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COLUMN ONE : Dueling Prophets of Next L.A. : Mike Davis sees murky decay, while Kevin Starr embraces shiny optimism. This odd couple of historians is helping to shape the debate over the past--and future--of Southern California.

November 19, 1994|SUSAN MOFFAT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the world has come to see Los Angeles as either hell or heaven--as a "Blade Runnerish" swamp of crime, race wars and economic devastation or a dynamic, multicultural cosmopolis--two of the people most responsible are historians Mike Davis and Kevin Starr.

Gangs, toxic waste, racial strife and a Neanderthal middle class fill Davis' "City of Quartz," a jeremiad on 20th-Century Los Angeles history that depicts the city as the ultimate gladiatorial arena of Darwinian capitalism.

Orange blossoms, red-tile bungalows and Pasadena literati abound in Starr's "Material Dreams," a history of Los Angeles in the 1920s that celebrates the entrepreneurial, Progressive foundations of this "Great Gatsby of American cities."

When the two books came out in 1990, Davis groupies scorned Starr's boosterism as unfashionably chipper. Many Starr fans dismissed Davis as a left-wing lunatic.

Then came the 1992 riots, and both authors were transformed into media stars. Now, as they work the talk show circuit, fill the Op-Ed pages, guide European documentary makers around town and teach a new generation of urban planners, these very public men of letters are helping to define not only how Los Angeles will be remembered, but what it will become.

Marxist and Catholic, thin and fat, rebel and defender of civilization, the 48-year-old Davis and the 54-year-old Starr are the odd couple of the booming industry of explaining L.A.

"I don't know that there's been anybody else as important to shaping intellectual perceptions of Los Angeles," said Warren Olney, host of the influential radio show "Which Way L.A."

Next year, they will refuel debate with new books: a local history of the Great Depression by Starr, and a chronicle of recent riots, quakes and fires by Davis.

If Davis expresses the despair of the working class, while Starr captures its hopes, it is because they know them firsthand. Starr's poor city childhood in San Francisco seems straight out of Dickens, while Davis' youth in what he calls an "Okie suburb" of San Diego could have been invented by Steinbeck.

Starr envisions the ideal Los Angeles as a city dotted with high-rise apartments and bustling with street life, unified by great public edifices near its center. Davis imagines a place not too different from East L.A. at its best: working people hanging out on the front porches of their bungalows, enjoying the local library branch and the corner mural.

Davis' writing focuses on the victims of capitalism. He chronicles the destruction of working-class Los Angeles with the closing of the great auto and tire plants south of Downtown, and traces the roots of current gang warfare to the lack of decent paying jobs.

"I remember sitting around in '67, '68," Davis said, "trying to figure out: well, were you gonna be an auto worker, a longshoreman or a trucker? You just sat down and decided. Look, I could end the gang problem in L.A. in five minutes. Just give me 50,000 good jobs that existed here in L.A. in the '60s."

By contrast, Starr mines the history of Los Angeles for nuggets of hope. He reminds readers that violence-torn Venice was once a Utopian village of canals and concert halls, and that Los Angeles in living memory enjoyed a first-rate public transportation system.

"I love Los Angeles," said the ever-ebullient Starr. "You banish violent crime from L.A. and you almost have Utopia."

Both men agree that a sprawling morality tale is being played out here, one with consequences for America and the world. For all their differences, Davis and Starr have one agenda in common: the defense of public space and the civic life it represents in a metropolis that is increasingly walling itself off into gated communities and fortress-like patios. Their shared passions for mundane and precious public places such as parks and libraries make the men friendlier toward each other than one might imagine--as do their working-class upbringings.

Childhood Contrasts

Starr grew up in San Francisco as what today would be called an "at-risk youth." It was the city and its churches that saved him, he says. He considers his life a testament to the power of cities--so often seen as corrupters of the young but really great ethical classrooms, and networks of religious, civic and educational institutions linked by public transportation.

His Irish American family had lived in San Francisco for generations. His grandfather was a firefighter in the Great Fire of 1906. His father was a union machinist.

Tragedy struck early. His parents separated when he was 3; his mother had a nervous breakdown, his father was disabled by a brain tumor. Starr and his brother spent much of their childhood in a foster home.

The home, the kind of institutional anchor Starr finds so crucial to a civil society, was where the troubled child developed his dedication to social orderliness and a love of teaching. "He was such a good boy," said Sister Mauritia Bleiker, now 94. "He helped me take care of the littler boys."

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