A Radical Teacher

Learning from Mike Davis.

mike davis

When atmospheric rivers hit California and damaged parts of the state earlier this year, many people were hearing about these destructive rainstorms for the first time. Not me, however. I learned about them way back in 1997 while studying under Mike Davis at UCLA. Weather was one of countless areas of knowledge Davis explored in his writing decades before the world caught up to him.

Davis, who died in October, wrote and lectured using specific environmental, historical, cultural, and geographic terms like fortress architecture, fire ecologies, the garden city, edge cities, microclimates, new urbanism, noir, postmodernism, and countless other particulars. Over the course of our 25-year relationship, Davis not only increased my vocabulary but taught me how to be a more complete human.

By the time I studied with Davis, I had already been reading him for three years. Davis’s work helped me contextualize the three generations of my family’s history in the city. When I read 1990’s City of Quartz (subtitled Excavating the Future in Los Angeles), my grandfather’s stories about early Los Angeles suddenly made more sense. Born in Los Angeles in 1918, my grandfather Frank Sibley worked for Union Pacific during World War II. I grew up hearing his tales about the Pacific Electric streetcars and what Los Angeles was like before the freeways were built.

After reading Quartz, I devoured Davis’s articles in the LA Weekly, the Nation, and New Left Review. I remember when his essay “Let Malibu Burn” was anLA Weekly cover story in the mid-1990s. His juxtaposition of Westlake tenement fires and the wildfires in Malibu went beyond ecology, explicating Los Angeles’s deeper fault lines. I’d taken California geography classes and social studies, but nobody could put it all together for me like Davis: his work was engaging and readable, combining a specific knowledge of Los Angeles locations and a deep historical context that revealed the all-too-human causes behind what many preferred to frame as “acts of God.”

Davis ran his UCLA course like a Socratic dialogue. As knowledgeable as he was, he rarely lectured his students. He encouraged us to talk about our personal geographies and our family histories. Before he’d become a celebrated author and professor, Davis was a meatcutter, a truck driver, a union organizer, and a tour guide. He understood intuitively that each of us in his class brought our own experiences to the conversation: he wanted to hear us all.

I stayed in touch with Davis for years after I graduated. We exchanged hundreds of emails, and he always recommended books and documentaries. Now a teacher myself, I try to teach my students the way Davis taught me: we take field trips around Los Angeles; I give them books when I can and host open mics where they share their stories. Mike Davis showed me how to do it.

Mike Sonksen will be leading a walking tour as part of “Remembering Mike Davis,” a daylong event that the Los Angeles Review of Books and the ACLU SoCal are hosting on May 21. Learn more here.•

Mike Sonksen, a third-generation Angeleno, is a poet, an essayist, and the author of Letters to My City.
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