Dead Cities: A Natural History

Dead Cities: A Natural History

by Mike Davis
A riveting exploration of the tensions between nature and the built environment, by a leading urbanist.

In his most brilliantly syncretic writing yet, radical urban theorist Mike Davis explores the combat zone that is contemporary urban America, a ceaseless battle waged both within cities and against nature. Using environmental science as his frame of understanding,


A riveting exploration of the tensions between nature and the built environment, by a leading urbanist.

In his most brilliantly syncretic writing yet, radical urban theorist Mike Davis explores the combat zone that is contemporary urban America, a ceaseless battle waged both within cities and against nature. Using environmental science as his frame of understanding, Davis examines themes of urban life today—white flight, deindustrialization, housing and job segregation and discrimination, and federal policy—and looks at areas he calls "national sacrifice zones," military landscapes that simulated warfare and arms production have rendered uninhabitable.

Davis begins our apocalyptically inflected tour with a trip to New York's Ground Zero. He then takes us to "German Village," a Utah wasteland that was once a test site for Allied science advisors to rehearse the perfect plan for destroying Berlin, and to the diabolic miracle of Las Vegas, where environmental terrorism is practiced in the name of urban development. Davis also hits Los Angeles, the frontline of the "Second Civil War" sparked by American apartheid, and which lies waiting to be ignited in cities across the country.

With wit, compassion, and an eye for the absurd and the unjust, Mike Davis has begun a long overdue dialogue on urban science in this prophetic new book.

Author Biography: MacArthur fellow Mike Davis is the author of several books, including City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and Magical Urbanism. He lives in San Diego.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Lower Manhattan was soon a furnace of crimson flames, from which there was no escape" is not a lead sentence from the New York Post from last September, but an image from H.G. Wells's 1908 novel, The War in the Air. In this astute, compelling and often shocking tour of U.S. cities over the past decade (many of these pieces date from the early 1990s), Davis (City of Quartz; Ecology of Fear) goes beyond the usual boundaries of urban theory and creates a panorama of images of cities and landscapes in the throes of destruction-one in which September 11 is more norm than exception. Davis argues that "ecocide"-the degradation of the planet via air pollution, water pollution, nuclear waste and other industrial plagues, as well as by war-is integral to urban decay. Davis creates a Bosch-like portrait of America where Cold War waste disrupts genes and has made huge tracts of land into uninhabitable "national sacrifice zones"; Las Vegas is continually demolished and rebuilt; corporate "redevelopment" runs inner-city economies like feudal dynasties; an attempt to build a subway "eats" Los Angeles; and the "bourgeois utopia of a totally calculable and safe environment" is deeply shaken by September 11. Davis finds "an existential Earth shaped by the creative energies of its catastrophes" (like asteroid impacts, to which a chapter is devoted) that only "geomorphology," an emerging science, treats the effects of urban, rural, natural and man made urban disasters as part of the same continuum, might hope to explain. It's a grim reality, but, in the face of torrid summers, calving ice shelves and beaching whales, one that is increasingly difficult to ignore. (Oct. 24) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Both human-made and natural disasters threaten Earth's survival, and journalist and author Davis (City of Quartz; Ecology of Fear) here explores many variables that have led, and will continue to lead, to the death of many urban areas and ecosystems. A writer for the Nation, Sierra, and the Los Angeles Times, Davis states that many prophecies of urban doom have already come true (e.g., H.G. Wells in 1907 predicted that New York City would burn as a result of attacking airships). He worries about the future of humankind and urban life in light of terrorism, global warming, globalization, and the effects of changing weather patterns. Early chapters provide a thorough and often insightful account of governmental nuclear testing in the Western United States, documenting the fate of "Downwinders," the unwitting victims of fallout. Most of the rest of the book discusses the urban plight of Los Angeles. Davis provides a wealth of information but relies heavily on newspaper articles for his references. Despite Davis's apocalyptic vision, this may have appeal. Recommended for large public libraries.-Tim Delaney, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From Davis (Magical Urbanism, 2000, etc.), rangy, astute, switchblade-wicked essays ranging from depictions of Los Angeles in film noir to a discussion of a Paiute prophet's neo-catastrophic epistemology. September 11 may have marked the end of American exceptionalism, but anxiety was already upon us, writes Davis, and "it is already clear that the advent of 'catastrophic terrorism' in tandem with protracted recession will produce major mutations in the American city." Fear and catastrophe run through this assembly of essays, as seen in the portraits of hell from national and international ecocide sites including Las Vegas, whose apocalyptic urbanism is cooed over by postmodernist philosophers as "virtuality," and the pharaonic and socially irresponsible redevelopment strategy of downtown LA. As if he were a pair of zoom binoculars, Davis can look hyper-closely at the tortured Compton, a neighborhood about to slip its own tectonic disk, or pull far back into comparative planetology and "an existential Earth shaped by the creative energies of its catastrophes." Pushy and polymathic, Davis has earned the right call LA's subway "an aphrodisiac to attract real estate investment to the city's three largest redevelopment projects," or to say that the South Central riot "was as much about empty bellies and broken hearts as it was about police batons," because he has made the connections, a web of such intricacy-racism, vested interests, ecology, social neglect, corruption, real-estate scams, pork-barrel politics, urban dereliction-that it deserves a Tiffany setting. There are moments when readers will wish Davis would cut to the chase, when the writing feels too much like action paintingswooning in its own gestures; though there are more moments of salutary humor, as when cold warriors in San Diego managed to find "Kremlin-endorsed hot-rodders and Maoist high school sex clubs" under every grain of beach sand. Smart and tough: an author with one eye out for the underdog, the other on the sickness of the political and corporate landscape.

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And Other Tales


Copyright © 2002 Mike Davis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1565847652

Chapter One

`White People Are Only a Bad Dream ...'

The whirlwind! The Whirlwind! The whirlwind! The Whirlwind!

Ghost Dance chant

The Searcher

Mason Valley, Nevada: 1 January 1892.

It is a bitterly cold, moonless evening. A recent blizzard has mantled the sagebrush steppe in knee-deep snow. A small party of men, nervous and half-frozen, are riding in file, followed by a wagon. Their solitary lantern bathes the ground ahead in pale yellow light. The faint marking of a trail eventually dissolves into a criss-crossing maze of cattle paths in the snow. They have no idea which direction to go. The riders and their horses are tired and disoriented. The wind is beginning to howl ominously, and each man fights a small knot of panic in his stomach.

It is bad night to be lost. In such conditions, cowboys stay indoors, shepherds abandon their flocks, posses give up pursuit, and outlaws freeze to death along lonely trails. But this party-three Paiutes and two white men-has a mission of unusual urgency. They are searching for a Messiah named Wovoka.

"After vainly following a dozen false trails and shouting repeatedly in the hope of hearing an answering cry," they try a desperate expedient. Using the frost-covered buckboard as a stationary pointof reference, each man rides a short distance in a different direction. When they fail to find the trail, they move the wagon and start over again. Finally, the wagon-driver hears sounds. A few hundred yards farther on, the party finds four small rule wikiups. In one of them, the Messiah is quietly waiting by his fire.

The leader of the party is James Mooney, a self-taught linguist and anthropologist. He works for the Bureau of Ethnology, which has recently been moved from the US Geological Survey to the Smithsonian Institution. His boss is the legendary John Wesley Powell, one-armed Civil War hero and explorer of the Grand Canyon. The Bureau's somber, eleventh-hour mission is to bear scientific witness to the extinction of Native America. The nation's most eminent savants have written off the survival of most Indian cultures. Now Mooney and his colleagues are attempting to document as much as possible of these doomed lifeways before they are obliterated by white settlement and industrial progress.

Mooney has the perfect melancholy temperament for his job. An Irish nationalist from Ohio, he finds a profound parallel between the decline of the American Indians and the tragedy of the Celts. Like the Kiowa and Cherokee, whose languages he speaks fluently, Mooney's own tribe, the Gaelic-speaking Irish, are human anachronisms in an age of steel cities, commodity exchange, and Hotchkiss guns. His Indian informants and friends-with stirring names like Standing Bear, Fire Thunder, American Horse, George Sword, Black Coyote, and Sitting Bull-detect a sensibility in Mooney deeper than his whiteness. Perhaps he has quoted to them, in their own language, the bitter epitaph of Irish patriot John Mitchell: "The very nation that I knew as Ireland is broken and destroyed; and the place that knew it Shall know it no more." At any event, his empathy is compelling and he has won admission to a world otherwise sealed to whites forever by massacres and broken promises. Vouchsafed by the honor of his famous friends, Mooney passes from tribe to tribe in a quest for information about a strange new religion.

Some weeks earlier, Mooney had been with the Lakota in South Dakota. Every doomed people dreams of magical rebirth. In the misery of their reservations, the Lakota, who only a decade earlier had been the most powerful horsemen on the continent, embraced a ceremony of renewal known as the "Ghost Dance." With the speed of hope, this prophecy of a world restored had spread from the wikiup in Mason Valley to every corner of indigenous America. Like a great bellows, it awoke the dying fires of Indian spiritual self-confidence and resistance.

Mooney would later see a resonance of Indian millenarianism in a Hibernian context. The Irish version of the Ghost Dance-no less fabulous and utopian-was the Celtic Revival of the 1890s, which, following the successive defeats of the Fenians, Davitt and then Parnell, sought to rebuild an Irish nation on the foundation of its forgotten culture. Its prophets and medicine men were named Yeats, Synge, Hyde, and Pearse. (And for those willing to make the conceptual journey, there really was an earlier point of contact between the Lakota and the Irish in the astonishing prairie rebellion of the Métis mystic and utopian socialist Louis Riel. He counted both Sitting Bull and the Irish Republican Brotherhood as allies in his struggle against English Canada.)

The Irish awakening eventually produced a small republic on a divided island. The Lakota, however, immediately paid a terrible price for their dreaming: 146 refugees from Pine Ridge, including 44 women and 18 children, were blown apart on the frozen banks of Wounded Knee Creek by the big explosive rounds of the Army's new Hotchkiss guns. (Some of the survivors, grotesquely, were then paraded across Europe by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.) Mooney, in between ethnographic errands for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, is assembling the first comprehensive account of the massacre, which the US government still falsely characterizes as a "uprising."

Later, in the preface to his The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, published in 1896, he will note that he has traveled an astounding 32,000 miles in twenty-two months (1890-92) and spent time with twenty tribes. His painstakingly detailed account of the new religion's avowal of love and nonviolence, contrasted with photographs of slain Lakota women and children lying in heaps on the prairie, will morally impeach his own employer, the federal government, for dishonesty and murder. It will also ensure his own ostracism in official circles.

Wounded Knee happened on 29 December 1890. Almost exactly a year later, Mooney is sitting by a sagebrush fire with Wovoka.

The Messiah

Wovoka-the name means "the Man with the Axe"-is thirty-five years old. He is, ironically, the son of Tavibo, or "White Man," and when he was four he witnessed the famous battle of Pyramid Lake. White silver miners had kidnapped several Paiute women, and when their husbands rescued them, it was considered "an Indian outrage," although none of the miners was harmed. A large posse of whites was sent to destroy the Indian camp, but they were ambushed by the Paiutes in a narrow pass. With bows and arrows alone, Wovoka's band killed nearly fifty miners and forced the rest to flee in terror. Undefeated on the battlefield, the Paiute nonetheless lost their freedom to the inexorable expansion of the white mining and cattle frontiers. Thus, following the death of his father, Wovoka was indentured to a local rancher named David Wilson. Although he refuses to learn English or move into a house, he is now called "Jack Wilson" by the whites and is well-regarded as a reliable and hard-working ranchhand. He will spend his entire life tending cattle and sheep in Mason Valley.

Like other great prophets from Moses to Joseph Smith, his revelation occurred on a mountain. One day in late 1888 or early 1889, he was cutting wood for David Wilson when the sky began to darken. Looking up he saw the "sun dying" (an eclipse), followed by a great clamor in the trees. Laying down his axe, he ran in the direction of the tumult. He instantly "died" or passed into unconsciousness. Then, as he explains to Mooney, he "was taken up to the other world."

Here he saw God, with all the people who had died long ago engaged in their old-time sports and occupations, all happy and forever young. It was a pleasant land and full of game. After showing him all, God told him he must go back and tell his people they must be good and love one another, have no quarreling, and live in peace with the whites.... they must put away all the old practices that savored of war; that if they faithfully obeyed his instructions they would at last be reunited with their friends in this other world, where there would be no death or sickness or old age [or, by implication, whites] ... (p. 772)

As a gift to the Indian people, God gave him a sacred dance. Performed at intervals, for five days at a time, the dance would beatify the performers and hasten the advent of the new time. Wovoka was also given powers to predict and control the weather. Mooney would later interview a former Indian agent at Walker Lake who claimed that Wovoka "had once requested him to draw up and forward to the President [Grover Cleveland] a statement of his supernatural claims, with a proposition that if he could receive a small regular stipend he would take up his residence on the reservation and agree to keep Nevada people informed of all the latest news from heaven and to furnish rain whenever wanted." The agent, chuckling to himself while pretending to take Wovoka seriously, never forwarded the letter as promised.

Local whites, including those who knew and liked "Jack Wilson," patronizingly interpreted the revelation as little more than a hysterical reaction to the unexpected solar eclipse. To the Paiutes, on the other hand, it was a long-awaited sign. The first Ghost Dance took place on the Walker Lake reservation in January 1889. It produced a spiritual earthquake half a continent in diameter. Soon, every native people of the Great Basin-the Washoo, Ute, Shoshone, Bannock, and Gosiute-had heard that "Christ" himself was at Walker Lake, teaching the Paiute a sacred dance that would restore the world of their fathers. These tribes spread the good news to their neighbors, who in turn passed it on to their neighbors. Delegations quickly arrived at Walker Lake from reservations in California, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and eventually Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. Within two years, nearly forty nations had entered Wovoka's holy circle. Only the Navajo, whose religion proscribes all mention of the dead, were immune to the resurrectionist fervor that swept the native West from the Pacific to the Mississippi.

Against scores of conflicting oral or second-hand accounts of Wovoka's teaching, there is an actual letter-published by Mooney-which the prophet dictated to an Arapahoe delegate in the party of Black Short Nose in 1891. The young Arapahoe wrote down Wovoka in "Carlisle English," which was then transcribed into proper English by Black Short Nose's schoolgirl daughter back in Oklahoma. As Mooney emphasizes, "it is the genuine official statement of the Ghost-dance doctrine as given by the messiah himself to his disciples." It is also a model of spiritual concision.

Do not tell the white people about this. Jesus is now upon the earth. He appears like a cloud. The dead are all alive again. I do not know when they will be here; maybe this fall or in the spring. When the time comes there will be no more sickness and everyone will be young again.

Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them until you leave them. When the earth shakes-at the coming of the new world-do not be afraid. It will not hurt you.

I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat. Then bathe in the water. That is all. You will receive good words again from me some time. Do not tell lies.

As Mooney reminded the readers of his report, the moral code preached by Wovoka is "as pure and comprehensive in its simplicity as anything found in religious systems from the days of Gautama Buddha to the time of Jesus Christ." Indeed, Mooney argues, the Ghost Dance is the New Testament, or at least its spiritual core, in distinctively Indian garb. To a divided and defeated people, Wovoka preaches unity, love, and the hope of renewal. "Only those who have known the deadly hatred that once animated Ute, Cheyenne, and Pawnee, one toward another, and are able to contrast it with their present spirit of mutual brotherly love can know what the Ghost-dance religion has accomplished.... It is such a revolution as comes but once in the life of a race."

To further illustrate the human meaning of the Ghost Dance, Mooney cites the example of an Arapahoe friend who had just lost his small son. "I shall not shoot any ponies, and my wife will not gash her arms. We used to do this when our friends died, because we thought we would never see them again, and it made us feel bad. But now we know we shall all be united again." As to the ceremony itself, especially the hypnotic role of dance, Mooney cautions his white readers to consider how some of their own religious practices might look to strangers. "In a country which produces magnetic healers, shakers, trance mediums, and the like, all these things may very easily be paralleled without going far from home."

The Mirage

On the centenary of Mooney's conversation with Wovoka, January 1991, I visited Walker Lake, Nevada. I had little in mind other than a simple desire to view the prophet's grave and the living conditions of his great-great-grandchildren. Initially I had no luck finding the headstone, so I sought advice from a young Paiute man in his early twenties. He was sitting in his red Ford Ranger pickup, drinking a cup of coffee and listening to Ice-T rapping, "Fuck the police...." He turned down the volume on his cassette player and gave me directions with a smile. Then he turned up Ice-T again.

On Wovoka's modest grave I found an abalone shell containing an eagle feather and several 30-30 shells. There were also some flowers, recently left. It was obvious that this was more than commemoration. The Ghost Dance religion did not die at Wounded Knee and Wovoka remains a living presence to many Native Americans: his spiritual legacy is dynamic and still undergoing elaboration.

Mooney had expressed wonderment at the diverse ways in which Wovoka's message had been assimilated in its fundamentals while being reworked in its details to fit the individual visions and specific histories of each Indian culture. The Arapahoe, for example, believed that the restored world would advance behind a wall of fire that would drive the whites back to Europe, while the Lakota, more embittered, had a vision of white civilization buried alive by earthquakes and landslides, with the survivors transformed into small fishes in the river. The Cheyenne preferred a native version of the Rapture, with Indian peoples ascending through the clouds to a beautiful hunting-ground, while the Shoshone foresaw a paradise where Indians and whites would dwell together in peace. In almost every version, however, the actual spiritual passageway to the new earth was the deep sleep induced by the Ghost Dance and lasting for four days. Upon awakening, the First People would realize that whites had simply been a bad dream.

The year after visiting Wovoka's grave, I had an opportunity to discuss his legacy with some of the Paiute and Shoshone activists who were sponsoring the "Global Healing" demonstrations at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. With the nuclearized desert as a dramatic backdrop, they emphasized that while the immediate millenarian expectations of their great-grandparents (like the early Christians) had been frustrated, Wovoka's vision of a unified Indian people resuming stewardship of the West after white civilization has been destroyed by a cataclysm of its own making is more compelling than ever. Sweeping the horizon with his finger, one of them challenged me: "Do you really think all this can last?" His gesture was meant to encompass not only the Test Site, but all the chief monuments to the past century's work of conquest: the dams, casinos, instant suburbs, bombing ranges, prisons, theme parks, toxic dumps, trophy homes, and trailer parks.

The latterday Paiute and Shoshone, of course, themselves live in electrified homes, drive pickup trucks, send their kids to college, and lobby members of the Congress-but they do so with an keen awareness of the radical instability of this artificial world and its neon landscapes. It is a catastrophe to which they have painfully adjusted, which has transformed the outward trappings of their lives, but which they continue to resist inwardly. The essence of the Ghost Dance is, perhaps, precisely the moral stamina to outlast this great mirage.


Excerpted from DEAD CITIES by MIKE DAVIS Copyright © 2002 by Mike Davis
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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