It’s an August midafternoon in El Cajon. It’s 100 degrees, and the sane people are in the shade, keeping still. Not Mike Davis. For an hour, the most famous social historian of Southern California has been walking me through Bostonia, a two-square-mile enclave just north of El Cajon, where he grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. With hat and sunglasses, I’m burning up; head and eyes uncovered, Davis beads a lone ball of sweat. Having lived in Los Angeles, London, New York, and Hawaii, he has once again settled in San Diego. Though he’s fidgety about being back, he seems at home in East County, especially since he’s been writing about the place that made him. The author of City of Quartz and other books about L.A.’s past and future woes has, with two local authors, just written a new book, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See. It’s a history of local sleaze, in “the most corrupt city on the West Coast,” beginning with His Highness of Corruption, Alonzo Horton, and ending with Her Majesty of Folly, Susan Golding.
Later, Davis asks whether I’d like to get a drink at Dumont’s tavern, a Hells Angels hangout on El Cajon Boulevard. “You don’t mind if we get beat up, do you?” In June, the Angels’ clubhouse, near Dumont’s, was raided by a multiagency task force, and today 18 Hells Angels or associates are in jail. According to the Union-Tribune, they’ve been indicted on “a long list of charges that include drug trafficking, racketeering and plans to kill members of a rival club.” While the U.S. Attorney’s Office boasts of having, with this bust, “eliminated [the] scourge” of a “drug trafficking ring” that moved “marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine throughout the United States from Mexico,” Davis looks beyond all that to a kindred vision he has with the bikers.
A radical still at 57, Davis stands with those of whatever stripe who picket, subvert, refuse allegiance to, and revolt against the corporate, cultural, and political interests that control our lives. After the fall of Communism, Davis is a political anomaly, whose self-definition is now puckishly ironic: “I am a socialist in the same sense that Billy Graham is a Baptist.” With short gray hair and a trimmed beard, Davis exhibits a chumminess more ursine than affable. He loves discussing the militancy of subcultures, be it the Hells Angels or Los Angeles developers, the latter the bête noire of his best sellers, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990) and Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998). These books, along with Davis’s teaching, editing, and other writing about California environmental, labor, and social history, have garnered him two prestigious awards: a Getty fellowship, in 1997, and the so-called genius grant, a MacArthur fellowship, in 1998.
Inside Dumont’s, the single-lighted pool table, the cool dark, and the jukebox rhythms feel friendly, down home. One Angel behind the bar and another breaking a rack may be all that’s left of the local band. I sense Davis’s comfort in a place most would call hostile; such ease allows him to explain how he, a precocious adolescent, was politicized during the 1960s. “I thought,” Davis says, quaffing a beer, that “El Cajon was the heart of darkness. San Diego to me was alive. I loved downtown; I loved coming to the city.” That view shattered when Davis joined the civil rights movement in 1962. He discovered the “fanatical opposition to racial justice here” and experienced “the violent reaction to civil rights demonstrations that I was in.” It was a time, he says, when the San Diego Union, under editor Herb Klein, was “in league with the Christian anti-Communist crusade. I started asking my father about who runs San Diego, and he told me about C. Arnholt Smith and Irving Kahn and the Alessio brothers.” Davis had no idea that his beloved city was ruled by robber barons, let alone that he might plumb their exploitation one day with a leftist critique.
Years later, Davis would meet David Reid, a political historian and the editor of Sex, Death and God in L.A., who also grew up in San Diego in the ’50s. As former San Diegans, the two wondered why this town has “as noirish a history as any city in the Sun Belt” and yet “still manages to get by with its sunny image.” The culmination of Davis’s thinking about local political history has gone into Under the Perfect Sun and his 127-page section, “The Next Little Dollar: The Private Governments of San Diego.” Two more sections tap a similar vein. In “Just Another Day in Paradise? An Episodic History of Rebellion and Repression in America’s Finest City,” San Diego City College professor Jim Miller documents the role of the Industrial Workers of the World, ethnic-based protest, and unions in the city’s working-class past. In “Life in Vacationland: The ‘Other’ San Diego,” City College professor Kelly Mayhew presents interviews with current and former local activists as well as new immigrants. David Reid’s foreword to the book begins, “A city is a body of fate, but unfortunately the world cannot be persuaded that San Diego is anything other than a sunny congery of tourist attractions. Here, crimes, follies, and misfortunes that would stupefy and amaze if they were set in New York or Los Angeles do not intrigue beyond the county line. Historically, it seems San Diego cannot represent itself, and is barely represented by others.”
In a phone interview, Reid discusses with me his admiration for Davis’s work. “The organizing principle of Mike’s books is the urban peril of the working class and the mixed multitudes of the city.” There’s “a certain kind of urban sensibility that he had a lot to do with crystallizing. He brought an extraordinary and compendiously learned sociological and geological perspective to this kind of noir environment, which now seems to be so irresistible as to have been inevitable. But at the time” Davis started writing, “it really wasn’t.”