david pritchard. bibliography.

Notes on Mike Davis, Dead Cities [2]

This is a fascinating collection of essays, with varying connection to transportation and land use. Much of it is only peripherally about cities, but there are some interesting dissections of the political and economic interests that drive urban development.

Las Vegas versus Nature (1998)

In a famous article for Fortune magazine in 1958, sociologist William Whyte described how "flying from Los Angeles to San Bernardino—an unnerving lesson in man's infinite capacity to mess up the environment—the traveler can see a legion of bulldozers gnawing into the last remaining tract of green between two cities." He baptized this insidious growth form "urban sprawl."

Although Las Vegas's third-generation sprawl incorporates some innovations (casino-anchored shopping centers, for example), it otherwise recapitulates, with robotlike fidelity, the seven deadly sins of Los Angeles and its Sunbelt clones such as Phoenix and Orange County. Las Vegas has (1) abdicated a responsible water ethic; (2) fragmented local government and subordinated it to private corporate planning; (3) produced a negligible amount of usable public space; (4) abjured the use of "hazard zoning" to mitigate natural disaster and conserve landscape; (5) dispersed land-use over an enormous, unnecessary area; (6) embraced the resulting dictatorship of the automobile; and (7) tolerated extreme social and, especially, racial inequality. [1] [p. 92]

The Infinite Game (1990)

In singing praise to the miracle of the Pacific Rim economy, Los Angeles boosters in the 1980s generally avoided reference to the specific mechanism of the Downtown boom. But, to the extent that Japanese capital was now the major player, the Downtown economy had become illicitly dependent on the continuation of the structural imbalance that recycled US deficits as foreign speculation in American assets. In a word, it had become addicted to US losses in the world trade war, and bank towers on Bunker Hill were rising almost in direct proportion to plant closings in East Los Angeles and elsewhere in the nation. The Downtown renaissance had become a perverse monument to deindustrialization. [p. 156]

The New Industrial Peonage (1992)

The nation-state, moreover, yields real sovereignty to the city-states, which contain most of L.A. County's industrial assets. Exploiting the prerogatives of California's promiscuous constitution, a half-dozen industrial districts have incorporated themselves, almost without residential populations, as independent cities, selfishly enabled to monopolize land use and tax resources. The oldest, and strangest, of these "phantom cities" is the city of Vernon—the industrial hacienda to which Eduardo, Miguel, and thousands of their compañeros commute each morning for work.

The two most important facts about Vernon are: first, that it has a permanent residential population of only 90 adult citizens (70 of them municipal employees and their families living in city-owned housing) but a work force of more than 48,000—that is to say, a commuter-to-resident ratio of 600:1. Second, the city has been controlled by a single family, the Basque-origin Leonis dynasty, since its formation in 1905. Originally established as a safe haven for "sporting" activities (boxing, gambling, and drinking) under attack by L.A.'s early municipal reformers, Vernon evolved during the 1920s into an "exclusively industrial" (official city motto) base for eastern corporate branch plants. Under the iron heel of John Leonis, city founder, existing housing was condemned or bought out in order to reduce the residential population to a handful of loyal retainers living in the literal shadow of the Hitler-bunker-like city hall. Elections in Vernon thereby became a biennial farce where the Leonis slate (now headed by grandson Leonis Malburg) is unanimously reelected by a micro-citizenry of Leonis employees. (Although civic officials are required to live in the city of their election, the mayor has for decades brazenly flouted state law by residing in a family mansion in Los Angeles.)

This family dictatorship has been routinely accepted by Vernon industrialists in exchange for exceedingly low tax rates and high standards of municipal police and fire services. Conversely, Vernon cityhood has been a disaster for the city of Los Angeles, which has lost perhaps 20 percent of its potential industrial property-tax base. Now Vernon is angling to establish a "community redevelopment" project that will authorize it to withhold $873 million in tax revenues from the county general fund (which would go to schools, welfare, and hospitals) over the next generation. The primary beneficiaries of this raid on the county treasury—to be used to "modernize" the city's older plant and warehouse sites—will be Vernon's major landowners: a list headed by the Santa Fe Railroad Land Company (now Catellus Development—forty-one parcels) and hizzoner Leonis Malburg (nineteen parcels).

The thousand-odd pages of documents used to argue Vernon's case for redevelopment inadvertently unmask an economy capitalized on poverty and pollution. A detailed survey of local wages, for example, reveals that 96 percent of Vernon's 48,000 workers earn incomes so low that they qualify for public housing assistance. At least 58 percent of this largely unorganized work force fall into the official "very low income" category, making less than half the county median—a dramatic downturn from the area's union-wage norms twenty years before.

Moreover, this low-wage army is working under conditions of increasing toxicity. Vernon has long been the worst air polluter in the county, but public health officials in nearby communities are most worried by the 365 hazardous material use or storage sites within the city. A recent investigation by the California Public Interest Research Group revealed that Vernon annually emits, processes, or stores 27 million pounds of toxics—more than three times as much as the entire city of Los Angeles. As part of its early 1980s "replacement" industry—especially apparel and furniture—begins to relocate to Mexico or East Asia, Vernon is becoming increasingly dependent on an odd couple of growth industries: ethnic-food processing and toxic waste disposal. In Vernon there is nothing unusual about a Chinese frozen-shrimp processor being located on the same block with a company recycling battery acids or treating industrial solvents. Vernon's neighbors have been especially alarmed by the city's plans to build an incinerator for infectious hospital debris, as well as by a proposal to locate a plant processing up to 60,000 gallons per day of deadly cyanide on the city border, less than a thousand feet from overcrowded Huntington Park High School. Local activists nervously wonder if hypertoxic Vernon might not become the Bhopal of Los Angeles County. [pp. 195-196]

Who Killed L.A.? A political autopsy (1992)

[T]he Reagan-Bush era's various anti-urban policies, combined with huge tax subsidies to suburban retail and office development, have opened a new chasm of inequality between core cities and their suburban rings. Over the last decade traditional urban areas have lost a staggering 30 percent of their job base while suburbs have seen employment soar by 25 percent. In some cases, like Washington, D.C., the outer suburbs have accumulated fifteen times more per capita tax capacity than their dying cores. A new, often startling, economic geometry has emerged as corporate headquarters and business services, following factories and shopping malls, have relocated to the highrise nodes strung like pearls on outer freeway rings, twenty to seventy-five miles from the old urban centers.

Table 1: Central Cities Compared to Suburban Ring (=100%). Ref: National League of Cities 1992.
  1980 1990
1. Households in poverty 360% 650%
2. Per capita income 90% 59%

[p. 251]

The New Spatial Apartheid

Much of what Joel Garreau and other authors have celebrated as the rise of the "Edge City"—"the biggest change in a hundred years in how we build cities"—is the artifact of the vastly different federal policies toward metropolitan centers and peripheries. While Reaganism was exiling core cities into the wilderness, it was smothering suburban commercial developers and renegade industrialists with tax breaks and subsidies. Most of the capital gains windfall of the 1980s that was supposed to technologically rearm corporate America for competition in the world market was actually siphoned into a vast overbuilding of office and retail space along the circumferential beltways and intercity corridors. Or, put another way, the "spatial trickle-down" from national economic growth that Savas and Stockman promised would eventually return to the chastened, entrepreneurial city has actually been centrifuged off to Edgeland.

In effect, these policies have also subsidized white flight and metropolitan resegregation. In the ideal world of neoclassical economics, the best option for workers in decaying, uncompetitive center cities is simply to follow the migration of jobs to the new edge cities. This is, of course, exactly what millions of white urbanites have done since the ghetto uprisings of the late 1960s. [Tables 2, 3 and 4 summarize] the ethnic recomposition of the fourteen cities (24 million people) that constitute the cores of the ten largest US metropolitan regions (76 million people).

At slightly greater magnification, it is possible to make important further distinction between urban itineraries of whites, Blacks, Latinos, and other groups. To take Los Angeles as an example, almost the entire white working class of the older southeast industrial belt—some 250,000 people—moved to the job-rich suburban fringe during the 1970s and early 1980s. They were replaced by 328,000 Mexican immigrants, primarily employed in nonunion manufacturing and service jobs. Indeed, in Los Angeles the counterpoint to the Latinization of manual labor has been the virtual disappearance of traditional Anglo blue-collar strata from the urban core. A cartoon of the city's resident workforce would depict a white professional-managerial elite, a Black public sector workforce, an Asian petty-bourgeoisie, and an immigrant Latino proletariat. [...]

Table 2: Ethnic shifts in Cores of 10 Largest Metropolises
- 8,000,000 whites
+ 4,800,000 Latinos
+ 1,500,000 Asians
+ 800,000 Blacks
- 900,000 total population

Table 3: Ethic Composition, 1970 versus 1990 (%)
  1970 1990
white 70.0 39.9
Black 27.6 31.4
other 2.4 28.7
Asian   6.8
Latino   21.9

Table 4: 10 Largest Metropolitan Cores: Percentage white
  1970 1990
1. New York 75.2 38.4
2. Los Angeles 78.3 37.2
3. Chicago 64.6 36.3
4. D.C. area 41.4 33.0
5. Bay Area 75.1 42.9
6. Philadelphia 65.6 51.3
7. Detroit 65.6 20.3
8. Boston 81.7 58.0
9. Dallas 75.8 49.8
10. Houston 73.4 39.9

Although second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans do not move as freely within the Southern California metrosea as working-class or middle-class Anglos, their mobility rate is surprisingly high. One of the major ethnic-political shifts of the last decade, for instance has been the explosion of Chicano political power in the suburban San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles.

African Americans, by contrast, have been trapped in place in Los Angeles, as elsewhere in urban America. Dramatic figures that purport to show the suburbanization of Black Los Angeles primarily represent the territorial expansion of the traditional South Central ghetto into adjacent, but separately incorporated cities: for example, Lynwood on the east, Inglewood and Hawthorne on the west, and Carson on the south. When this quotient of "ghetto shift" is deducted from the 1990 Census figures, what remains of Black suburbanization in Southern California is a mono-trend movement to blue-collar suburbs (principally Fontana, Rialto and Morena Valley) in the Inland Empire of western San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Certainly this is a significant phenomenon, and there are indications that the Black exodus to the Inland Empire may have accelerated since last spring's rebellion. But it must be emphasized that "Black flight" has been restricted to a handful of outer suburbs with dramatic deficients in their jobs-to-housing ratios. Compared not only to blue-collar whites, but especially to Chicanos, there has been, at best, only a desultory diffusion of Blacks within Southern California's wider housing and job markets.

The color bar, in other words, remains alive and well in Southern California's growth-pole exurbs like Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Temecula, Irvine, Laguna Hills and Rancho Bernardo. Between 1972 and 1989 Los Angeles's suburban rim gained more than two million new jobs while its Black population languished at less than 2 percent. (Blacks are 11 percent of Los Angeles County's population as a whole.) Whatever the precise combination of class and racial discrimination involved, African Americans have been systematically excluded from the edge-city job boom. Conversely, they have become as a result more dependent than ever on center-city public employment, the cornerstone of the Black communal economy.

With minimal nuance or exception, this pattern of spatial apartheid (often, mistakenly, called "spatial mismatch") has been recapitulated in every metropolitan area in the United States during the 1980s. In the Bay Area, for instance, San Francisco's financial industry has ignored Black-governed Oakland's desperate efforts to attract white-collar employment, preferring instead to export tens of thousand of back-office jobs over the Berkeley Hills to the white edge cities of Contra Costa County. Greater Atlanta and Detroit meanwhile, vie with each other for the distinction of the most perfect "urban donut": Black in the deindustrialized center, lily-white on the job-rich rim. [pp. 251-255]

The Suburban Majority

The age of the edge city, then, is the culmination of a racial sorting-out process. This has had two epochal political consequences. First, the semantic identity of race and urbanity within US political discourse is now virtually complete. Just as during the ethno-religious kulturkampf of the early twentieth century when "big city" was a euphemism for the "teeming Papist masses," so today it equates with a Black-Latino "underclass." Contemporary debates about the city—as about drugs and crime—are invariably really about race. Conversely, as Jesse Jackson always underlines, the fate of the urban public sector has become central to the survival agenda of Black America.

Second, 1992 was the watershed year when suburban voters and their representatives became the political majority in the United States (they had already been a majority of the white electorate since at least 1980). The politics of suburbia, notes Fred Siegel in a recent article in Dissent, are "not so much Republican as anti-urban ... [and] even more anti-Black than anti-urban." Racial polarization, of course, has been going on for generations across the white-picket-fence border between the suburb and the city. But the dramatic suburbanization of economic growth over the last decade, and the increasing prevalence of strictly rim-to-rim commutes between job and home, have given these "bourgeois utopias" (as Fishman calls them) unprecedented political autonomy from the crisis of the core cities. And vice-versa, "the ascendance of the suburban electorate to virtual majority status, [has] empower[ed] [them]... to address basic social service needs ... through local suburban government and through locally generated revenues, and to further sever already weak ties to increasingly Black urban constituencies." This, in turn, has greatly simplified the geography of partisan politics: Republican Party affiliation is now a direct function of distance away from urban centers.


The Clinton campaign was, of course, the culmination of a decade-long battle by suburban and Southern Democrats to wrest control of the Democratic Party away from labor unions, big city mayors, and civil rights groups. In the aftermath of the Mondale debacle in 1984, Clinton joined with Bruce Babbitt, Charles Robb, and other sunbelt governors to establish the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) as a competing power center to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The DLC's principal goals were to marginalize Jesse Jackson (the champion of the urban poor), rollback intra-party reforms, take control of the DNC, and nominate a candidate who could challenge Reaganism in its own crabgrass heartland.

Clinton's genius has been his skill at pandering to the DLC's stereotype of the Reagan Democrat. From his electrocution of a brain-damaged Black convict on the eve of the New York primary to his sudden speech impediment faced with the word "city," Clinton was programmed to reassure white suburbanites at every opportunity that he was not soft on crime, friendly with the underclass, or tolerant of big-city welfare expenditures. This implicitly anti-Black, anti-urban theme music was played in continuous refrain to his promises to reinvest in middle-class economic and educational mobility while continuing to defend George Bush's New World Order. [pp. 255-257]

Perot is also the gatekeeper to any political realignment. Clinton won the election because Perot stole Bush's vote in the edge cities, retirement communities, and high-tech belts. [See Table 5.] By himself Clinton got a 3 percent smaller share of the popular vote than even Dukakis in 1988. The strategic focus of his administration therefore, will be winning over the Perot voters in the suburbs, who, surveys have shown, overwhelmingly favor tax cuts and less government spending, especially on the urban poor. Not surprisingly, the Clinton cabinet is top-heavy with deficit hawks and admirers of Reagan's New Federalism. In particular, the combination of Leon Panetta ("time to make sacrifices... cut, not raise public spending" etc.) and Alice Rivlin in the Office of Management and Budget is the moral equivalent of having Perot himself in the cabinet.

Finally, the hope that Clinton will shower the cities with some of his proposed $220 billion investment budget (infrastructure, technology, and education) is perhaps the cruelest mirage of all. As much a subsidy to huge Wall Street municipal bond merchants like Goldman, Sachs and Company—whose chairman, Robert Rubin, is now Clinton's "economic security" chief—as to localities, the fast shrinking investment budget is primarily targeted on costly rail, optical-fiber, and Interstate highway projects that will benefit Perot voters in the suburbs and the traditional highway lobby of state officials, contractors, and white-denominated construction trades.

Ironically, this is the one arena of domestic expenditure—presumably because it is most dear to the hearts of gridlocked suburbanites—that least needs additional federal investment. Reagan and Bush may have decimated urban housing and job-training funds, but they wisely left the freeways alone. The 1983 Highway Act is still generating major road construction, while the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act has allocated $155 billion over the next six years for rail transit, including Los Angeles's pharaonic subway system.

Table 5: The Perot Factor in the "Edge Cities" (national Perot vote = 15%)
County Bush 1988 Bush 1992 Decline Perot 1988
Orange (Cal.) 68% 44% -24% 24%
San Bernardino (Cal.) 60% 37% -23% 23%
Santa Clara (Cal.) (Silicon Valley) 47% 28% -19% 22%
San Diego (Cal.) 60% 35% -25% 26%
Clark (Las Vegas) 6% 33% -23% 25%
Orange (Orlando) 68% 46% -22% 19%
Gwinett (Georgia) 76% 54% -23% 16%
Du Page (Illinois) 69% 48% -21% 21%
Fairfax (Virginia) 61% 44% -17% 14%

[pp. 260-261]

Dead Cities: A Natural History (2001)

Among many other interesting (but not very relevant) discussions, Davis highlights some really bizarre Nazi anti-urban behaviour.

As Niels Gutshow has shown, some hardcore Nazi ideologues actually welcomed the thousand-bomber raids and firestorms as a ritual cleansing of the "Jewish influence" of big city life and the beginning of a mystical regeneration of Aryan unity with nature. Thus, in the aftermath of the Hamburg, Cologne, and Kassel holocausts in 1943, the "eco-fascist" Max Karl Schwarz, who shared Ruskin's and Jefferies's aversion to the "toxicity" of big cities, proposed to "revitalize the landscape" by leveling the debris and planting trees. The old, dense cities would not be rebuilt; indeed, "only after the destroyed areas are animated through forest will they become a true urban landscape, that is, with houses and gardens." Authentically German garden cities would replace the decadent "Jewish" metropolis. After all, had not Zarathustra commanded his followers to "spit on this city of shopkeepers"?

[p. 383]

Davis echoes Jane Jacobs [3] in a discussion of bank redlining of urban districts:

Disinvestment in the older central cities was led by the banks, endorsed by federal policies, and reinforced by ensuing local fiscal crises and contraction of lifeline municipal services. Banks and S&Ls, first of all, pumped capital out of the inner city but refused to loan it back, especially to Black-majority neighborhoods. Instead, they drained the Northeastern savings to the Sunbelt, where they stoked a massive speculative building boom. Local banks in Brooklyn in the 1970s, for example, committed less than 6 percent of mortgages to their home borough: fully 65 percent of local savings were exported to Florida and elsewhere. According to Richard Morris's influential 1978 study, this was nothing less than the "Mitchell-Nixon-Ford `Southern Strategy' " in action. As he shows in detail, the Nixon-era FHA [Federal Housing Authority] was the mastermind of a policy of draining savings from regions with housing deficits toward regions with housing gluts. Instead of a firebreak against urban disinvestment, the FHA policies were gasoline on the flames.

No longer was it an agency designed to shore up bank confidence in areas suffering from a shortage of mortgage capital. FHA became, instead, a mechanism to direct bank investment away from northeastern cities and toward the booming Sun Belt. No longer were mortgages insured in the inner city or in the Northeast; instead the bulk of FHA insurance commitments flowed south where it acted to attract mortgage money from all over the nation with the lure of a building boom supplemented by the attractions of federal insurance. [4] p. 76

Unable to sell buildings because banks refused to supply affordable mortgages, absentee owners began to walk away from tax bills on their former rent plantations. "Redlining," write Jackie and Wilson, "usually set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy of inevitable decline. In most cities, banks assessed neighborhoods negatively prior to the actual evidence of blight without reference to the specifics of resident credit ratings, housing conditions, community viability, or business solvency." [] p. 159. As property values collapsed, so did city revenues. In 1976—on the eve of New York's fiscal meltdown—fully half of the city's deficit consisted of uncollected property taxes from redlined neighborhoods. With their tax bases undermined, New York and other older cities were frozen out of the municipal bond market. The subsequent savage cuts to vital municipal services, including fire protection and building inspection, coincident with landlords' abdication of building maintenance, completed the vicious circle. [pp. 389-390]


Mike Davis.
How Eden lost its garden.
In Allen Scott and Edward Soja, editors, The City. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, USA, 1997.

Mike Davis.
Dead Cities and other tales.
The New Press, New York, NY, USA, 2002.

Jane Jacobs.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Vintage, New York City, NY, USA, 1961.

Richard Morris.
Bum Rap on America's Cities: The Real Causes of Urban Decay.
Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA, 1978.

David Pritchard 2007-12-10