Dead Cities: A Natural History

Dead Cities: A Natural History By Mike Davis. | The New Press. $27.95.

Mike Davis has long been America’s guide to the shadowlands of postmodern urbanism. In City of Quartz, he unveiled a Boschian vision of Los Angeles — the city of dreams — as a Blade Runner dystopia already upon us. Ecology of Fear painted L.A. in a paranoid palette, as a metropolis unlikely to survive the combined threats of mega-quakes, fires, and El Niños. Now, as the nation attempts to reinvent its downtowns as well-secured malls, Dead Cities forcefully returns our gaze to urban landscapes divided by race and class, and lurching unsustainably toward a showdown with Mother Nature.

If too many of Dead Cities‘ chapters read as filler — essays on Southern California politics that would have felt dated five years ago — the fresher work effectively challenges the much touted revival of America’s cities. Davis’ strange tour winds from the riot-scarred streets of Compton to “the most polluted site on Earth” — a bioweapons test site just west of Salt Lake City — to collapsing East Coast ghettos.

As ever, Davis remains preoccupied with the West. At his darkest, he foresees a future in which “sprawl … addiction, violence, and simulation will have overwhelmed every vital life-space west of the Rockies.” It’s the West become Los Angeles. Or worse yet, Las Vegas — a city whose “prodigal overconsumption,” hyper-sprawl, and poverty-stricken inner city make it the apogee of unsustainability. Creating a viable “alternative urbanism,” writes Davis, presents an extraordinary challenge. But then again, “this may be the last generation even given the opportunity to try.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.