How a Great Book About L.A. Missed the Big Story: City of Quartz 25 Years Later

03/10/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

When I write about urbanism, I usually write about where I live, Santa Monica, California, on a blog I call the Healthy City Local. For a recent series about anti-development politics in Santa Monica, I found myself going back to Mike Davis' City of Quartz, specifically his famous 60-page chapter, called "Homegrown Revolution," in which he chronicled the L.A. homeowner movements of the '70s and '80s.

Davis (famously) took no prisoners. He was tough on Anglo homeowners who banded together to enact Prop. 13 and keep apartments (and minorities) out of their neighborhoods, even as they were enriched by the rapid increase in property values of the late '70s. But Davis also attacked the Growth Machine developers (and their kept politicians) that the would-be "sunbelt Bolsheviks" so feared.

At some point it occurred to me that this year was the 25th anniversary of the publication of City of Quartz, an anniversary that hasn't gone unnoticed by others as well. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne recently hosted a panel on the book and its impact 25 years later in the "ThirdLA" series that he's put together with Occidental College. For many including myself the book's impact will always be underscored because Davis seemed to predict the multiple disasters that hit L.A. and the region in the early '90s. It's hard enough to explain history when it's history; it's even harder to explain it when it hasn't yet occurred. City of Quartz did that.

Twenty-five years later, the book still stings with insights. Yet, in hindsight it is interesting what Davis missed. For all that he saw that others didn't, City of Quartz missed the biggest story of its time, which was the massive immigration that was changing the region.

Beyond casual references (mostly in his chapter on Cardinal Roger Mahony and the L.A. Archdiocese), Davis hardly writes of immigration in City of Quartz. The year he published the book, however, 1990, was the peak of a demographic wave of immigration that lasted about 30 years. In 1970 about 11% of L.A. County's then seven million residents were foreign born; by 2000 the figure was 36% and the county's population had increased to 9.5 million. Today, still about 36% of county residents are foreign born, but in addition about 21% of county residents have at least one foreign-born parent. This means that well over half of L.A. County residents are directly tied to what might justly be called the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration. (These numbers come from the research of Dowell Myers and John Pitkin at USC.)

Davis was not alone. Often when you read accounts from the middle of the immigration era--even from activists who tried to remedy the multiple crises, involving housing, jobs, schools, gangs, etc., that massive demographic change caused--you get the sense that people were too close to the phenomenon to be able to perceive it. As if, for example, it should be surprising that some chaos will result if you drop millions of immigrants, mostly impoverished, rural, and poorly educated (and who don't speak English for God's sake!), into a modern city that wasn't expecting them.

But many in southern California in the '80s and '90s, for different reasons, acted as if nothing unusual was happening. Activists argued that it was a profound failing of government, capitalism, etc., that explained why we suddenly had millions more poor people to house, employ and educate. That was their narrative and City of Quartz became their touchstone text. Meanwhile, conservatives, beyond expressing hatred for the newcomers, wanted to ignore the whole thing and certainly didn't want to spend any money to deal with the situation. They gave us Props. 13, 187, 218, etc. With an assist from the decline of the aerospace industry, white flight went from regional to multi-state.

You can argue that southern California barely survived the immigration wave, and is limping towards an uncertain future, or you can argue (and I agree with this) that the region will prosper because of the work force the wave left behind, but you can't argue against the fact that the immigrants turned the region into a different metropolis from what it was in 1990.

The wave also left the region with two crucial social issues. One is a housing crisis for not only the working class, but also the (actual) middle class. The other is low wages for working people--a crisis made more acute by the housing crisis.

The native-born children of the immigrants of the '70s and '80s, along with other Millennials, are now adults and working, making their way forward, but even those making good money can't find places to live and raise families. For a while the regional solution was to send them out into the sprawl, to the Inland Empire, Antelope Valley, etc. (following, ironically, the white conservatives who had fled L.A. to escape the immigrants), but that model blew up in the Great Recession.

Now, like everyone else, they want to live near their jobs and not go into unsustainable debt to do so. This is causing rents and property values to rise in the region's central core -- an opportunity if higher rents and property values can lead to investment in "smarter" growth, but a disaster if not enough new housing gets built and the higher costs only lead to displacement because wages don't keep up.

Meaning that the crisis for the region is low wages for a vast working class--something Mike Davis could write a book about.

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