“City of Quartz, to use one of those Parisian terms that I usually try to run over with my pick-up truck, is the biography of a conjonture: one of those moments ripe with paradox and non-linearity—in a nutshell, it’s about the contradictory impact of economic globalisation upon different segments of Los Angeles society.” So describes Mike Davis in the preface to the new edition of his study first published in 1990 and now considered a classic. The 2006 edition includes all of the original material and provides an update on Los Angeles in the 21st century.
Written as a PhD thesis that ultimately failed, Davis managed to find an interested publisher for his meticulously researched dissection of Los Angeles. City of Quartz went on to become a bestseller, and Davis went on to a stellar academic career, in 1998 even winning a coveted MacArthur Fellowship.
With the draw of Hollywood money and glamour and the lure of a relaxed lifestyle, LA developed faster and more treacherously through the 20th century than many other cities. From a radical perspective, Davis examines the history of the city’s political power and questions the reputation LA holds as both a utopia and a dystopia.
As a model of metropolitan sprawl, there is much to learn by the LA example. Eminently readable, City of Quartz is also an important book for Australia. Our cities now face similar problems, including water management, air quality, traffic flow, rampant suburbanisation, and increased immigration. The LA example is a chance to learn what not to do. For Australian cities growing at an unbounded rate—like Brisbane and Perth—such lessons are invaluable. But this type of earnest tutelage isn’t the only reason to read City of Quartz. It should be read for the magnificent writing. That such obscure material can be made so fascinating is masterful indeed.