Mike Davis (1946-2022) was a unique public intellectual who influenced scholarly, activist and popular thinking in fields as diverse as urban studies, labour studies, Marxism, urban political ecology, history, pandemic disease and much more. He was a larger than life human being, a self-made renaissance man, a fighter and a connector. He was also a friend. I remember him this way.
Raised in a working-class suburban corner of San Bernardino County, Davis spent his formative years as a Marxist activist in the Civil Rights movement, and an itinerant truck driver and meat cutter. He never conformed to any standards and expectations, even after the 1990 publication of City of Quartz transported him from the intellectual fringe into mainstream acclaim. On the Left, he was a uniting force in what often seemed like a sea of sectarianism. When you were around him, there was always something collective going on — some kind of organic communism, some kind of a better world in motion. He transcended the narrow confines of the academic world and of the local contexts in which most people made their mark.
I first met Mike Davis in November 1986, on my way back from Los Angeles to Frankfurt. Visiting my sister in England during a stopover in London, gave me the opportunity to meet Mike in person, having previously corresponded with him by mail. A friend in LA had given me a copy of a draft paper Mike had written, called “Sunshine and the Open Shop: The Urbanization of Los Angeles – 1880-1930”, a version of which was published much later, as Tom Reifer has reminded me, as a chapter in a book edited by Tom Sitton and Bill Deverell. It had Mike Davis’s address on it: c/o NLR, 7 Carlisle St., London W1. I had written to Mike about this paper, at said address, and had miraculously received a friendly invitation to meet him in London when I would pass through.
The paper was a revelation. In Los Angeles to start the research on my PhD dissertation, “Sunshine and the Open Shop” was just what I needed to structure my thinking. The paper was like nothing I had read before. Davis pioneered a thought that many would take up later and build careers on: The deployment of the — then novel — French Regulation School’s idea of a regime of accumulation to “explain the unity of class formation and relations of production within determinate metropolitan spatial structures.” The idea was revolutionary as it made the urban scale a formative site in the process of capitalist accumulation, not just a place where national political economies found their local expression.
The city was liberated as a form of socio-spatial organization that made its own historical geographies. That genie of “seeing like a city” was never put back in the bottle of “epistemic nationalism” – and it powered my own thesis on the local politics of internationalization in Los Angeles. I wanted to meet the man who had written it. Much later, I also began to understand the paper as part of Davis’ unmistakeable style. Always somewhat marginal to the academy – partly by his design, partly by the academy’s inability to make him a welcomed member – he was one of the most consistent and reliable theoretical innovators and the world champion of detail and empirical depth. He devoured reams of literature on any subject and poured the distillate into his prolific output. Once, much later, when I stayed at his house in Pasadena, a package of books arrived every day until the hallway of the house was unwalkable.
But on that November afternoon in 1986, Mike met my sister and me in a greasy spoon tea house in London’s Soho and took us to the offices of the New Left Review above which he had an apartment. He put us up for the night, fed us from the banquet of a NLR editorial board meeting and “stole” a bottle of expensive Bordeaux from the feast downstairs. That night, I got a first taste of Mike’s unrivalled storytelling. He entertained us with anecdotes and analysis of his role in the Left of 1960s Los Angeles, an early version of what much later became his book on the subject, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, co-written with Jon Wiener and published in 2021. The intellectual and hospitable generosity Mike displayed on that night in London was just the first instance of many that I witnessed in later years of him opening his house, making connections, sharing his wisdom and inspiring others. In Los Angeles, where we developed a lasting friendship when we both returned to live there in 1987, he ran a series of informal “salons” at his house during which he introduced individuals from social domains that were strictly segregated in that city to each other to do good and radical things together. His attempts at community building on the Left (for example, through outfits like City Line in L.A.) were relentless and generative. He forged alliances across the divides that he wrote about in City of Quartz and elsewhere.
I took something else from that autumn night in Soho. The man who went on to become perhaps the most read urban theorist of the late 20th century held a large lizard captive in a terrarium in his London apartment. The critter, ostensibly a pet of his daughter Roisin, was also a reminder that the city about which Mike wrote was always bigger than streets and structures of the built environment. It was a symbol of the important role that non-human nature in general (and the desert in particular) were going to play in the city of humans. As much as earthquakes, epidemics, floods, fires, and storms, snakes in toilets and lizards in captivity were always part of the conceptual universe Mike constructed of the city — honing in to a minute, intimate and weird scale invisible to mainstream urbanist practice. In his work, the slogan of the 68ers — that the beach was there somewhere under the pavement — was not merely an expression of political hope and revolutionary enthusiasm but a condition of the urban itself, part of the metabolic substrate of the way we live. Mike was one of the original thinkers of the school of thought that was later called Urban Political Ecology and he remained influential in this context until the end.
With Mike, one was always in the presence of history. On that November night in London, I first heard of his close relationships with people who I had been familiar with as historical figures from my studies of American history and politics at Goethe University. For example, Mike was friends with Angela Davis, a spectral presence in many German student apartments in form of her iconic 1970s poster. But now I met someone who knew her for real. Many more such relationships revealed themselves as time went on. And when I moved to Canada in the 1990s, Mike connected me with Leo Panitch, and “passed me on” to comrades here in Toronto and Ottawa that took me under their wing when I started out as a junior academic at York. (Mike had taught at Carleton and York universities in the late 1980s but found Toronto unimpressive and took weekend trips to Buffalo and Cleveland to get his fix of urban grit.)
On the fateful evening of April 29 1992, the start of the Los Angeles rebellion, Mike and a few of us who visited from Canada and Switzerland, had plans to meet for dinner in Santa Monica. When we arrived at the restaurant, Mike was not there but on the establishment’s television — the Los Angeles rebellion had begun and the streets were on fire. Mike was among the crowds in South Central. He would not miss the perhaps most important event in the city’s history, an event he had presaged in many ways in City of Quartz. We made our way home by ourselves through the smoke and the flames, while Mike was in the middle of it, taking notes on the frontlines.
When the L.A. School redesigned the world of urban studies largely from the vantage point of their offices at USC or UCLA, or with diagrams of the 60-mile-city viewed from the roof of City Hall, Mike Davis wrote about Los Angeles from street level. His classes were “experiential” before university administrators coined the term to sell to anxious parents and students keen on job relevant skills. He took students into the heart of the city and into the abandoned Red Line tunnels under Bunker Hill, loved to meet us at odd places and unusual restaurants around the east and south sides of the city that were largely out of the regular range of graduate student lives at UCLA. Mike saw himself as an outside-insider of Los Angeles, the working class kid from Eastern San Bernadino County who had made his way in the city, the autodidact and truck driver (“I would never let a planning conference get in the way of driving a big rig,” he once quipped at me) who ended up pulling so many strings, organizational and intellectual. That he would become the quintessential chronicler of L.A. was an ironic twist of fate.
Davis himself, by trade a historian, although he never got to finish a PhD (it is shameful that he wasn’t given the honour for any one of his brilliant books, especially City of Quartz), had trans-disciplinary appeal and international standing from early on in his career. I read him first in the mid-1980s for his comments on the dangers of populism (that piece made it into his Prisoners of the American Dream). The German version of Prisoners of the American Dream, called Phoenix im Sturzflug in translation, was a huge success. It made him a celebrity in the German Left. He was able to reach anyone and everyone who paid attention, from the curators of arts museums to those in positions of power. He would not always go and bask in the light that people wanted to shine on him. He even used his well-earned McArthur grant to continue on his rebellious trajectory, celebrating the Latinization of America in his 2000 book Magical Urbanism. And where others skimmed the surface and lost themselves in neologisms and truisms, Mike did the work on the submerged and contradictory layers of the world.
Circling back once more to that evening in London, I want to emphasize again Mike’s generosity, displayed in countless occasions to me and so many. That night, after seeing me as a student with little income, he gave me a temporary job with Verso, translating (roughly) prospective German books for the publisher, a task I fulfilled for a few months before I returned to LA. I don’t remember if any of the texts on which he sought advice made it into the Verso catalogue but it sure helped me to pay the rent. Such a selfless, modest man despite being always the celebrity in any room after City of Quartz became a runaway success. He remained personable and genuine, a warm and inclusive personality. He took care of his friends. At some point, though, Mike’s celebrity became a bit of a burden. Especially as the good burghers of Malibu started to stalk him online after he had famously argued that their town should be sacrificed to the bush fires. The type of red-baiting and attempted character association that followed was both a sign of his getting under the skin of the powers that be, and a dangerous distraction that hurt and discouraged him at times.
Mike supported many young writers, students and researchers who worked on Los Angeles. Early on, he gave me the opportunity to co-write with him a piece on L.A. intellectuals for a German volume on urban intellectuals edited by Walter Prigge. Some of that work also made it into City of Quartz. This was an important lesson in co-authorship, and a great honour as I poured over reams of memoirs by immigrant and expat German writers on Los Angeles.
He kept pushing me to re-publish my book Los Angeles with Verso but in the end, I did not have the energy and time. But my own work ultimately intersected with Mike’s, not just through our common passion for Los Angeles. Our conversation intensified again much later, early in the new century, when Mike published his prophetic The Monster at Our Door, diagnosing the threat of a global pandemic in 2005. When I asked him subsequently for an endorsement of a book I was about to publish with my friend and colleague S.Harris Ali, he immediately complied but he asked perhaps to reconsider the working title we had chosen: Networked Death. He was right, of course, and we renamed the book Networked Disease to tone it down. Being schooled in public relations by the master of hyperbolic titles was a lesson in humility that made perfect sense. (Published in 2006, Mike’s highly influential Planet of Slums was also an inspiration for our work on Global Suburbanisms at York University and beyond.)
Mike Davis was a leading thinker — and perhaps the leading thinker — of the transatlantic Left in the outgoing 20th and early 21st centuries. I will personally remember him for the intellectual power he displayed in everything he did, the way he brought people of different backgrounds together and for his generosity towards everyone that crossed his path — a spirit that he retained until his death last October at the age of 76. What is gone is gone. Someone like Mike is impossible to replace. A large loss for us all.
Roger Keil is Professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University. He researches global suburbanization, urban political ecology, cities and infectious disease, infrastructure, and regional governance. Among his publications are Suburban Planet (Polity, 2018) and After Suburbia (with Fulong Wu, UTP: 2022) as well as Pandemic Urbanism (Polity, with S. Harris Ali and Creighton Connolly, Polity: 2022) and Turning Up the Heat: Urban political ecology for a climate emergency (with Maria Kaika, Tait Mandler and Yannis Tzaninis, Manchester: 2023).
Roger Keil pays a personal tribute to a legendary urbanist — and a leading thinker of the contemporary Left.