January 14, 1999
Which Side Are You On?
Is Mike Davis right about Los Angeles? And if so, what does it mean for our increasingly conservative Jewish community? That was the subtext of my meeting with Davis last Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Davis' most recent book, "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster," was on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list for nearly four months. Its local popularity is unsettling to some, given Davis' dire review of the region's history -- filled with fire, flood, earthquake, riot, self-doubt and anxiety. The winner of the coveted MacArthur "genius" award (worth $315,000), Davis has been under attack in cover stories in the Times, L.A. Weekly and New Times much of the past month for his message and his research methods.
Davis' major theme, updated from his acclaimed "City of Quartz," is that critical decisions have been made, including permitted building in fire zones in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains, which put the whole political and economic structure of the region at risk. Davis' critics, including conservative boosters, find his criticism unnecessarily harsh and even dangerous. To them, the seven thin years since the Rodney King trial are behind us. Los Angeles is in recovery now.
But Davis argues, not so fast. The current economic recovery, he believes, is only a superficial gloss of protection on the environmental and social problems coming our way. There will be a fire next time as well as a cycle of flood and earthquake. These disasters, based on bad land use and building policies, he says, are ultimately paid for by Los Angeles' poor, since federal disaster relief is now a budget item: the guns of fire and flood insurance are played off against the butter of inner-city welfare. Since we in Los Angeles refuse to learn our natural and political history, we're doomed to more disasters in the years ahead, and we'll get what we deserve.
Given the storm circulating around him, Davis in person is soft-spoken and mild-mannered. He is, at 53, every inch the unreconstructed former Teamster who drove an 18-wheeler before starting UCLA at age 28. He's got a sense of humor, conceding that if readers didn't get the "positive" message of his book, it was probably his own fault. "I love it here too," he told the young, multiethnic Skirball crowd. "Sometimes, I wake up and look at the mountains and say, 'Davis are you crazy?'"
But he's not crazy about at least one thing: the need to build political coalitions if we are to grow together as a region. Davis loves the multiethnic experiment of Los Angeles, especially the Boyle Heights area. "You should do a program on 'When We All Lived Together,'" he told the Skirball's Amina Sanchez before our program began. He hates suburbanization because, among other things, it pulls people apart.
Despite Davis' reputation as a latter-day Jeremiah, the heart of his work is not moral but political: Demographic and ethnic divisions have plagued the region since the planting of the first palm tree. First, it was the Eastside Chandlers vs. the Westside ethnic groups, notably blacks and Jews; today, it is Valley secessionists vs. the city.
But he is not without hope. "There's a new progressive movement growing, starting with a revived labor resurgence," he told the audience. This progressivism is based on environmental and economic issues, especially providing a livable wage for those at the bottom.
Can the Jewish community, which has moved west, north and right during the Pete Wilson years, be a part of that progressive coalition?
I spoke this week with leaders of two traditionally progressive Jewish organizations: Rick Chertoff of the Jewish Labor Committee and Carol Levy, executive director of the local office of the American Jewish Congress.
Chertoff and Levy each told me that Davis was right: that slowly, there are signs that Jews, one by one, are finding a way back, a meaningful way to be progressive, without denying changed economic circumstance. For example: In November, 63 percent of Jewish voters were against Proposition 226, which would have killed unions by barring use of dues for political issues. "We have a bifurcation of interests," Chertoff told me. "But most of us still are for the right of workers to organize."
In June, the JLC, backed by a committee of 22 rabbis, helped keep the Summit Rodeo Hotel in Beverly Hills as a union shop, on behalf of housekeepers, wait staff, cooks and parking attendants. Both the JLC and AJCongress are part of a coalition that achieved passage of Los Angeles' living-wage ordinance, impacting 6,000 workers.
"As labor revives, Jews will not be able to rely on nostalgia any more, on the union past of Grandpa and Aunt Sadie," says Levy. "They're going to have to revisit how they feel about labor."
Now here comes a surprise: Mike Davis himself thinks Jews are with him for the long haul. After invoking the long history of shared Jewish and Latino experiences in the garment industry, he e-mailed me this: "I am absolutely confident that the Jewish community will continue to play the same outstanding role in the progressive politics of the future as it has in its past." Amazingly, the professional doomsayer is, on this one issue, an optimist.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist at The Jewish Journal.