D.J. Waldie, a onetime critic of Mike Davis, praises his immense influence

From left, authors Joan Didion in 2003, Mike Davis in 2022, and Ken Starr in 2009.
From left, authors Joan Didion in 2003, Mike Davis in 2022, and Kevin Starr in 2009. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times; Adam Perez / For The Times; Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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We lost Joan Didion last year and now Mike Davis. Kevin Starr preceded them in 2017. These three interpreters of our dreams should be read together. They told us who we were as Angelenos and, more broadly, as Californians. Davis was a Marxist. Didion was the realist. And Starr was a Catholic. Each had a theory of history, an explanatory model of the forces that had made this place and brought us, sometimes heedlessly, to it. Unfortunately, history has never meant much to the people of Los Angeles.

Davis and Starr were friends (which delighted Starr), perhaps because both believed that historical events aimed toward a redemptive conclusion. Both Marx and St. Thomas Aquinas thought history would have a happy ending, however delayed it was. In service to that conviction, Davis examined the distempers of Los Angeles and diagnosed their causes. His analysis was harrowing. I criticized him for his pitiless conclusion (in “Ecology of Fear”) that my working-class neighbors should never have been allowed to live here, that their suburban hopes for an ordinary life had cruelly deceived them.

In an interview Davis gave to The Times in July, he disparaged hope. “I don't think hope is a scientific category. And I don’t think that people fight or stay the course because of hope; I think people do it out of love and anger.” Those fires burn through his books, though I cannot judge the proportion of anger to love. Despite Davis’ reputation for bleakness, I prefer to believe that love had become dominant. He told the Guardian in August, after he had ended treatment for esophageal cancer, “What keeps us going, ultimately, is our love for each other, and our refusal to bow our heads, to accept the verdict, however all-powerful it seems.”

This is a romantic imagination at work, one that makes alternative histories plausible. Davis begins his most celebrated book — "City of Quartz” — in the ruins of Llano del Rio, a utopian community founded in 1914 in the Antelope Valley by Job Harriman, who could have become the first Socialist mayor of Los Angeles. His campaign was wrecked by the bombing of The Times building in 1910 and by his defense of the bombers, both of them union organizers. The ruin of Llano del Rio and Harriman’s Socialist campaign are historical facts, but so too is the engaged activism that brought both into being. Looking to the past in Los Angeles is not only instructive; it’s fortifying. “Fight” was a word Davis often used.

He thought his own past had value. He told author Mark Dery in 1996, “One of the things I've increasingly ended up fighting for, where I teach and in the kind of politics I do, is a nostalgized vision of what Southern California was like 30 years ago — the freedom of its beaches and its cruising streets and the kind of careless, libidinal adolescence that used to be possible.” But those “relative freedoms,” Davis knew, were exclusive. They were “the intoxications that white kids had,” which for Davis included a mild amount of hooliganism. Davis insisted there should be other possessors of those freedoms and ultimately of what it means to be an Angeleno and a Californian.

Davis wrote what he said were “impassioned polemics on the necessity of the urban left.” He wanted direct action, not murals or marches. He said he didn’t want to die quietly but on the barricades somewhere “with the red flags flying.” Instead, Davis revolutionized how we talk about Los Angeles, demolishing not only the city’s endemic boosterism but also the tired clichés of sunshine and noir that the city’s critics still deploy. His books and his scholarship cleared a space where divergent stories — from the streets and in neighborhoods — could be told by other voices. I was fortunate to be one of them.

“People’s stories are key,” Davis said. “Listen carefully to the quiet, profound people who have lost everything but their dignity.” He passionately believed that shared and remembered stories create communities and sustain lives. Didion and Starr had a similar faith in narrative. As interpreters, these three showed Angelenos who they were; now they’re gone. If Los Angeles — so beautiful and tragic — means anything to its people today, they’ll have to find and fiercely embrace (and just as fiercely question) new interpreters who will help them see who they are now.

Waldie’s most recent book is "Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.