Originally, the El Cajon Valley — where Davis’s parents first settled in California — was a Spanish land grant called the El Cajon Ranch. In the late 1800s, Northern Californian millionaires, like “Lucky” Baldwin and Isaac Lankershim, who were flush with Comstock money, came south to buy land. With a partner, Lankershim purchased the San Fernando Valley, then gobbled up the El Cajon Valley by himself, subdividing it into three ranchos and making raisins the big crop. The northern part of the valley was sold to investors from Boston, who named the tract Bostonia. Years would pass before this swath of land, teeming with small citrus farms, would raise a mercantile center.
Davis shows me a house in Winter Gardens, just north of Bostonia. This is the house that his father, Dwight Davis, built with the help of two Yugoslavian butchers. Davis’s parents bought the lot in 1937, nine years before Davis was born. His father believed the El Cajon Valley was Eden. A photo of the time shows Dwight Davis slouching jauntily with Western hat beside his wife and relatives in front of his gated parcel. Above the gate is a wooden arch on which “Ranchito” is painted, a common nickname for tiny estates. Davis compares an old photo with the remodeled home before us. “This would have been called an urban farm lot. A couple of acres of trees and a cottage.” Depression-era boosters promoted the land in Bostonia and Winter Gardens as “99 dollars for two acres with piped water,” perfect for raising fruit trees and chickens. The thing that attracted his father, Davis recalls, was the “franchised vision — the little bungalow out of Sunset magazine. During the Depression, you didn’t have to sell a place like this. The place sold itself.” Living in Winter Gardens before the war “was the single most happiest time in my parents’ lives.”
World War Two spirited the Davis family to Fontana, just west of San Bernardino; there his father had the only white-collar job of his life, conducting “background loyalty investigations for the federal government,” Davis relates in an e-mail. Mike Davis was born in Fontana. (He later wrote a bittersweet chapter in City of Quartz, called “Junkyard of Dreams,” tracing the rise and fall of this community.) In 1951, the family returned to San Diego, his dad’s eye still on a backcountry prize. They lived first in East San Diego, where Davis’s mother, Mary (Ryan) Davis, an urban spirit who didn’t drive, cherished the proximity to downtown. Two years later, when Davis was six, the family moved to Bostonia and a house on Flamingo Avenue.
Describing his family, Davis says they were “as close to a 1950s average as you can get. My mother was a Catholic; my father came from a Protestant background. My mother was a Republican; my father was a trade-union Democrat, a party-liner. My mother was a big-city Irish girl who grew up in Germantown, the Catholic neighborhood of Columbus [Ohio]; my father was a farm boy” from western Ohio. Davis’s Ohio heritage accounts for his “Midwestern ethnicity” and makes up half his identity.
Davis’s father worked at Superior Meat Company in downtown San Diego. He spent “equal parts of the day selling meat, cutting meat, and delivering meat, half white-collar, half blue-collar.” Davis’s uncle, who lived on Mount Helix and owned a wholesale meat-packing company, “was a gambler and a very charismatic guy. Everyone adored him.” Though his businessman uncle “should have been a Republican,” he was a registered Democrat and both of his kids married people of color. Interracial marriage was the only “unusual” thing about his family. Jim Stone, Davis’s cousin’s husband, would be one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality in San Diego. Joining the group in 1962 with his girlfriend and a buddy, Davis learned firsthand about racism, San Diego style.
This crack in the family’s political affiliations inspired Davis once to visit the place of his father’s heritage — the Welsh-speaking community in Venedocia, near the headwaters of the Wabash River in western Ohio. There, looking through the graveyard, Davis found “row after row of my relatives” who died at Antietam and Shiloh. “Then the penny dropped: this was an abolitionist stronghold. These Welsh farm boys weren’t fighting to save the Union; they were fighting to end slavery. My theory is that the liberal inclination in the family history comes from the Welsh side, with some religious-based abolitionism.”
Davis’s mother was a pistol. She was “like one of those old Appalachian women with a corncob pipe who’d chew your ear for two hours.” She was also an ironist. Davis once asked her, “ ‘Do you think there’s been any truly good statesmen in America in the 20th Century?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘Calvin Coolidge.’ She always felt trapped in Bostonia because she was a big-city person. She hated El Cajon as much as my father loved it.” And yet his parents couldn’t understand why their son wanted to leave the state after high school. After the trials of the Depression, “They thought this was the land of bread and honey.”
Of his parents, Davis says they were “extremely loving but utterly uncomprehending of me. I grew up in a home where the only books were the Bible and one volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. My father read the newspaper, cover to cover. My parents were high school graduates” with few interests “beyond the drama of family life and sports. My rebellions and problems caused them tremendous consternation and pain. My father always attempted to be understanding. My mother was very tough, like a Marine Corps drill instructor. I’d come home from elementary school and say some boy picked on me; my father would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just turn the other cheek.’ My mother would drag me out in the yard and say, ‘You’re fighting Irish, and if you don’t go out and fight that kid, you’ll fight me.’ And the kids, no matter how big they were, were always considerably less terrifying to me than my mother.” His mother so identified with the Irish cause that when she visited Ireland, even in her 80s, she “shook her fist at the British Army.