Related Mike Davis Mined L.A.’s Soul A black-and-white image of a man's face is large on the left side. Behind him, like a collage, several policemen walk side by side, toward us. Behind the policemen, also like a collage, two women and a man hold up a sign that reads, "END RACISM." On the right side of the picture, a soldier in camouflage print looks away from us. The soldier holds a large gun and wears a safety helmet with his face guard up.

Shortly after dawn on a Sunday morning, just days after Los Angeles. urban historian Mike Davis died, Oct. 25, 2022, I navigated myself, by memory, to what I still refer to as “the old cornfield” — the former train yard that’s now the site of  the sleek Los Angeles Historic Park in downtown Los Angeles.

In preparation, I had tossed my reporting gear into my car’s passenger seat — notebooks, pens and camera — and my dog-eared hardcover copy of Mike’s ground-shifting study of L.A., “City of Quartz.”

Mike and I had been having conversations for 30 years or more — phone calls, emails, quick visits and meetups over meals, diner coffee. If he had lingered longer, we would have had a conversation about the magazine piece I was reporting, researching the transformation of Los Angeles’ urban space into greenspace. 

The void felt visceral. I tried to imagine the conversation we might have had, but it was static-y in my mind.

The previous evening, in El Cajon, I had attended an informal, quickly-assembled gathering of friends from different places in Davis’ life. A varied portrait of him began to come together as guests shared vignettes of him at different chapters in his life: teenager, activist, student, truck driver, writer, husband, father, teacher, mentor. We passed stories around the table to keep him in the room. 

A varied portrait of him began to come together as guests shared vignettes of him at different chapters in his life: teenager, activist, student, truck driver, writer, husband, father, teacher, mentor.

My connection to Mike fell somewhere in that last category. I wasn’t a student of his, nor did we have a firm work connection; we were just out in the world crossing paths. Pulled to similar interests. While he wouldn’t have assumed himself “mentor,” he always made himself available to me at a turning point of my own development as a explorer of place, and as a writer trying to articulate and interpret it. His unwavering support meant the world to me.

In the first hours after Mike’s death, I spoke at length to a single soul: a longtime friend and colleague, the writer Rubén Martinez. In the early ’90s, he and I both published L.A. books with Verso, under Mike’s watch. In that much-needed conversation, I leaned hard on the is. I wasn’t ready to cede the present to the past.  As we spoke, Rubén and I reminded each other of faded memories: people and places we’d witnessed alongside Mike; all the while, my cellphone phone steadily  buzzed and chimed, reporters calling for quotes, editors wanting to know if I might have a piece at the ready. I couldn’t collect my thoughts in a quick-turnaround fashion. And if I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I would eventually be able to do so. It would require that I contemplate Mike not here. Not present tense.

More time passed — weeks, a month — and I received a request from a colleague, Elizabeth Logan, the co-director of  the Huntington-USC Institute for California and the West,  asking if I might participate in a panel celebrating Mike’s influence and impact. Surprising myself, I said yes, without hesitation. Our panel was many months away, and perhaps by then I would have found a way to quantify the absence in words. 

Best laid plans derailed,  we crossed into a new year, and I still could not locate language.

I first met Mike at L.A. Weekly when the offices were in still scruffy Silver Lake. One afternoon, he sat across the worn conference table at an editorial meeting that gathered writers, editors and designers to toss around story ideas. It was before “City of Quartz” had happened to him — both the book’s publication and the dramatic reaction to it.  The text was close to completion. He was still chipping away at refining. That day, I remember, he made eye contact, held my gaze. He flashed a smile that telegraphed recognition. He may have mentioned a particular story I’d written. It mattered to be seen and heard at that time. I was a young reporter writing about the people and the parts of the city that were often elided from coverage: Working folks. Working-class neighborhoods. He understood those people, those neighborhoods. A friendship formed; it stuck. We took it on the road across the L.A. Basin.

I would tag along on trips with his students from CalArts, and later SciArc, venturing into the Inland Empire; I might ride shotgun as he was refining his own reporting and research, visiting card clubs in the City of Commerce. I woke one morning to a phone call — an invitation to meet him for an early-morning breakfast at Vickman’s, the cavernous everyman’s greasy spoon at the edge of the produce district, where he was accompanied by the most unlikely companion — the photographer Richard Avedon and entourage (who had been shadowing Mike post-L.A. unrest for a New Yorker piece.)  Perhaps most vividly, I recall heading out one night to hear the blues at the old Babe’s and Ricky’s when the club was a storefront on Central Avenue, where patrons in the room — Black men and women from Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana —  knew Mike from his truck driving or community organizing days and “Miss Laura,” the proprietress, always found him the best seat she still had in the house, even if it meant moving furniture. 

Mike taught me — so many of us — to look in the corners, on the highest shelves, to see a fuller story. 

After every meetup — a day-long road trip or a destination-less walk through a neighborhood — once Mike finished speaking about some stretch of road, some remnant of a path, the landscape always. looked different to me. Changed. He’d add some new layer of understanding to it. I would feel as if I was walking through a brand new appreciation of place, in a city that is not just my home base, but my native place.

I realize now, a year gone by, that this is what has towed me forward. While my words have been slow, raw, collage-like, they are coming, finally. Some are lists or scenes. Others feel like journal entries, still others that feel like ledes for essays to come, doorways I may be able to walk through. Coming out of grief, the words line up, as I reintroduce myself to the city — our city. 

What I’ve learned in this year is that his voice is still with me, those long, looping paragraphs.  Standing at the lectern at the conference, a year later, I spoke about Mike’s example — most specifically  — that writing and research didn’t mean holing oneself up; it meant being part of a community, an ever-shifting world. 

Rolling past certain landmarks, marooned in traffic at particular intersections, taking shortcuts through a cluster of still-ungentrified neighborhoods, it’s impossible for me to not think about Mike, to not hear him, to wonder what his take might be. 

That Sunday morning, last October, with Mike’s book weighing down my reporting bag, as I trudged across the river rocks in the “old cornfield,” I was reminded of our long walks, him making a past rise up out of weeds, broken concrete, and rusted railroad ties. Mike taught me — so many of us — to look in the corners, on the highest shelves, to see a fuller story. 

Mike is part of my landscape — present tense — the old riverbeds and the backroads I’ve come to know. He’ll be part of it until it changes again, and then it will be up to me — us — to retell his piece, to retrace his steps and make them visible. Audible. It’s territory evinced by Mike’s curiosity, his inside track. He narrates it still. 

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