Mike Davis is a prolific and gifted writer whose oeuvre is getting bigger and more impressive by the day. Catapulted to fame—although not so much to fortune—by his classic Los Angeles jeremiad City of Quartz (1990), he has almost single-handedly reinvented the way we see and tell stories about our cities at the turn of the century; and in the process reinvigorated urban studies, too long split between dry empiricism and abstruse high theory. Davis has re-energized both flanks at once, his racy prose somehow managing to mix Robert Park with Blade Runner, Karl Marx with Chuck D., Nathanael West with Art Pepper, Thomas Pynchon with Maria-Elena Durazo, the Book of Revelation with the Haymarket uprising, Walter Benjamin with Route 405. His combination of imaginative flair and hard-edged take has made the study of cities popular in a way they’ve never been before—though the broad connexions he makes between theories and fields and events, and an indomitably maverick spirit, have on occasion raised hackles in the more conformist stretches of the academy. In Ecology of Fear (1998), Davis’s denunciations of LA’s boosterist politics and real-estate shysters—building luxury homes on the edge of deep abysses, in fire zones, on seismic faults—gave ‘natural’ disasters a distinctive class slant which brought him big trouble with the city establishment. High-tech liberals and press jackals accused him of deliberately distorting the city’s image into a dark dystopia calculated only to drive economic growth out of the Angeleno basin into the hinterland. Instead, it’s driven Davis himself into the hinterland—Hawaii, actually—where he now lives for part of the year. His latest book Magical Urbanism reflects this shift in domicile. It completes his LA trilogy, but is much more than a study of LA. It is a book about people who have left their native lands and are reinvigorating US big cities as their home away from home; who live across borders—and across barriers—and who are staking out new ground, somewhere in between. Within the pages, and between the lines, we glimpse Davis as well. Here his voice sounds like a latter-day Friedrich Engels, documenting The Condition of the Working Class in America, circa 2000—though his jacket-picture has him looking more like an exotic Polynesian wildman. Magical Urbanism is really magical realism and magical Marxism rolled into one, a book of embraces, in the tradition of Eduardo Galeano and García Márquez, fusing barbarism with sensual dreams, romance with politics, grittiest fact with wildest fantasy.

Davis begins with a dose of sober realism; in fact, with an ‘epochal event’—an urban watershed largely unnoticed and certainly uncelebrated. At some point during 1996 Latinos surpassed African-Americans as the second largest ethno-racial group in New York. As Davis observes, ‘Thanks to a booming Spanish-surname population, no borough except Staten Island any longer has a majority ethnicity.’ Meanwhile, California’s millennium celebrations coincided with white non-Hispanics becoming the state’s minority for the first time since the Gold Rush. In cities like New York and Los Angeles—to say nothing of Houston, San Diego, Phoenix and San Antonio—Latinos have become the ‘majority-minority’ group, dramatically ahead of demographic projections. Within a few years, Dallas and Fort Worth will follow suit, while in Chicago, with a 27 per cent representation, Latinos hold the balance of power in most city elections; by 2020, their numbers in the windy city will have doubled and they will become Illinois’s largest minority. Latin-Americanization of big and medium-sized US cities, says Davis, is the culmination of mass emigration to El Norte and the result of higher fecundity rates among Latina women than their Anglo counterparts. José is now the most popular name for baby boys in California and Texas, and there are more Salvadoreans in Los Angeles than in San Salvador, more Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York than in San Juan and San Domingo.

What surprises Davis most about these trends is their relative invisibility in ‘high-end urban studies’, where most of the ever growing literature on how globalization reshapes the metropolis ignores ‘its most spectacular US expression’. He wants to put Latinos where they clearly belong: ‘in the centre of debate about the future of the American city’. Equally, he thinks that anyone who cares about the fate of our cities should be glad at the ‘redemptive energies’ Latinos bring to worn-out and shunned metropolitan areas. Their tropism toward big cities contrasts markedly with the ‘crabgrass prejudices’ of middle-class Anglos, who have fled in droves to the outer suburbs and edge cities; Latinos have given the kiss of life to moribund urban cores and to older, inner suburbs. But they have also put inordinate strain on standard census categorization. Broad labels such as ‘Latino’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Chicano’, chosen long ago for bureaucratic expediency, are unable to encompass the real heritage and commingling of émigré Latin American populations. Ethnic identity is a complex, fluid process which escapes traditional binary models.

Nowhere is that identity construction more fluid than in Tijuana, the Mexican–US border town that was once Al Capone’s favourite resort, and is now the ‘Siamese twin’ of San Diego. Davis compares the city to Swift’s floating skyscape of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels: defying gravity, its ‘hyper-growth’ has been comparable only to that other surrealist landscape, Las Vegas. Ballooning from a 65,000 rancho in 1950, it now supports an estimated 1.3 million people, yet with an urban infrastructure lagging ‘at least a generation behind current demand’. Tijuana has hardly any formal economy or public budget (40 per cent of its population lack sewer hook-ups and running water), prompting residents to become ‘consummate bricoleurs’, building a ‘culturally vibrant metropolis from the bottom up, largely using recycled materials from the other side of the border’. Asian multinationals—Sony, Sanyo and Hyundai—dominate this maquiladora economy. Rich bosses commute across every morning from plush San Diego suburbs, while green-card-carrying tijuanense rank and file—officially known as ‘transmigrants’—‘make the opposite commute by the thousands to work in San Diego’s post-industrial tourist economy’. The border is a 2000-mile Love Canal, and the Tijuana River a veritable toxic sink, discharging 12 million gallons of raw sewage every day. In the NAFTA era, capital and pollution flow freely. But flows of Mexican labour face acute blockages: border surveillance intensifies and becomes ever more sophisticated, with new electronic cameras that can probe vehicles for hidden passengers. Meanwhile, the distinction between immigration patrol and narcotics control is becoming increasingly blurred as the war against drugs shades into a war against migrants.

Davis is clearly appalled by this, but admits his interest is more in ‘the historical geography of Latino settlement in non-border cities’. There, he says, ‘emerging Latino pluralities and majorities’ are ‘remaking urban space in novel ways that cannot be assimilated to the earlier experiences of either African-Americans or European immigrants.’ We are no longer dealing with the classic barrio or ghetto, but something which exhibits unprecedented ‘spatial complexity’, rendering defunct old Chicago School ecological models and familiar sociological explanations. New York in particular is ‘an extraordinary patchwork quilt’, the most ‘pluricultural’ of any US metropolitan core. Today, there are 21 major Latino neighbourhoods—though each has large non-Latino populations, too—in four boroughs, including eleven Puerto Rican in the south Bronx, two Dominican in upper Manhattan (Washington and Morningside Heights), and two mixed South American in Queens. Until relatively recently, Puerto Ricans comprised about 80 per cent of all Latinos in Gotham. Now, increasingly superseded by the more recent influx of Dominicans and Mexicans, the figure is nearer 40 per cent. Puerto Ricans have steadily lost ground, particularly since 1960, giving the lie to claims that ‘citizenship provides a magic carpet to immigrant success’. Poverty—for which we should read born and bred, second-generation New York poverty—has increased, even during the boom of the 1990s. The ratio of Puerto Rican graduates is abysmally low; the high school drop-out rate for Latinos across the States is 30 per cent, higher than that of African-Americans. ‘If part of this educational deficit is “imported”’, writes Davis, ‘US educational institutions are doing little to raise qualifications of Latinos to the level of other groups.’ The plight of Dominicans, if anything, is even worse, since with their 36 per cent poverty rate in New York they are set to surpass Puerto Ricans as the poorest major ethnic contingent. Those bodegas in East Harlem and beyond 100th Street on Amsterdam Avenue are serviced by Dominican entrepreneurs barely better off than their clientele. Meanwhile, ‘the profoundly underdog Mexican population . . . struggles to survive in the benthic layer of the economy’, hustling as restaurant busboys, deli delivery men, as gypsy construction workers, or as doormen, handymen and janitors in Manhattan’s endless apartment and office blocks.

Davis loves maps and likes to illustrate his arguments with masses of fascinating facts, statistics and census material, drawn from diverse secondary sources. He synthesizes other people’s work in brilliant, innovative ways, converting it into something entirely original which combines breadth of vision with considerable attention to detail. His constant shifts between patterns and processes, between the particular and the general, description and interpretation, between history, geography, sociology, political science, anthropology, ‘Border’ and Latino studies, make hay of disciplinary demarcations. For an Anglo, he also demonstrates remarkable sensitivity toward Latino culture. In ‘Tropicalizing Cold Urban Space’, he writes beautifully about Latino ‘micro-entrepreneurship’ in Los Angeles, recounting the tribulations of the ‘anonymous heroes’ who are fiercely trying to rebuild their new homelands, the ravaged old industrial heartlands, long abandoned by blue-collar Anglos. These de-industrialized tracts sometimes have over 90 per cent Latino concentrations, and smaller barrios have now expanded, spilling into one another, congealing into vast cities within a city. In some of the poorest, like Vernon, Florence and Watts, ‘tired, sad little homes undergo miraculous revivifications: their peeling façades repaired, sagging roofs and porches rebuilt, and yellowing lawns replanted in cacti and azaleas.’ This is pure Mexican and Salvadorean sweat-equity, homeowners who have somehow defied years of ‘redlining’, absentee landlords and civic neglect, pooling together their meagre resources, ‘to restore debilitated neighbourhoods to trim respectability’. Moreover, these homesteaders don’t just stay indoors and watch TV; they’re avid users of public space as well: families socialize in the street and party in public, re-energizing parks, playgrounds and community gardens. So, as Anglos increasingly barricade themselves into single-family homes in ‘cold’ privatized hinterlands, Latinos, Davis maintains, seek ‘a “hotter”, more exuberant urbanism’.

This rebuilding of cities parallels another kind of rebuilding: that of the whole American labour movement, in an emergent urbanization of the Latino work-force catalysed by Los Angeles, ‘the major R & D centre for 21st-century trade unionism’. Rank and file bolshevism has grown into a formidable radical force in the City of Angels. The Service Employees’ Local 1877 has taken on the up-market world of downtown office suites, and battled police brutality in Century City tower blocks and parking lots to secure ‘Justice for Janitors’. Bright-red T-shirted Latino and Latina workers have deployed all manner of rambunctious, creative and aggressive manoeuvres, occupying lobbies, chanting, shouting and banging drums, blocking off major traffic boulevards—and thereby winning union recognition and securing significant pay deals. Meanwhile, the dynamic husband-and-wife duo of Miguel Contreras and Maria-Elena Durazo—who learnt organizing the hard way under the tutelage of César Chávez and now head LA County’s Federation of Labour and Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ Local 11—are prime movers in state and city unionism. With their blessing, low-wage maids, dishwashers and busboys have staged boycotts, flying pickets, raucous street demos and ‘coffee-ins’ in hotel dining rooms, and negotiated new pay and benefit contracts downtown, as well as in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. A lot of workers here have drawn from their experiences in El Salvador and Guatemala, where being a union member often meant not just getting fired but being fired upon, with live ammunition. Such Latino and Latina service employees have quickly gone from being what Davis calls a ‘pariah proletariat’ to becoming the vanguard of a revitalized West Coast labour movement. Little wonder that LA’s rank and file has helped cement a successful metropolitan-wide ‘living wage’ campaign—‘an alternative political economy of the working class’, in Marx’s phrase—coordinated by another talented Latina, Madeline Janis-Aparicio.