerrilla aching to see the whole damned thing blow.”

And the whole thing did blow, two years after the book was published. When the Rodney King riots broke out in LA in 1992, frightened white people rushed home, locked the doors, and turned on the TV news. Mike, however, was driving in the opposite direction, with his old friend Ron Schneck at his side. They parked, got out, and started talking with the people in the streets about what was going on. Then he went home and wrote about it.

Mike was a 1960s person, but he didn’t come from a liberal or left background. His father was a meat cutter and a conservative, and as a young patriot, Mike briefly joined the Devil Pups—the Marine Corps’ version of the Boy Scouts. His life was changed by the civil rights movement. In 1962, when he was a junior in high school, a Black activist married to his cousin took Mike to a protest organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), picketing an all-white Bank of America branch in San Diego. Soon he was volunteering in the CORE office there. He started college at Reed, but left to go to work for SDS.

As an SDS organizer in the late ’60s, Mike was part of the largest mass arrest in the history of 1960s protest—at “Valley State,” now California State University–Northridge, in 1969, when 286 were arrested after a peaceful sit-down of 3,000 students protesting the school administration banning all demonstrations, rallies, and meetings. “What I remember most vividly about the arrests,” he said 45 years later, “was the ride to jail in a police bus. The girls started singing, ‘Hey Jude, don’t be afraid.’ I fell in love with all of them.”

City of Quartz was his masterpiece. Published in 1990, it opens with a description of a visit to the ruins of the socialist city of Llano del Rio, founded in 1914 in the desert north of LA. There, on May Day 1990, he finds two twentysomething building laborers from El Salvador camped out, hoping for work in nearby Palmdale. “When I observed that they were settled in the ruins of a ciudad socialista, one of them asked whether the ‘rich people had come with planes and bombed them out.’” They asked what he was doing out there, and what he thought of Los Angeles. “I tried to explain that I had just written a book…” And then you turn the page, to chapter one, the unforgettable “Sunshine and Noir.”

After City of Quartz, everybody wanted Mike. Adam Shatz wrote in 1997 about how

phoning Mike Davis is a good way of getting acquainted with his answering machine.… Sitting on his porch on a warm evening, I understood why: The phone rang incessantly, and Davis never once rose from his chair. The calls last from morning to midnight. It might be the photographer Richard Avedon or the architect I.M. Pei with a request for one of Davis’s legendary tours of L.A.… It might also be a Danish curator mounting an exhibit on the postmodern city, an organizer with the hotel workers’ union, a student at UCLA’s Cesar Chavez Center, or (very likely) a Hollywood screenwriter.

He turned down most invitations to speak. I remember his daughter Roisin telling him in 2014, “Dad, you really should reply to that invitation from the president of Argentina,” and Mike saying, “If I’m not replying to the pope, I’m not replying to her.” (He had been invited to the Vatican after the publication of Planet of Slums.)

But he accepted some. At UC Irvine, where we were colleagues in the history department for most of a decade, I gave a lecture in his course (“Intro to 20th-Century US History”) to cover for him the day he was speaking at an anarchist convention in Palermo.

Mike hated being called “a prophet of doom.” Yes, LA did explode two years after City of Quartz; the fires and floods did get more intense after Ecology of Fear, and of course a global pandemic did follow The Monster at Our Door. But when he wrote about climate change or viral pandemics, he was not offering a “prophecy”; he was reporting on the latest research. After Covid hit, we did several Nation podcast segments about it; he told me at one point “I’ve been staying up late reading virology textbooks.”

He said he wrote about the things that scared him the most. Ecology of Fear (1998) dealt with earthquakes, forest fires, floods and century-long droughts. One chapter, “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” became a classic, arguing that fire budgets would be better spent protecting crowded inner-city neighborhoods rather than mega-mansions built in remote hillside fire areas. That provoked its own firestorm. His critics, led by a Malibu realtor, couldn’t refute his argument, so they went after his footnotes—and both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times ran stories about the “controversy.” But the controversy faded and the argument became stronger. “During fire season,” LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote in 2018, when fires circled LA and the sky was full of smoke for weeks, “I always think about…‘The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.’”

Unlike the rest of the New Left, Mike didn’t reject the old left—his mentor in the 1960s and ’70s was the renegade CP leader in Southern California, Dorothy Healey. Mike loved arguing with her. When Dorothy died in 2006, Mike wrote in The Nation that she represented “the left’s ‘greatest generation’—those tough-as-nails children of Ellis Island who built the CIO, fought Jim Crow in Manhattan and Alabama, and buried their friends in the Spanish earth.” Their deaths, he said, were “an inestimable, heart-wrenching loss.” Now we feel the same about his.

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of “Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties”.