Los Angeles: two worlds in one city

Issue 

By Tracy Sorensen

It should not be surprising that a central motif in the television images of the burning of Los Angeles is the car: run down, stopped, its driver hauled out and bashed or even shot, in a furious re-enactment of the original videotaped crime.

Fourteen million people live in Los Angeles, but this is a city for cars, not people. Two-thirds of its total area is given over to the car: roads, freeways, parking lots.

In what US author Mike Davis calls a "fortress city", where urban design and the Los Angeles Police Department have brutally merged to keep the dispossessed out of the line of sight of the affluent, the private car is the means of getting from one "fortified cell" to another.

The middle classes, says Davis, have become accustomed to zipping over or around the "places of terror" where the police battle the criminalised poor.

As urban environmentalists note, the car is a way of going out into public in private; God save those whose cars break down in unfamiliar streets. This theme was played out in the Hollywood film A Night on the Town, about a teenage baby sitter who descends into the underworld horror of the city at night after breaking down on the freeway and discovering that she has forgotten her purse.

In car-dominated Los Angeles, the attacks on the drivers and trucks are an attack on part of the "thin blue line", the fortress surrounding the privileged.

But cars are only part of it. According to Mike Davis, the "second civil war" that began after the 1965 Watts riots "has been institutionalised into the very structure of urban space".

In articles in the US progressive magazines Crossroads and North Star Review, he outlines policies — often presented as "urban renaissance" or the "war on drugs" — which have created two worlds in one city.

Davis paints a picture of the hermetically sealed lives of the better off: manicured lawns with little signs warning "Armed response!", and walls around houses watched by private police and state of the art electronic surveillance. Meanwhile, a shopping mall in the black suburb of Watts is surrounded by staked metal fences and has a substation of the LAPD in a central tower. In Los Angeles, city life has become militarised.

To heighten paranoia in the wealthy suburbs, the media, "whose function in this arena is to obscure the daily economic violence of the city", broadcast "spectres of criminal underclasses and psychotic stalkers".

Under the banner of urban redevelopment, contact with "untouchables" 169>once vital pedestrian streets into traffic sewers". Public parks have become "temporary receptacles for the homeless and the wretched".

Davis writes of bag-lady defence systems, in which restaurants secure the rubbish at their back doors in wire cages; of the deliberate abolition of public toilets (now restricted to restaurants, art galleries and museums); of the seats in bus shelters being redesigned in an uncomfortable barrel shape to discourage sleepers; and of sprinkler systems in parks programmed to switch on unpredictably through the night to drench the homeless. Publicly accessible water taps have been targeted.

"A common and troubling sight", writes Davis, "are the homeless men — many of them young Salvadorans — washing and even drinking from the sewer effluent that flows down the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River on the eastern edge of Downtown."

Unsurprisingly, crowd control is a major preoccupation of the LAPD. "The LAPD, true to its class war background", writes Davis, "has always hated certain kinds of public gatherings. Its early history was largely devoted to bludgeoning May Day demonstrators, arresting strikers and deporting Mexicans and Okies.

"In 1921 it arrested Upton Sinclair for reading the Declaration of Independence in public; in the 1960s, it broke up love-ins and family picnics ... Subconsciously, it has probably never recovered from the humiliation of August 1965 when it was forced temporarily to surrender the streets to a rebellious ghetto."

Today, black and other non-white youth in the ghettos are harassed by the LAPD's anti-gang dragnets, extensive juvenile curfews, bans on gatherings in public places and the sealing-off of "entire neighbourhoods and housing projects under the local variant of pass law".

Even gilded white youth, says Davis, suffer from steady restrictions on public mobility: "In the erstwhile capital of teenagers, where millions overseas still imagine Gidget at a late-night surf party, the beaches are now closed after dark, patrolled by helicopter gunships and police dune buggies".

The background to the urban apartheid, says Davis, is to be found in part in the shift from a manufacturing economy (integrated into the North American economy) to an "internationalised" finance and land capital economy. Surplus cash for an endless array of consumer goods is supplied the massive injections of Pentagon money: one-fifth of the military budget of the US is spent in the LA area.

Meanwhile, blatant discrimination has kept young blacks out of the booming suburban economies. The Catholic Church, writes Davis, estimates 45% unemployment in south central neighbourhoods in inner Los Angeles. The situation was vividly illustrated when 50,000 predominantly black and Chicano youth lined up for miles to apply for a few openings on the unionised wharves.

For those at the lowest rungs, a way to the consumer "good life" obsessively celebrated in US culture is through participation in what Davis calls one of the leading circuits in world trade: drugs.

Those who suggest behaviour modification programs, he says, are looking at the problem from the wrong angle. For young blacks beginning their gang careers, it is not a matter of deviance but of rational economic choice: between life on the street at $30 a day or at $300 a day. Davis quotes novelist Claude Brown, who notes, "The nation's young crack dealers are merely pursuing the American dream along what they see is the only channel open to them".

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