Notes on Mike Davis, “Fortress L.A.”

from City of Quartz

“Fortress L.A.” is about a destruction of public space that derives from and reinforces a loss of public-spiritedness.

“The universal and ineluctable consequence of this crusade to secure the city is the destruction of accessible public space” (226).

Davis appeals to the early city planner Frederick Law Olmstead’s conception of “public landscapes and parks as social safety-valves, mixing classes and ethnicities in common (bourgeois) recreations and enjoyments, a vision with some affinity with Jane Addams notion of the settlement house as a medium for inter-class communication and fraternity (a notion also shaped by “bourgeois” values).

II. Forms

1. A “new class war . . . at the level of the built environment” (228).

2. The use of architectural ramparts, sophisticated security systems, private security and police to achieve a recolonization of urban areas via walled enclaves with controlled access. Examples:

3. The fortification of affluent satellite cities, “complete with encompassing walls, restricted entry points with guard posts, overlapping private and public police services, and even privatized roadways” (244). Night and weekend park closures are becoming more common, and some communities are considering requiring proof of local residency in order to gain admittance.

“Residential areas with enough clout are thus able to privatize local public space, partitioning themselves from the rest of the metropolis, even imposing a variant of neighborhood ‘passport control’ on outsiders” (246).

4. Use of permanent barricades around neighborhoods in “denser, lower-income neighborhoods” (248).

5. Pervasive private policing contracted for by affluent homeowners’ associations.

“Anyone who has tried to take a stroll at dusk through a strange neighborhood patrolled by armed security guards and signposted with death threats quickly realizes how merely notional, if not utterly obsolete, is the old idea of the ‘freedom of the city’” (250).

6. The transformation of the LAPD into a operator of “security macrosystems” (major crime databases, aerial surveillance, jail systems, paramilitary responses to terrorism and street insurgency, and so on) (251), in part because the private-sector has captured many of the labor-intensive security roles.

This process, with its roots in the fifties reform of the LAPD under Chief Parker, insulates the police from communities, particularly inner city ones (because after Watts aerial surveillance became the cornerstone of police strategy for the inner city) (252).

The dystopian future: “universal electronic tagging of property and people”, “use of a geosynclinal space satellite” “Once in orbit, of course, the role of a law enforcement satellite would grow to encompass other forms of surveillance and control” (253).

7. Prison construction as a de facto urban renewal program. The War on Drugs is expected to double the prison population in a decade.

“Jails now via with County/USC Hospital as the single most important economic force on the eastside” (254).

INS micro-prisons in unsuspected urban neighborhoods (256).

Designer prisons that blend with urban exteriors as a partial resolution of conflicts with commercial and residential uses of urban space (256).

8. Even “the beaches are now closed at dark, patrolled by helicopter gunships and police dune buggies” (258).

III. General Points

“‘Security’ becomes a positional good defined by income access to private ‘protective services’ and membership in some hardened residential enclave or restricted suburb. As a prestige symbol -- and sometimes as the decisive borderline between the merely well-off and the ‘truly rich’ -- ‘security’ has less to do with personal safety than with the degree of personal insulation, in residential, work, consumption and travel environments, from ‘unsavory’ groups and individuals, even crowds in general” (224).

“‘fear proves itself’. The social perception of threat becomes a function of the security mobilization itself, not crime rates” (224). “Moreover, the neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and conjures imaginary dangers’, while being “full of invisible signs warning off the underclass ‘Other’” (226).

Fear of crowds: “the designers of malls and pseudo-public space attack the crowd by homogenizing it. They set up architectural and semiotic barriers to filter out ‘undesirables’. They enclose the mass that remains, directing its circulation with behaviorist ferocity. It is lured by visual stimuli of all kinds, dulled by musak, sometimes even scented by invisible aromatizers”

Among the few democratic public spaces: Hollywood Boulevard and the Venice beach Boardwalk (260).