Davis is a rare bird: a Marxist academic and an urban/environmental historian whom people outside academe read and take seriously. (Sales of City of Quartz have, by Davis’s estimate, topped 150,000.) I’d wager that most San Diegans know little about Davis; however, his influence in university and political circles, especially in Los Angeles, is legendary. When running for mayor of L.A., Richard Riordan invited Davis to lunch but left soon after Davis told him, “We have absolutely nothing in common politically.” Davis tells me that “All my books are written with a desire to annoy or anger people who have power and money. They are all partisan.” Davis was among the first to rail at the overbuilt and overcapitalized Southland. His articles, many for socialist reviews and labor periodicals, bristle with phrases like “the privatization of public space” and “the globalization of fear.”
Writing about San Diego has not been at the top of his “intellectual work list.” But when Davis returned — in early 2002, his wife got a job at Mesa College and Davis became a tenured professor at the University of California, Irvine, commuting from San Diego to teach three classes per week — he joined forces with two “wonderful young activists” (husband and wife Miller and Mayhew), who were analyzing the city beyond its pro-military, pro-GOP past. The book got him “to think about the political history of San Diego and the private-wealth strategies that underlie and drive that political history.”
Most historians who write about an urban political economy, Davis says, see it as a “growth machine, a coalition of interests that use city government to promote a certain kind of growth. I’m arguing,” in Under the Perfect Sun, that “it’s a lot more complicated than that. What has to be reconstructed are particular wealth strategies, whether it’s old money trying to recapitalize downtown real estate; or it’s John D. Spreckels trying to control all the key infrastructures of the city; or it’s Irving Kahn trying to use Mafia-tainted Teamster money to accelerate the development of North County; or it’s John Moores trying to transplant himself into downtown as a developer — these are not just interests, they’re strategies, projections of interests, which then get translated into politics.”
San Diego, Davis believes, is remarkably different from other major American cities, where “you have greater countervailing forces exerted by labor, the civil rights movement, environmental groups, or other constituencies. Here you have, with the exception of the Pete Wilson years, exceptionally weak city government and exceptionally well-organized and powerful private interests able to take city and county politics and play them with real virtuosity, beginning with the great John D. Spreckels himself.” Davis thinks the San Diego government is a “private utility”; that is, whatever business leaders and developers want is rubber-stamped by planning boards and city councils. In our time, one need only recall the carte blanche given to the sports enterprises of John Moores and Alex Spanos. To accomplish its growth, San Diego seeks its investors from elsewhere and every decade or so invites in a new multimillionaire carpetbagger. In the last decade, John Moores has filled the bill. But Moores, as yet unindicted, may end up facing jail for the collapse of Peregrine Systems, so, Davis wonders, “Who’ll be the next corporate savior?”
Ask any San Diegan on the street for a decent chronicle of San Diego’s past and you’ll come up empty. For Davis, San Diego historiography is a wasteland — “bits and pieces,” he says, “nothing serious.” In any standard book on Southern California or the Sun Belt, San Diego “is off the map.” Even State Librarian Kevin Starr, who’s finishing a multivolume history of the Golden State, has “1 chapter out of 100 chapters on San Diego.” Davis isn’t sure why our fair city is blind to its own past. He ventures a couple of ideas. “One is the huge, oppressive weight of the Union-Tribune, which set about not just to be a newspaper but to control history, opinion, heritage, everything. Second is that those who might write that history leave San Diego.”
Since Davis has studied growth doctrines of the Los Angeles region, I wondered how he would contrast theirs with ours. Los Angeles grew very fast in the postwar era because “it sacrificed landscape for industry.” San Diego grew at a slower pace — until recently — because the city tended to preserve landscape from industry. Preserving open spaces was, of course, a good thing. But wealthy fathers here did this not because they loved geraniums and the gardening creed of Kate Sessions. Nor were San Diego’s canyons and coasts protected because elected officials were representing the people’s will. On the contrary, Davis says, they did it knowing that “landscape is a form of capital that attracts a particular kind of economy and social system.” Indeed, San Diego attracted a professional middle class, but it never barred the door. As a result, our mesas have been engulfed by sprawl. Additionally, Los Angeles’s labor movement, a costar of industrial expansion, was much more powerful than San Diego’s nonunionized working class. People of color have been essential to Los Angeles’s political livelihood; minorities in San Diego have seldom had much influence, even now. Despite San Diego’s being on the border, the Latinization of this community has been slower than Los Angeles’s because of, Davis says, the lack of local manufacturing jobs.
Beers quaffed, we’re driving on Main Street through the “new” El Cajon, that is, redevelopment central. In most American cities, nearly all the classy urban landmarks, such as El Cajon’s old downtown theater, have been leveled in the misguided notion that trendy malls and dance clubs will draw people back. It’s nuts, Davis says. When cities “tear down the pre-’50s stuff, a few years later they end up rebuilding some faux version of it.” Describing the vagaries of El Cajon, Davis’s voice plies equal parts sarcasm and tenderness. “It’s the heart of darkness,” he says, “and it’s not.”