Discourse of Desperation: Review on Mike Davis's City of Quartz

The core idea of Davis’s argument can be summarized in this statement: The distortion of conceptual shared space is followed by the destruction of architectural and physical public space. Davis narrates how the public's conceptualization of space is harshly invaded by politicians, developers, and the police. And as people's conceptual spaces are manipulated by organized racism, illusion of fear, phobia of security, financial opportunism, etc., the physical public space is compartmentalized, privatized, and ultimately devalued.

Visible signs of the destruction of the public space in Davis’s language are no different from what contemporary designers and planners have proposed: “The valorized spaces of the new megastructures and super-malls are concentrated in the center, street frontage is denuded, public activity is sorted into strictly functional compartments, and circulation is internalized in corridors under the gaze of private police.” However, in contrast to his exploration of the dark side, he also reminds us of the ‘Olmstedian Vision’ to imply that he is not just a nagging critic and that he also has some model to offer: “Public landscapes and parks as social safety-valves, mixing classes and ethnicities in common recreations and enjoyments.” 
Is Davis expecting us to believe that his Utopian city is feasible? I doubt. On the contrary, he wants to make sure you are convinced that such heaven cannot exist on this earth. If the urban physical and spatial structure is the embodiment and manifestation of the society's distorted conceptualization of the relationships among class, race, and security (shaped by the media, institutional racism, militarization, and financial opportunism), then there is nothing the so called ‘socially supportive environment’ can do. As there is no desire for inter-class interaction in the social realm, the public space collapses, even in heaven.
Davis inculcates a sense of desperation throughout his entire book. He deliberately, and cleverly, structures his argument so that to convince the reader there is no getaway. He leaves his audience in a loop which constantly regenerates itself every time in a more insoluble way. Following this, there seem to be only one loophole, and that is to change the structure of power and capital. However, he wants us to keep in mind that this condition is not corrigible, Davis does not tend to reform anything, and he is not even suggesting so; his criticisms have a revolutionary tone - only a fundamental transformation can stop the process of metamorphosis of cities to classist racist monsters.
However, it seems at least part of the problems that Davis was deeply concerned about were not that everlasting after all. 17 years after Davis’s book was first published, William A.V. Clark, the professor of geography in UCLA, writes: “It is still true that some large cities have high levels of separation of Blacks and Whites, but in many metropolitan areas the levels of segregation continue to decline … as Black education levels have increased, incomes risen and racist tensions diminished, Black households have increased access to suburban housing … American metropolitan areas are increasingly integrated and, with an increasingly diverse ethnic population, will likely continue the slow path to an integrated society. In summary, segregation still exists but is decreasing [1].”
City of Quartz is multifaceted and coherent, but Davis’s devotion to squashing the existing structure of power and capital has made his arguments to be less concerned with the necessity of reform and more based on encouraging a revolutionary discourse. As a result, those designers and planners who consider themselves as ‘pragmatist problem solvers’ might find this book a theoretical dead-end because within the author's framework, unless some greater socio-political forces undergo fundamental changes, there is nothing environmental design can accomplish. Although I believe picturing such apocalyptic visions, makes us appreciate smart design communities that do not necessarily consider major top-down changes as a prerequisite condition for having better habitats.

[1] Clark, W. A. V. 2007. Race, Class, and Place; Evaluating Mobility Outcomes for African Americans. Urban Affairs Review 42: 295-314.

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Comment by keith hayes on November 5, 2012 at 12:03am

this is an insightful review, amin.  thank you for elucidating.  so the book was written in 1990?  it is an intimidating perspective to assume there is no bottom up solution, but i find that we can create (as you say appreciate) through contrast those macro-environments where we find our dwelling, where we may vacate our awareness, the overwhelming nature of this darker cloud.  

Comment by Amin Mojtahedi on November 5, 2012 at 1:24am

thanx keith. yes the book was written in 1990. Davis is an incredibly smart person and has a lot of publications; however, 'city of quartz' is the only one that i've read so far.

True, it definitely is intimidating. i think Davis finds it scary too, and one can feel this tension throughout his entire book. well he is a scholar not a designer, so his strategy to overcome the problem is writing and increasing people's awareness by creating dialogic spaces within which these issues are discussed and criticized. As a result of promoting the public's consciousness, people might force the power structure to reform itself (i.e OWS protest movement or the Milwaukee open housing campaign which played an instrumental role in passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act).

Many architects and designers like you, however, believe that place can be a medium for social change. My concern is, we might be able to attract people to an in-between space, but can we connect them? can we make them 'think' beintweenly by simply inviting them to beintween spaces?! in other words, how can space bridge these conceptual islands and create/promote social capital?


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