Brady Westwater is passionately convinced that author Mike Davis based many conclusions in his two best-selling books about Los Angeles on hundreds of inaccuracies and outright lies.
Without doubt, one of the great publishing stories of the past decade has been the success of Davis’ dark looks at Los Angeles, 1990’s “City of Quartz” and last year’s “Ecology of Fear;” Both view L.A. as a city destined for an apocalyptic future because of deliberately ignored environmental and social dangers. Since publication, Davis’ jeremiads have been taken as Biblical revelation by much of the media that tends to think of the city in the worst possible light anyway: as the urban avatar of the sleaziest, most self-aggrandizing aspects of today’s escapist, money-driven culture.
Davis was unavailable for comment, as he has apparently been when other news outlets, including The New York Times, have tried to secure his statements.
But, agree with him or not, as a writer, it’s certainly Davis’ right to espouse any point of view he chooses.
Despite media and consumer indifference, Westwater, a Malibu resident for 20 years, has long asserted his view (and his proofs) via letters to newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. Today, people, at least the people at The New York Times, finally seem to be listening. “Mr. Davis’ particular calling card has been his unearthing of obscure, even fantastic, facts about Los Angeles’ experience with natural and scientific phenomena,” the newspaper wrote Jan. 27, “from monsoon-intensity rain to little-noticed tornadoes to mountain lions that prowl the city’s suburban fringe. But Brady Westwater, a Malibu real estate agent and amateur local historian who has appointed himself Mr. Davis’ one-man truth squad, has produced reams of material . . . questioning almost every claim he makes.”
The matter of tornadoes is one example at the top of Westwater’s hit list; Davis claims that the Los Angeles Times has essentially banned the use of the word “tornado in local coverage despite the city being “one of the tornado capitals of America.” “I checked the Times article he cited as evidence,” Westwater said last week in his office, surrounded by part of his multithousand book library on urban affairs. “It uses the words ‘tornado’ or ‘twister’ 13 times. You don’t have to check other sources to prove he is lying; he does it himself.”
Another problem for Westwater is Davis’ contention that Los Angeles is in a panic because of a threat of man-eating coyotes and mountain lions. “In 200 years of history, there has only been one death from each animal [one coyote, one mountain lion] in all Southern California, and none in Los Angeles,” Westwater says. “Alligators kill more people in Florida each year.”
But probably the hot button (no pun intended) for Malibu residents is the chapter in “Ecology of Fear” titled “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” In it, Davis claims, because of unlimited government support for county fire fighting, threats to millionaires’ homes in Malibu tend to take preference over saving lives of inner-city immigrants caught in tenement fires in budget-limited Los Angeles. “That’s idiotic,” Westwater says. “Anyplace the L.A.F.D. or the county fights a fire, they fight it until it’s out.” Davis’ solution? Because Malibu, “the wildfire capital of North America and, possibly, the world,” is so environmentally fire prone, it should be left to burn.
Davis has admitted that there are mistakes in the book, but has said in his own defense: “The thing you have to understand about these books is that I’m a socialist. This book (“Ecology of Fear”) has an utterly radical political agenda, no holds barred.” “It’s one thing making errors and another saying the exact opposite of what your footnote says,” Westwater counters. “The book is the ecology of Mike Davis’ mind.”
Not surprisingly, some of Davis’ advocates have dismissed Westwater’s attack on Davis as “nutty” (Jon Wiener in The Nation, Feb. 5), but about the only thing they say to discredit his credibility is that he changed his name from Ross Shockley to Brady Westwater. “When I was at UCLA in 1968 studying to become a screenwriter, I took the name Brady Westwater after market researching names people would remember,” Westwater says, “and I don’t think it’s eccentric to believe in the truth.” Westwater has also been reproached for occasional hyperbole (“The only ghetto…was the one in Mr. Davis’ mind”) in his 20-plus page essay available on the Internet (www.burnbox.com/westwater.html). “Of course I wrote it over-the-top,” Westwater says. “For 10 years no one had paid any attention to rational discourse about Davis’ books, so I wrote it that way to get a response. But every detail has been checked.”
So why does Westwater believe Davis — until now — has been treated so kindly by the academic, media and publishing establishment? “They feel they have to defend Mike Davis because he’s their hero,” he says of the opinion-making establishment, much of it located in L.A.-obsessed New York. “I’m the messenger who has to be killed. They don’t accept the possibility Davis could make so many factual errors.”
Joel Kotkin, a much-published writer on urban affairs and a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy, says, “Disaster movies sell tickets; Mike Davis has written a ‘disaster book.’ He is being outed as more of a showman who has made his name beating up L.A. than a serious scholar. The more you know about L.A., the more you realize how incorrect he is. And, under tremendous pressure and being demeaned for years, Brady Westwater has gone on with almost single-minded zeal to expose it.”
“The book is a, you know, polemic, with a lot of irony and humor in it,” Davis told The New York Times in defense of “Ecology of Fear.” “It has sailed over the heads of some people.” Courtesy of Brady Westwater, it looks like some of the wind is going out of those sails.