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<nettime> interview with Mike Davis
Geert Lovink on Thu, 28 Aug 1997 21:38:49 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> interview with Mike Davis


Gated Communities, Themeparks, Youth Revolts
An interview with Mike Davis
By Geert Lovink

Hybrid WorkSpace, Documenta X, Kassel
August 24, 1997

"Unlike most writers on Southern California, Mike Davis is a native son.
He was born in Fontana in 1946 and grew up in Bostonia, a now 'lost'
hamlet, east of San Diego. A former meatcutter and long distance
truckdriver, he now teaches Urban Theory at the Southern
California Institute of Architecture.
He is a co-editor of The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook and
author of Prisoners of the American Dream (Verso 1986) and the brilliant
City of Quartz, Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Verso 1990), in
which he recounts the story of Los Angeles with passion, wit and an acute
eye for the absurd, the unjust and the dangerous. Davis' City of Quartz
points to a future in which the sublime and the dreadfull are
inextricable; a future which does not belong to Southern California alone,
but terrifyingly seems to belong to all of us. 
His essay Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control, the Ecology of Fear was
first published in 1992 as part of the Open Magazine Pamphlet Series,
published by Open Media, Westfield NJ, USA, and is reprinted in Mediamatic
8#2/3 The Home Issue." (intro from Mediamatic) 
http://www.mediamatic.com/Magazine/8*2/Davis-Urban.html

For the dx-100 days lecture of Mike Davis in real video go to:
http://www.mediaweb-tv.de/dx/0824/gaeste_frame_e.html
------

Geert Lovink: In your book 'City of Quarz', you have described
fortified neighourhoods that are no longer part of the public space.
You were one of the first to analyse this phenomenon. Is this trend
continuing?

Mike Davis: I tried to argue earlier that the militarization of space in
the American city is being justified in terms of personal security. 
Increasingly, living in a gated community, behind walls, protected by a
multinational security corporation with private police and the most
sofisticated electronic gear, even to the point of having secret rooms
where you can hide from terrorits, like what has now become popular in
Beverly Hills, all this obsession with security is not about security at
all. It has become a form of prestige. An assumption that a certain kind
of lifestyle garantees that you won't have uncontrollable encounters. Not
just with people who are dangerous, but with people whose mere physical
appearance is simply bothersome to you, homeless, poor people, and so on. 

The assumption that you can be completely insulated from that and the
absurdity this reaches is probably best reveiled in a housing project I
saw in Las Vegas recently. Las Vegas used to be a kind of remake of
Los Angeles, but it has become a demon seed on fast forward, with over
one million people. They built a new, gated suburb, called 'Lake Las
Vegas'. Remember you are in the middle of the desert. There is no water
here. Of course they had to build a big lake, so that you could have
boats. It is a walled and gated community that has then inside of it
other walled and gated communities, which are more prestigious. The
momentum of this is now probably irreversible. But what is interesting
is that all this protection and privatization if life, of course
creates a psychological crisis for people who live within it.

The market is now beginning to tap into is the huge need for the
experience of space, of crowds. Middle class people in Southern
California, now that they live in their gated community and in their
mediaroom, suddenly realize that there is something else to human
existence. So what is being produced is a kind of ersatz form of public
space. The development industry will now tell you that the mall is dead.
What it is being replaced by is a historic district of a city being turned
into a theme-park, with great concentration of media and entertainment,
motion picture theatres, and stores which are usually branches of
franchizes of national chains. All this is protected by a layered,
invisible segregation and security. In Los Angeles examples of this are
Third Street Promenade (Santa Monica) and Old Town Pasadena. Universal
MCI, has build a miniature version of Los Angeles at Universal Studios,
called City Walk. Tourists can walk in complete safety and see fabricated
or simulated pieces of Down Town or Hollywood, without ever having to go
to the city itself. What is common to all these areas is the sort of
people being excluded from them. All of them have tightly enforced
curfews. It is illegal for groups of youth to hang around. You cannot just
sit by a fountain and play guitar. In fact, the city of Santa Monica has
now ruled that the only legal activity for teenagers after 10 o'clock is
shopping. 

The tendency over the last 10 or 15 years in America, to go beyond the
traditional suburb, into this fortified, gated way of life, with private
schools, private amenities, etc. becoming more and more self sustainable,
created this other need for space for people. But what you are being
giving are not real urban spaces, the spontaneiety, the democracy, any of
the dangers and pleasures of real streets. The city turned is into a safe,
little theme-parks. You see people strolling down these streets,
desperately trying to pretend that they are back in the city. There is
something tragic and pathological about this. 

GL: Contemporaneously with this urban process, there is the rise of
cyberspace. A whole new discourse has been opened in recent years about
the encounter, or the clash, of the 'real' and the 'virtual' city. How do
you look at the use of the city metaphor in the internet? 

MD: This is and should be the great democratic battle about the nature of
the new urban infrastructures of the 21st century. In the United States
there has been almost no debate about the nature and the allocation of
investment in optical cables. In some cases, the leading utility promised
that it would not discriminate against innercity areas. In the last years,
it totally renegated on this. It is becoming more visible that all the
traditional handicaps of inner city areas, the lack of jobs, investment in
the physical landscape, the hollowing out of arts, the decline of schools,
is now being replicated on the level of electronic technologies. But the
key point is that this has not been an issue - let alone a central one -
in politics. People are fighting against censorship and are trying to keep
the internet open, and obviously that is an essential and necessary fight.
But there is not the same kind of attention to the plight of inner city
communities. The virtual ghetto of the 21st century will be the successor
to today's ghettos. But you cannot keep that stuff away from kids in the
inner cities. If you go to South Central Los Angeles, you will see people
in their garages with state of the art equipment, not just internet. There
is also some progress concerning cable access on television. But so far,
the big essential battle has been lost. There will be two, totally unequal
levels of society. One that has full access to the Net and the other that
only has a limited, episodic access. 

GL: Now the debate, at least here in Europe, is about the design of the
public part of cyberspace. Is it usefull to continue to speak about the
public sphere or do you see cyberspace as such as a trap? Should we not 
focus in the first place on the reconstruction of the real spaces, the
city with its real buildings and real people? One philosopher of the
new media, Michael Heim, once stated that any investment in the inner
cities is a dead loss and that all resources should go to the electronic
infrastructure.

MD: Obviously, simply as Democrats, as people who want to keep some human
solidarity alive, we favour affirmative action in the contruction of these
new infrastructures. On the other hand, if you speak to people who design
these new technologies, they will tell you that there are real problems in
simply advocating more computers for poor schools.  Public schools are
becoming a huge potential private market. Disney, Apple and other
corporations, are gearing up to create a virtual classroom. Automated
teaching technology, particularly designated to the most troubled schools.
The danger is that you may get these computers, but in the end you won't
have the teachers. In the American case, with the privatization of public
education so high on the agenda, this is not only about technology and the
public spaces of the future. It is also about salvaging democratic, public
education, which is an endangered species right now. 

GL: What is the current status of the 'ecology of fear', as you have
described the psychological state of the ordinary people. Is it the fear
of the illegal immigrant or is it about losing your job? 

MD: It has become almost impossible in the United States to talk about
jobs. If you would talk about full employment in front of an audience,
people would shake their heads and walk out of the room. 25 years ago,
this was the national program of the Democratic Party i.e. one wing of
American capitalism. Now it is utterly impossible to be taken seriously.
The roots of the problems and their actual solutions are not amenable to
discussion anymore. On the other hand, two months ago, the governor of
California sat down with the speaker of the legislature, a Mexican-
American Democrat, and had a reasonable, quiet, and serious discussion
about whether they should execute 16 years olds or was is permissible to
send 15 years olds to the gas chamber or give them the lethal injection.
California has become a society in which this can be debated in all
seriousness. But any debate on jobs becomes utopian, in a certain sense
outrageous. Two drugs specialists once told me that the best working drugs
treatment is the attention that people get. The best treatment for the
problem of drugs addiction is to give people a meaningfull social role in
society. Give them a job. I know this may sound old fashioned and
reductionist. 

GL: Last week, one of the biggest strikes in the Untited States, that of
the UPS workers, has come to an end. Were you encouraged about the
results? 

MD: Like any strike, this was a complicated event. The unionship
burocracy had one agenda, rank and file workers had another. But when
all is set and done, for the first time in 15 or 20 years, opinion polls
showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans sided with the
strikers. So many millions of Americans are parttime workers. The real
issue was the fragmentization of work. In terms of the publics
attitude of labour, it is a turning point. Just as 17 years ago, when
Ronald Reagan locked out the air traffic controllers and started his
crusade again trade unionism. Was is slowly but finally beginning to
happen now is a return to a different model of unionism. Not the kind
that existed in the 50s and 60s, but the kind of unionism of the 30s
that built the unions in the first place. Unions as social movemts that
understood the importance of alliances with other groups.

GL: Is it true that so many events, disasters have happened in Los
Angeles and that all these spectacular events hide the fact that
people are leading a normal life, like anywhere else?

MD: Again, this becomes more complicated. If you would have asked me or
any political activist from L.A. this a few years ago, our complaint
would be that if you turn on your television, all you see is the same
thing, over and over again.  Whether you are watching Beverly Hills
Cops or Bay Watch, what you will not see are the harder, more
difficult realities of its streets and working class neighbourhoods.
Well, our wish has finally come true thanks to Rupert Murdoch. He has
now become the great media emperor. The reality TV series like
America's Most Wanted and Cops are now being broadcasted worldwide. The
wish of L.A. activists, to have all that bad reality depicted, has now
come true. We have to think of what this means. It is a kind of
electronic version of the Roman gladitorial games, where the suffering
of people, the misery of our fellow citizens in our inner cities, has
now become a spectators sport, particular amongst people in the inner
cities themselves who watch a lot of these programs. This exists in a
brave new world where the mere representation and documentation of bad
things no longer has any noble, political purpose behind it.

GL: How do you look on Europe? There is mass unemployment here. Do you
see similar pattern here?

MD: In most of the former first world countries, the issues are very
similar. One the most sinister things is how look-alike and
indistinguisable all of our habitats have become. I just met the inner
city action group here from Kassel and one of the things I was struck
by is the supreme irony that a political party like the Social-
Democrats, who had to spend most of the 19th century, fighting for the
right of free speech and free assembly, themselves are so enthralled by 
ideas of law and order. The very oxygen, the air which workers
movements need to exist, which is not regulated, circumscribed free
speech, not an official program on television or a chance to speak at
the university, but all the wonderfull chaos in the free and
democratic use of streets. What you also see happening everywhere is
that measures that were once directed against racial groups or minorities,
will sooner or later be extented to the youth. All advanced
countries are criminalizing their youth. Even the richer kids in L.A.,
they experience police repression too. They cannot go out and sleep
all night at the beach. They get their boomboxes taken out of their
cars for playing radio too loud. That is interesting because we might
be accumulating some of the conditions for a youth revolt, of which we
have seen some signs of in Paris over the last couple of years. This
attempt to control and police space, may reinvent youth as a political
category.

GL: What are your future plans? Will a new book come out?

MD: I am just finishing a book on disasters in Los Angeles, which I
will speak about tonight. Riots, earthquakes, fires, floods as well as
all the imagined disasters that destroyed L.A. in hundreds of novels
and films. I am also working with a group of people in Las Vegas,
producing a documentary book about America's fastest growing city. Las
Vegas is usually written about from the standpoint of people like Hunter
Thompson, who, upon having swallowed an immense amount of drugs, come up
with a very male, exagerated way of talking about the city. On the
other way you have the postmodernist view that pays only attention to
the neon signs and does not understand that all these casinos are actually
factories. One of the oddities of late imperial America is that Las
Vegas is the last union town in the United States, in which unions
organize the majority of the workers. It is a city in which mates and
waitresses can actually afford to own their own homes because they
belong to a strong union. We want to talk about the social relations of
reproduction and daily life that creates this neon hallucination in the
desert. And finally, I am also working on a more academic book, which
is about the environmental history of war.

(edited by Patrice Riemens)


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