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

Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control (1)

The Ecology of Fear

Every American city has its official insignia and slogan, some have municipal mascots, colors, songs, birds, trees, even rocks. But Los Angeles alone has adopted an official Nightmare.
Mike Davis, author of Prisoners of the American Dream en City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in LA (1990) shows how this nightmare is slowly becoming real.

In 1988, after three years of debate, a galaxy of corporate and civic leaders submitted to Mayor Bradley a detailed strategic plan for Southern California's future. Although most of LA 2000: A City for the Future is devoted to hyperbolic rhetoric about Los Angeles' irresistible rise as a 'world crossroads', a section in the epilogue (written by historian Kevin Starr) considers what might happen if the city fails to create a new 'dominant establishment' to manage its extraordinary ethnic diversity. There is, of course, the Blade Runner ''scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic poly-glotism ominous with unresolved hostilities.

Blade Runner –'' LA's own dystopic alter ego. Take the Grayline tour in 2019: The mile-high neo-Mayan pyramid of the Tyrell Corp. drips acid-rain on the mongrel masses in the teeming Ginza far below. Enormous neon images float like clouds above fetid, hyper-violent streets, while a voice intones advertisements for extra-terrestrial suburban living in 'Off World.' Deckard, post-apocalypse Philip Marlowe, struggles to save his conscience, and his woman, in an urban labyrinth ruled by evil bio-tech corporations...

With Warner Bros.' release of the original (more hardboiled) director's cut a few months after the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, Ridley Scott's 1982 film version of the Philip K. Dick story (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) reasserts its sovereignty over our increasingly troubled sleep. Virtually all ruminations about the future of Los Angeles now take for granted the dark imagery of Blade Runner as a possible, if not inevitable, terminal point of the land of sunshine.

Yet for all of Blade Runner's glamor as the star of sci-fi dystopias, I find it strangely anachronistic and surprisingly unprescient. Scott, in collaboration with his 'visual futurist' Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence Paul, and art director David Synder, really offers us an incoherent pastiche of imaginary landscapes. Peeling away the overlays of 'Yellow Peril' (Scott is notoriously addicted, c.f. Black Rain, to urban Japan as the image of Hell) and `Noir' (all the polished black marble Deco interiors), as well as a lot of high-tech plumbing retrofited to street-level urban decay, what remains is recognizably the same vista of urban gigantism that Fritz Lang celebrated in Metropolis (1931).

The sinister, man-made Everest of the Tyrell Corporation, as well as all the souped-up rocket-squad-cars darting around the air space, are obvious progenies - albeit now swaddled in darkness - of the famous skyscraper city of the bourgeoisie in Metropolis. But Lang himself only plagiarized contemporary American futurists; above all, architectural delineator Hugh Ferris, who together with skyscraper designer Raymond Hood and Mexican architect-archeologist Francisco Mujica (visionary of urban pyramids like the Tyrell tower), popularized the coming 'Titan City' of hundred-story skyscrapers with suspended bridge highways and rooftop airports. Ferris and company, in their turn, reworked already existing fantasies – common in Sunday supplements since 1900 - of what Manhattan might look like at the end of the century.

Blade Runner, in other words, remains yet another edition of this core modernist vision – alternately utopia or dystopia, ville radieuse or Gotham City - of the future metropolis as Monster Manhattan. It is a fantasy that might best be called `Wellsian' since as early as 1906, in his The Future in America, H.G. Wells was already trying to envision the late twentieth century by enlarging the present (represented by New York) to create a sort of gigantesque caricature of the existing world, everything swollen up to vast proportions and massive beyond measure.

Ridley Scott's particular 'gigantesque caricature' may capture ethno-centric anxieties about poly-glottism run amock but it fails to imaginatively engage the real Los Angeles landscape – especially the great unbroken plains of aging bungalows, dingbats and ranch-style homes - as it socially and physically erodes into the 21st century.

In my book on Los Angeles (City of Quartz, 1990) I enumerate various tendencies toward the militarization of this landscape. Events since the uprising of Spring 1992 – including a deepening recession, corporate flight, savage budget cuts, a soaring homicide rate (despite the black gang truce), and a huge spree of gun-buying in the suburbs – only confirm that social polarization and spatial apartheid are accelerating. As the Endless Summer comes to an end, it seems quite possible that Los Angeles 2019 could well stand in a dystopian relationship to any ideal of the democratic city.

But what kind of cityscape, if not Blade Runner, would this malign evolution of inequality produce? Instead of seeing the future merely as a grotesque, Wellsian magnification of technology and architecture, I have tried to carefully extrapolate existing spatial tendencies in order to glimpse their emergent pattern. William Gibson, in Neuromancer and other novels, has provided stunning examples of how realist, `extrapolative' science fiction can operate as prefigurative social theory, as well as an anticipatory opposition politics to the cyber-fascism lurking over the next horizon.

In what follows, I offer a 'Gibsonian' map to a future Los Angeles that is already half-born. Paradoxically, the literal map itself, although inspired by a vision of Marxism-for-cyberpunks, looks like nothing so much as that venerable combination of half-moon and dart board that Ernest W. Burgess of the University of Chicago long ago made the most famous diagram in social science.

For those unfamiliar with the legacy of the Chicago School of Sociology and their canonical study of the North American city let me just say that Burgess' dart board represents the five concentric zones into which the struggle for the survival of the fittest (as imagined by Social Darwinists) supposedly sorts urban social classes and housing types. It portrays a `human ecology' organized by biological forces of invasion, competition, succession and symbiosis. My remapping of the urban structure takes Burgess back to the future. It preserves such `ecological' determinants as income, land value, class and race, but adds a decisive new factor: fear.


The current obsession with personal safety and social insulation is only exceeded by the middle-class dread of progressive taxation. In the face of unemployment and homelessness on scales not seen since 1938, a bipartisan consensus insists that the budget must be balanced and entitlements reduced. Refusing to make any further public investment in the remediation of underlying social conditions, we are forced instead to make increasing private investments in physical security. The rhetoric of urban reform persists, but the substance is extinct. Rebuilding LA simply means padding the bunker.

As city life, in consequence, grows more feral, the different social milieux adopt security strategies and technologies according to their means. Like Burgess' original dart board, the resulting pattern condenses into concentric zones. The bull's eye is Downtown.


Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control (1) - published in Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#2/3 (1995)

In another essay I have recounted in detail how a secretive, emergency committee of Downtown's leading corporate landowners (the so-called Committee of 25) responded to the perceived threat of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Warned by law-enforcement authorities that a black inundation of the central city was imminent, the Committee of 25 abandoned redevelopment efforts in the old office and retail core. They then used the city's power of eminent domain to raze neighborhoods and create a new financial core a few blocks further west. The city's redevelopment agency, acting virtually as their private planner, bailed out the Committee of 25's sunk investments in the old business district by offering huge discounts, far below market value, on parcels in the new core.

Key to the success of the entire strategy (celebrated as Downtown LA's `renaissance') was the physical segregation of the new core and its land values behind a rampart of regraded palisades, concrete pillars and freeway walls. Traditional pedestrian connections between Bunker Hill and the old core were removed, and foot traffic in the new financial district was elevated above the street on pedways whose access was controlled by the security systems of individual skyscrapers. This radical privatization of Downtown public space - with its ominous racial undertones - occurred without significant public debate or protest.

Last year's riots, moreover, have only seemed to vindicate the foresight of Fortress Downtown's designers. While windows were being smashed throughout the old business district along Broadway and Spring streets, Bunker Hill lived up to its name. By flicking a few switches on their command consoles, the security staffs of the great bank towers were able to cut off all access to their expensive real estate. Bullet-proof steel doors rolled down over street-level entrances, escalators instantly stopped and electronic locks sealed off pedestrian passageways. As the Los Angeles Business Journal pointed out in a special report, the riot-tested success of corporate Downtown's defenses has only stimulated demand for new and higher levels of physical security.

In the first place, the boundary between architecture and law enforcement is further eroded. The LAPD have become central players in the Downtown design process. No major project now breaks ground without their participation, and in some cases, like a debate over the provision of public toilets in parks and subway stations (which they opposed), they openly exercise veto power.

Secondly, video monitoring of Downtown's redeveloped zones has been extended to parking structures, private sidewalks, plazas, and so on. This comprehensive surveillance constitutes a virtual scanscape - a space of protective visibility that increasingly defines where white-collar office workers and middle-class tourists feel safe Downtown. Inevitably the workplace or shopping mall video camera will become linked with home security systems, personal `panic buttons', car alarms, cellular phones, and the like, in a seamless continuity of surveillance over daily routine. Indeed, yuppies' lifestyles soon may be defined by the ability to afford electronic guardian angels to watch over them.

Thirdly, tall buildings are becoming increasingly sentient and packed with deadly firepower. The skyscraper with a computer brain in Die Hard I (actually F. Scott Johnson's Fox-Pereira Tower) anticipates a possible genre of architectural anti-heroes as intelligent buildings alternately battle evil or become its pawns. The sensory system of the average office tower already includes panoptic vision, smell, sensitivity to temperature and humidity, motion detection, and, in some cases, hearing. Some architects now predict the day when the building's own AI security computer will be able to automatically screen and identify its human population, and, even perhaps, respond to their emotional states (fear, panic, etc.). Without dispatching security personnel, the building itself will manage crises both minor (like ordering street people out of the building or preventing them from using toilets) and major (like trapping burglars in an elevator).

When all else fails, the smart building will become a combination of bunker and fire-base. When the federal Resolution Trust Corporation seized the assets of Columbia Savings and Loan Association they discovered that the CEO, Thomas Spiegel, had converted its Beverly Hills headquarters into a secret, `terrorist-proof' fortress. In addition to elaborate electronic security sensors, a sophisticated computer system that tracked terrorist incidents over the globe, and an arms cache in its parking structure, the 8900 Wilshire building also has Los Angeles' most unusual executive washroom: Tom Spiegel's office, in addition to the bullet-proof glass, was designed to have an adjoining bathroom with a bullet-proof shower. In the event an alarm was sounded, secret panels in the shower walls would open, behind which high-powered assault rifles would be stored.

Free Fire Zone

Beyond the scanscape of the fortified core is the halo of barrios and ghettos that surround Downtown Los Angeles. In Burgess' original Chicago-inspired schema this was the 'zone in transition': the boarding house and tenement streets, intermixed with old industry and transportation infrastructure, that sheltered new immigrant families and single male laborers. Los Angeles' inner ring of freeway-sliced Latino neighborhoods still recapitulate these classical functions. Here in Boyle and Lincoln Heights, Central-Vernon and MacArthur Park are the ports of entry for the region's poorest immigrants, as well as the low-wage labor reservoir for Downtown's hotels and garment sweatshops. Residential densities, just as in the Burgess diagram, are the highest in the city. (According to the 1990 Census, one district of MacArthur Park is nearly 30% denser than Midtown Manhattan!)

Finally, just as in Chicago in 1927, this tenement zone (where an inordinately large number of children are crowded into a small area) remains the classic breeding ground of teenage street gangs (over one-hundred according to LA school district intelligence). But while 'Gangland' in 1920s Chicago was theorized as essentially interstitial to the social organization of the city – as better residential districts recede before the encroachments of business and industry, the gang develops as one manifestation of the economic, moral, and cultural frontier which marks the interstice - a gang map of Los Angeles today is coextensive with the geography of social class. Tribalized teenage violence now spills out of the inner ring into the older suburban zones; the Boyz are now in the 'Hood' where Ozzie and Harriet used to live.

For all that, however, the inner ring remains the most dangerous sector of the city. Ramparts Division of the LAPD, which patrols the salient just west of Downtown, regularly investigates more homicides than any other neighborhood police jurisdiction in the nation. Nearby MacArthur Park, once the jewel in the crown of LA's park system, is now a free-fire zone where crack dealers and street gangs settle their scores with shotguns and Uzis. Thirty people were murdered there in 1990.

By their own admission the overwhelmed inner-city detachments of the LAPD are unable to keep track of all the bodies on the street, much less deal with common burglaries, car thefts or gang-organized protection rackets. Lacking the resources or political clout of more affluent neighborhoods, the desperate population of the inner ring is left to its own devices. As a last resort they have turned to Messieurs Smith and Wesson, whose name follows protected by... on many a porch.

Slumlords, meanwhile, are mounting their own private reign of terror against drug-dealers and petty criminals. Faced with new laws authorizing the seizure of drug-infested properties, they are hiring goon squads and armed mercenaries to `exterminate' crime in their tenements. The LA Times recently described the swashbuckling adventures of one such crew in the Pico-Union, Venice and Panorama City (San Fernando Valley) areas.

Led by a six-foot-three 280-pound `soldier of fortune' named David Roybal, this security squad is renown amongst landlords for its efficient brutality. Suspected drug-dealers and their customers, as well as mere deadbeats and other landlord irritants, are physically driven from buildings at gunpoint. Those who resist or even complain are beaten without mercy. In a Panorama City raid a few years ago, the Times notes, Roybal and his crew collared so many residents and squatters for drugs that they converted a recreation room into a holding tank and handcuffed arrestees to a blood-spattered wall. The LAPD knew about this private jail but dismissed residents' complaints because it serves the greater good.

Roybal and his gang closely resemble the so-called matadors, or hired gunslingers, who patrol Brazilian urban neighborhoods and frequently, while the police deliberately turn their backs, execute persistent criminals, even street urchins. Their common coda is that they get the job done all else has failed. As one of Roybal's most aggressive competitors explains: //Somebody's got to rule and when we're there, we rule. When somebody says something smart, we body slam him, right on the floor with all of his friends looking. We handcuff them and kick them and when the paramedics come and they're on the stretcher, we say:// Hey, sue me.

Apart from these rent-a-thugs, the Inner City also spawns a vast cottage industry that manufactures bars and grates for home protection. Indeed most of the bungalows in the inner ring now tend to resemble cages in a zoo. As in a George Romero movie, working-class families must now lock themselves in every night from the zombified city outside. One inadvertent consequence has been the terrifying frequency with which fires immolate entire families trapped helpless in their barred homes.The prison cell house has many resonances in the landscape of the inner city. Before the Spring uprising most liquor stores, borrowing from the precedent of pawnshops, had completely caged in the area behind the counter, with firearms discretely hidden at strategic locations. Even local greasy spoons were beginning to exchange hamburgers for money through bullet-proof acrylic turnstiles. Windowless concrete-block buildings, with rough surfaces exposed to deter graffiti, have spread across the streetscape like acne during the last decade. Now insurance companies may make such riot-proof bunkers virtually obligatory in the rebuilding of many districts. Local intermediate and secondary schools, meanwhile, have become even more indistinguishable from jails. As per capita education spending has plummeted in Los Angeles, scarce resources have been absorbed in fortifying school grounds and hiring armed security police. Teenagers complain bitterly about overcrowded classrooms and demoralized teachers on decaying campuses that have become little more than daytime detention centers for an abandoned generation. The schoolyard, meanwhile, has become a killing field. Just as their parents once learned to cower under desks in the case of an atomic bomb attack, so students today are taught to drop at a teacher's signal in case of ... a driveby shooting – and stay there until they receive an all-clear signal.

Federally subsidized and public housing projects, for their part, are coming to resemble the infamous `strategic hamlets' that were used to incarcerate the rural population of Vietnam. Although no LA housing project is yet as technologically sophisticated as Chicago's Cabrini-Green, where retinal scans (c.f., the opening sequence of Blade Runner) are used to check i.d.s, police exercise increasing control over freedom of movement. Like peasants in a rebel countryside, public housing residents of every age are stopped and searched at will, and their homes broken into without court warrants. In one particularly galling incident, just a few weeks before the Spring 1992 riots, the LAPD arrested more than fifty people in the course of a surprise raid upon Watts' Imperial Courts project.

In a city with the nation's worst housing shortage, project residents, fearful of eviction, are increasingly reluctant to claim any of their constitutional protections against unlawful search or seizure. Meanwhile national guidelines allow housing authorities to evict families of alleged drug-dealers or felons. This opens the door to a policy of collective punishment as practiced, for example, by the Israelis against Palestinian communities on the West Bank.

Blade Runner: Urban Control (2)