Remembering Mike Davis in a Changed Los Angeles

Mike Davis, a white man with white hair wearing a grey polo, walks in a lush forest with friends
The radical historian helped me see a city I still wanted to defend

By Navneet Grewal

Historian Mike Davis passed away on October 25, 2022, some months after he decided to forgo treatment for cancer. This tribute was written while he was still with us — as, through his work and his place in the hearts and minds of organizers, he will ever continue to be. —Lux  

Sitting in a green leather booth at the Black Cat in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood, signs of the tavern’s radical past can be hard to spot. Amid the beautiful young people on first dates, the modern chandeliers, and many paintings of cats, there are a few photos, here and there, of protesters carrying signs: “blue fascism must go,” “abolish arbitrary arrests,” “no more abuse of our rights and dignity.” Outside, people buying a morning bun at Tartine or glasses at Warby Parker might overlook the plaque commemorating the day those photos were taken. It was an important LGBT civil rights demonstration in 1967. 

Though I live only a short walk away, it can be difficult to locate myself in this place. Once a neighborhood of Latinx and Asian immigrants, leftists, queer folks, and artists, the community is now divided in half. As California’s housing crisis has deepened, it’s become common to have a million-dollar Spanish mission-style home a short walk away from people living in tents. Weekend tourists brush shoulders with unhoused locals. It is easy to see dystopia.

Instead, I think of Mike Davis. 

Davis is a sort of legendary California leftist and scholar who has written books on everything from Covid to car bombs, slums to Marxist theory, Las Vegas to Lima. His work is defined by a rare versatility and curiosity, by honest reflection, a love for humanity and especially the working class, and a deep understanding that “a hegemonic politics … must embody a morally coherent way of life.” He has always held a deep commitment to his home terrain of Southern California. Reading Davis and Jon Wiener’s tome, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, changed the city for me. 

Because of Davis, as I sit in that booth, I also feel radical history just beneath the surface of the city. One that recognizes the queer protest against police brutality and the young people protesting a curfew on Sunset Strip that same night in 1967. This period in L.A. also saw burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. A year later, the Sunset Boulevard protests, which initially erupted against the city’s efforts to control nightlife, would give “equal billing to three demands: ‘Free the Strip. End Police Brutality. Free Huey Newton.’ ‘Flower Power’ had become ‘All Power to the People,’” Set the Night on Fire explains. Law enforcement was “clueless as to how the lambs had suddenly turned into little lions.” 

Thanks to Davis, we know better. His history recognizes the intertwined nature of these struggles then and today. 

My own L.A. history began when I was born in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where homeowners associations exerted their political power throughout the latter half of the twentieth century to stop apartment construction, to prevent race and class integration, to prevent mass transit. Decades later, I am a civil rights lawyer who fights for a California where housing is a human right. Often, it feels like we are fighting against the entirety of capitalism. 

Perhaps that is inevitable in a city where, as Davis described in his classic study of L.A., City of Quartz, the battle over housing hasn’t been between the rich and the poor but the rich and the rich. On one side, the developers creating dense commercial and residential areas that, through architecture and design, blockade against the poor and people of color; on the other, the upper-class homeowners associations fighting development to keep their property values high and blockade against the poor and people of color. 

This clash of titans still crushes the interests of Los Angeles’s majority — lower-income renters and homeowners and the unhoused. I first read excerpts of City of Quartz as a college student studying California history and I’m struck by how often I have returned to Davis’s work over my years as a housing advocate. “The silent majority,” he wrote, have “remained mere pawns in the growth power struggles, their independent social interests (for instance, economic justice and environmental protection, jobs and clean air, and so on) suppressed in civic controversy.” Today we seek housing that is both affordable and healthy, is built by laborers receiving a fair wage, and does not displace working-class and poor people. I return to Davis’s words because without his sharp insights, we can too easily succumb to housing policies that perpetuate one of L.A.’s oldest problems.

Today, the enemies remain much the same, but so do the friends.

When reading Davis’s histories, I have gasped, on occasion, recognizing an activist I know — someone who has apparently been showing up in the fight for fair and affordable housing since before I was born. I am reminded that while the rich have always tried to shape L.A. to their pleasure, we have always been here too — those of us who stand in solidarity with each other to fight for a city with free housing, good jobs, and no police. Where we can walk through our neighborhoods and see children playing in public parks, neighbors in social housing caring for one another, families buying quesadillas from the nearest street vendor. Davis pushed for a city with a moral center focused on what we owe our children, especially “the young people of color who are Los Angeles’s future,” those who “will be genuine successors to grandmothers and grandfathers who so long ago raised their clenched fists and demanded power to the people.”

The gift that Davis has given us is a past that allows us to locate ourselves in L.A.’s future. 

Navneet Grewal is a Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney who fights for housing justice.