Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 Mike Davis 1 Jan 1995

Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control (3)

The Ecology of Fear

Parallel Universes


Back of Mediamatic Magazine 8#2/3 -

Burgess and his students, who took 1920s Chicago as a vast research laboratory, never had any doubts about the 'raw reality' of the phenomena that they were systematically studying. Empirical method was matched to empirical reality. The image or mythography of the city did not intervene as a significant stratum in its own right. Nor did the Chicago School pay any attention to the critical role of the Columbian Exposition as an ideal-type for the city's planned development. Although the 1892 and 1933 Chicago World's Fairs were theme parks avant la lettre, urban sociology could not yet make conceptual space for the city as simulation.

Today there is no way around the problem. The contemporary city simulates or hallucinates itself in at least two decisive senses. First, in the age of electronic culture and economy, the city redoubles itself through the complex architecture of its information and media networks. Perhaps, as William Gibson suggests, 3-dimensional computer interfaces will soon allow post-modern flaneurs (or 'console cowboys') to stroll through the luminous geometry of this mnemonic city where data-bases have become 'blue pyramids' and 'cold spiral arms'.

If so, urban cyberspace - as the simulation of the city's information order - will be experienced as even more segregated, and devoid of true public space, than the traditional built city. Southcentral LA, for instance, is a data and media black hole, without local cable programming or links to major data systems. Just as it became a housing/jobs ghetto in the early twentieth century industrial city, it is now evolving into an electronic ghetto within the emerging information city.

Secondly, social fantasy is increasingly embodied in simulacral landscapes - theme parks, 'historic' districts and malls - that are partitioned off from the rest of the metropolis. All the post-modern philosopher kings (Baudrillard, Eco, etc), of course, agree that Los Angeles is the world capital of 'hyper-reality'. Traditionally its major theme parks have been primarily architectural simulations of the movies or television. At the old Selig Zoo, for instance, you could enter the jungle set for Tarzan. while at Knotts Berry Farm or its Calico ghost town you could participate in a typical Western. Disneyland, of course, opened the gates to the 'Magic Kingdom' of cartoon creatures and caricatured historical biographies.

Today, however, the city itself - or rather its idealization - has become the subject of simulation. With the recent decline of the military aerospace industry in Southern California, the tourism/hotel/entertainment sector has become the single largest regional employer. But tourists are increasingly reluctant to venture into the perceived dangers of Los Angeles' 'urban jungle'. As one MCA official recently complained: There's somebody on every street corner with a Work for Food' sign, (and the city) is not fun anymore.

MCA and Disney believe the solution is to recreate vital bits of the city within the secure confines of fortress hotels and walled theme parks. As a result, artificial Los Angeles is gradually coming into being. In essence, it is an archipelago of well-guarded corporate cashpoints where affluent tourists can relax, spend lots of money, and have 'fun' again. A largely invisible army of low-wage service workers, who themselves live in virtual bantustans like the Santa Ana barrio (Disneyland) or Lennox (LAX) barrios, keep the machinery of simulation running smoothly.

Because these simulated landscapes compete with one another over 'authenticity', some strange dialectics ensue. Simulations tend to copy not their 'original' (where that even exists), but one another. Consider, for example, the multiple or exponentialized hyper-realities involved in the corporate battles to monopolize 'Hollywood'.

Hollywood(s): Powers of Simulation

For the last seventy-five years there has been an uneasy fit between movie-made Hollywood glamour and the dowdy Hollywood district. Movie stars, of course, have never lived in the tenement flatlands, and most of the big studios moved long ago to the suburbs. The actual Hollywood of the 1930s was best described by Nathanial West: home of the 'flea people' the extras, laborers, grips and failed starlets.

The Hollywood in the imagination of the world's movie public, therefore, was kept tenuously anchored to its namesake location by regular rituals (premieres, the Academy Awards, etc.) and the magical investment of a dozen or so places (the Bowl, Graumann's, etc.) as tourist shrines. But over the last generation, as the real Hollywood has become a hyper-violent slum, the rituals have ceased and the magic has waned. As the linkages between historic signifier and its signified decayed, the opportunity arose to resurrect Hollywood in a safer neighborhood. Thus in Orlando, Disney created a stunning Art Deco mirage of MGM's golden age, while arch-competitor MCA countered with its own idealized versions of Hollywood Boulevard and Rodeo Drive at Universal Studios Florida.

Meanwhile, the elopement of Disney and Hollywood to Florida further depressed real-estate back in real-time Hollywood. After bitter battles with local homeowners, the major landowners were able to win city authorization for a $1 billion facelift of Hollywood Boulevard. In their scheme, the Boulevard would be transformed into a gated, linear theme park, anchored by mega-entertainment complexes at each end. But while the redevelopers were still negotiating with potential investors, MCA pulled the rug out from under Hollywood Redux with the announcement that its nearby tax-dodge enclave, Universal City, would construct a parallel urban reality called 'CityWalk'.

Designed by master illusionist Jon Jerde, CityWalk is an 'idealized reality', the best features of Olvera Street, Hollywood and the West Side synthesized in easy, bite-sized pieces for consumption by tourists and residents who don't need the excitement of dodging bullets ... in the Third World country that Los Angeles has become. CityWalk incorporates examples of Mission Revival, Deco, streamlined Moderne, and `LA Vernacular' (the Brown Derby), as well as 3-D billboards, a huge blue King Kong hanging from a 70-foot neon totem pole, and a sheriff's substation for security. To alleviate the sense of artificiality in this melange, a 'patina of age' and a 'dash of grit' have been added:

Using decorative sleight of hand, the designers plan to wrap the brand new street in a cloak of instant history - on opening day, some buildings will be painted to suggest that they have been occupied before. Candy wrappers will be embedded in the terrazzo flooring, as if discarded by previous visitors.

Hollywood redevelopers immediately responded to construction of CityWalk with a $4.3 million beautification plan that includes paving Hollywood Blvd. with 'glitz' made from recycled glass. But even spruced up and glitzified there is almost no way that the old Boulevard can compete with the hyper-real perfection on Universal's hill. As its MCA proprietors have taken pains to emphasize, CityWalk is not a mall but a revolution in urban design ... a new kind of neighborhood - an urban simulator. Indeed, some critics wonder if it isn't the moral equivalent of the neutron bomb: the city emptied of all lived human experience. With its fake fossil candy wrappers and other deceits, CityWalk sneeringly mocks us as it erases any trace of our real joy, pain or labor.

The Toxic Rim

Where does the nightmare end? Burgess was not greatly interested in urban boundaries. His Chicago dart board simply fades into the `commuter zone' and, beyond, into the Corn Belt. The city limits of Dystopia, however, are an intrinsically fascinating problem. In Blade Runner, it will be recalled, the dark megalopolis improbably yielded, at its outer edge, to Ecotopia - evergreen forests and boundless wilderness.

No such happy ending will be possible in the coming Los Angeles of 2019. Post-modern geographer Edward Soja has observed that Southern California is already bounded, along an almost unbroken desert perimeter, by huge military air bases, bombing ranges and desert warfare reservations. Now a second, equally ominous circumference clearly is being drawn around this Pentagon desert. Choking on its own wastes, with its landfills overflowing and its coastal waters polluted, Los Angeles is preparing to export its garbage and hazardous land-uses to the Eastern Mojave and Baja California. Instead of reducing its production of dangerous waste, the city is simply planning to 'regionalize' their disposal.

This emergent Toxic Rim includes giant landfills at Eagle Mountain (the former Kaiser open-pit iron mine) and possibly near Adelanto (defunct Air Force base), the controversial radioactive waste dump in Ward Valley near Needles, and the relocation of such polluting industries as furniture manufacture and metal-plating to Tijuana's maquiladora belt. The environmental consequences may be almost catastrophic.

The proposed 300,000 barrels of nuclear waste, for example, in the unlined trenches of the Ward Valley nuclear dump will remain lethal for 10,000 years. They will pose the perennial risk of leaking radioactive tritium into the nearby Colorado River, thereby poisoning the irreplaceable water source for much of Southern California. For its part, the immense landfill at Eagle Mountain - 2.5 miles long, 1 mile wide, and 2,000 feet deep - will not only contaminate the water table but also create a toxic shroud of air pollution over much of eastern Riverside County. Meanwhile, the flight of hazardous industries across the Border, eventually including a large segment of Los Angeles' petrochemical production, will increase the possibility of Bhopal-like catastrophes.

In sum, the formation of this waste-belt will accelerate the environmental degradation of the entire American West (and part of Mexico). Today a third of the trees in Southern California's mountains already have been suffocated by smog, and animal species are rapidly dying off throughout the polluted Mojave Desert. Tomorrow, Los Angeles' radioactive and carcinogenic wastes may be killing life as far away as Utah or Sonora. The Toxic Rim will be a zone of extinction.

Before we Wake...

Finally, leaving behind all the Burgessian diagrams and analogies, what will be the real fate of Los Angeles? Can emergent technologies of surveillance and repression stabilize class and racial relations across the chasm of the new inequality? Will the ecology of fear become the natural order of the 21st-century American city? Will razor-wire and security cameras someday be as sentimentally redolent of suburban life as white-picket fences and dogs named Spot?

A global perspective may be useful. Los Angeles in 2019 will be the core of a metro-galaxy of 22-24 million people in Southern and Baja Californias. Together with Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, and Shanghai, it will comprise a new evolutionary form: mega-cities of 20-30 million inhabitants. It is important to emphasize that we are not merely talking about larger specimens of an old, familiar type, but an absolutely original, and unexpected, phyla of social life.

No one knows, in fact, whether physical and biological systems of this magnitude and complexity are actually sustainable. Many experts believe that the Third World mega-cities, at least, will eventually precipitate environmental holocausts and/or implode in urban civil wars. Indeed, the contemporary `New World Order' certainly offers enough grim examples of total societal disintegration - from Bosnia to Somalia - to underscore realistic fears of a mega-city apocalypse.

If Tokyo proves an exception, despite inevitable natural disasters, it will only be by dint of extraordinary levels of public investment, private affluence and social discipline (and because Japan is culturally a highly urban rather than suburban society). In the recent past, however, Los Angeles has begun to resemble Sao Paulo and Mexico City more than post-modern Tokyo-Yokohama.

It may be theoretically possible, of course, for a Democratic administration in Washington over the next decade to begin to reverse American urban decay with massive new public works. But it will remain extraordinarily difficult to secure Congressional support for reinvestment in the Bos-Wash and Southern California urban cores as long as the Reagan-era deficit remains the dominant issue in domestic politics. Indeed the principal legacy of the Perot movement - the most successful electoral insurgency in 75 years - may be precisely the fiscal Gordian knot it has managed to tie around any resolution of the urban crisis.

If hopes of urban reform, now guardedly raised by the Clinton landslide, are once again dashed, it will only accelerate the dystopic tendencies described in this pamphlet. For in the specific case of Los Angeles, where recession has already wiped out a fifth of the region's manufacturing jobs, there is little private-sector help in sight. Even the most traditionally optimistic business-school econometric models now predict a 'Texas-style' regional slump lasting until 1997, while forecasters at the Southern California Association of Governments talk about steady-state unemployment rates of 10-12 percent for the next twenty years.

As the golden dream withers, so also may faith in non-violent social reform. If last year's riots set a precedent, anomic neighborhood violence may begin to be transmuted into more organized political violence. Both cops and gangmembers already talk with chilling matter-of-factness about the inevitability of some manner of urban guerrilla warfare. And in spite of all the new residential walls and scanscapes - even the future police eye in the sky - sprawling Los Angeles is a metropolis uniquely vulnerable to strategic sabotage.

As the examples of Belfast, Beirut and, more recently, Palermo and Lima have demonstrated, the car bomb is the weapon of anonymous urban terror par excellence (or, as one counter-insurgency expert once put it, the poor man's substitute for an airforce). Car bombs have reduced half of Beirut to debris, wiped out a neighborhood known as 'Lima's Beverly Hills', and massacred Italy's most heavily guarded public officials.

If the British Army, uniquely, was finally able to prevent car bombers from entering Belfast, it was only after years of effort and the construction of an immense security cage around the entire city center. A comparable preventative effort in Los Angeles - e.g. closing the freeways and heavily fortifying all the public utilities, oil refineries and pipelines, and commercial centers - would not only cost tens of billions but also dissolve the city as a functioning entity.

The Los Angeles freeway system, in effect, guarantees to the future urban terrorist what the tropical rainforest or Andean peak offers to the rural guerrillero: ideal terrain.

If we continue to allow our central cities to degenerate into criminalized Third Worlds, all the ingenious security technology, present and future, will not safeguard the anxious middle class. The sound of that first car bomb on Rodeo Drive or in front of City Hall will wake us from our mere bad dream and confront us with our real nightmare.

This pamphlet was first printed in Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, Pamphlet #23, Open Media, New Jersey, USA, december 1992.