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Will Class Struggle Be L.A.'s Great Divide?

December 19, 1990|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a recent evening, urban theorist Mike Davis brought his battered Toyota to a halt in the hills of the Beaudry Temple neighborhood north of downtown Los Angles. In this area of poverty-scarred bungalows awaiting the developers' wrecking ball, residents were gathered in a makeshift cluster of chairs. Like observers at a silent spectacle, they faced the glittering wall of Bunker Hill skyscrapers--30 million square feet of new real estate illuminated before them.

The scene, which appeared as apocalyptic to Davis, embodies his view of Los Angeles as a city of social polarization, promoting its glamorous upside and largely ignoring its huge underbelly of ethnic poverty.

In his book, "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles" (Verso), published last month, Davis describes a lustrous, sharp-edged, opaque metropolis that, like quartz, is capable of inflicting pain, especially on its dispossessed.

From the city's early 20th-Century "boosters" to the contemporary corporate patrons of a "Manhattanized" culture and skyline, from the Westside "Gucci Gulch" to the suburbanized working classes clinging to the outer edges of the megalopolis, he chronicles the social forces behind the would-be utopia and its opposite image, a dystopia.

A radical populist who became a Marxist in the '60s after reading Jean-Paul Sartre's trilogy, "Roads to Freedom," Davis sees the gaping class disparities as a rift that will cleave the city, unless the poor can become productive members of a working class. "It seems impossible to imagine Los Angles getting better, even though it's been merchandised as a utopia for several generations," he says, talking upstairs at Philippe's, one of the city's more democratic delicatessens, where a cup of coffee still costs a dime. Unions have been meeting in the plain beige room, with its rows of wood tables and small worn stools, since the letter carriers from the old central post office across the street began assembling here in the '30s.

Sipping coffee from a mug, Davis speaks with the disciplined passion of the committed intellectual. At 44, he has bowl-cut hair that falls in a saw-toothed fringe over his forehead, and is dressed in a respectably worn crew-neck sweater and jeans.

In terms of urban and social problems, he says, Los Angeles is at ground zero. "It's going against the grain of the new celebrations of itself." The city that received international kudos as home to the 1984 Summer Olympic Games and the Los Angeles Festival is, in his view, better portrayed in a bumper crop of popular movies and books, from "Blade Runner" to "Repo Man."

In "Report 2000," Mayor Tom Bradley's 1988 commissioned study of Los Angeles' future, "the city is assumed to be a perpetual motion machine," Davis says. The report pictures the economy as "a happy black box generating eternal ways to prosperity."

Even in the eyes of some liberal academics, he says, "there aren't any victims. There are just ethnic entrepreneurs on the first rung of the ladder.

"What we're going to find out in short order is that for tens of thousands of people, there's only one rung of the ladder. There's no place to climb up."

Government, Davis believes, has failed to invest in a social infrastructure, including education and health care, to accommodate the new immigrants to Southern California. Also, unlike the Europeans who arrived on the East Coast during the waves of turn-of-the-century immigration, L.A.'s immigrants are trapped in low-productivity jobs.

While the Italians, Poles and Irish labored in the steel and automotive industries, which were able to meet workers' demands for increased pay, the immigrants of Los Angeles work in small, poorly capitalized manufacturing firms and service areas. "The symbol of the new immigrants' struggle for union rights and higher wages has been the janitors," Davis says, referring to the corps of primarily Latino sanitation workers, house cleaners, gardeners and waiters who tend the city's affluent homes and restaurants.

However, for Davis, the long-range problem for the city will be joined to the lives of the second-generation immigrants. "The biggest question Los Angeles is going to face in the future is the fate of their children. What's going to happen if there's no mobility for these kids? This is a latent time bomb in L.A."

More immediately, he predicts, the worsening economy will precipitate a social crisis for workers at the subsistance level. "The supply of cheap, deployable, exploitable labor here is super-saturated. Any downturn in the economy will lead to dramatic jumps in homelessness and absolute poverty."

If Davis is mining the downside of the city's history, his approach is a logical outgrowth of his own experience. When his maternal grandparents arrived in this country in the 1880s, he says, "They were Democrats within 10 minutes after they got out of Ellis Island. Probably 15 minutes after that, they joined a union."

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