Remembering Mike Davis
An ode to one of California's best
This fall I was road tripping around New England, unashamed of being one of those tourists so razzle-dazzled by the changing leaves as if I've never seen the color orange before in my life. Cemeteries proved a great place to admire the colors. When I was driving around Maine I kept discovering tiny family plots off the side of the road, the tombstones worn and dark and blanketed by fallen gold leaves. In Somerville, a friend took me to a massive cemetery to admire the trees and the centuries-old tombstones. This friend also grew up in the Bay Area, and we talked about how weird it is that in San Francisco, almost all the cemeteries were exhumed and moved to the literal necropolis of Colma, leaving San Francisco almost entirely free of any signs of death. Many of those cemeteries are in fact now parks.
New England would never do that. They love their history here. You can tell the Revolutionary War is still on people's minds. There are plaques on the buildings saying who built them and when (always a long time ago, before some western states were states). There are historic mansions and villages to visit where you can pretend you're some miserable Puritan girl from the 1600s, a fantasy you could still easily play out in Boston today where I saw historical re-enactors strutting around, proud of eras of histories that Californians never think about.
If I'm amused by this New England obsession with history, it might be because history doesn't seem to exist in the American West. Yes we'll give an occasional nod to the gold rush, and it's fun to talk about the Donner Party when driving to Tahoe, but I can tell you that as a kid I did learn more about the Revolutionary War than the Spanish missions or Hetch Hetchy or the Black Panthers. Maybe that's just good ol’ American propaganda, but it's sad to live somewhere and be ignorant of its past. New Englanders may be a little too obsessed with it (the Puritans really weren't that interesting), but it's always there if people care to learn about it. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, I feel I should only ever look forward to some bright and exciting future, and just forget whatever happened before.
Yesterday, historian Mike Davis died. He was perhaps best known for the book City of Quartz, and most recently he co-wrote an absolute tome called Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. He was from Southern California and wrote about it with such a profound love that would surprise the fools who believe there's nothing interesting to say about suburbs and deserts. His books, to be honest, are almost dizzying the way they layer facts and anecdotes and endless details about tiny corners of this strange landscape. He knew so much. And he wanted none of it to be forgotten.
Mike Davis made me excited to be a Californian. We are lead to believe that history only happened on the other side of the country, and that now we live in some fantasy world built up entirely by dreams, never mind how we got here. Mike grounded me in reality. He taught me about the socialist town of Llano del Rio, about immigrants fighting for labor rights in downtown LA, about the sinister Chandler family, about why LA was the only place that could create noir. He knew that history was more than just battles and presidents, and he wrote about all the people who have turned California into what it is today. He told us the stories no one else was ever going to.
So I just wanted to say how grateful I am for his work, his wisdom, and his heart. Mike Davis was one of our best, and if we're ever going to get to that beautiful future we dream of, it'll be because we know where we've come from. Thank you Mike, and may you rest in peace.