Magical Urbanism - Book Reivew

Mike Davis adds to his prolific output concerning Southern California history, especially his attention to Latino immigration and urban life. While this book may be less angry then Davis' City of Quartz it is not much less polemical. In Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City, Davis argues that the new influx of Latino immigrants is remaking/reimagining cities in ways both similar and different to preceding waves of newcomers. Technology, transformation, and the mobility of labor all contribute to the creation of new transnational communities and identities that both confound and fascinate observers like Davis.

Mexico and the American Southwest radically changed in 1980s and 1990s

Economic and political developments of the 1980s and 1990s ushered in demographic changes on both sides of the Mexican-US border. In many ways, the border space itself transformed into its own unique cultural space, altering aspects of the American Southwest and the interior of Mexico simultaneously. For example, the border industrialization that first gathered momentum in the 1960s pushed many Mexicans toward not only America but also Mexico's northern border. Women especially found work in maquiladoras, while new transnational suburbs such as Chula Vista housed the managerial classes operating the border factories.

Davis notes that NAFTA did not just affect Canadian-US-Mexican economic relations but also significantly increased Asian investment in the region. The influx of Asian capital created new factories that courted Mexican labor and consumers. Few other regions facilitated the Latino-Asian interface to the extent of the border region. One troubling aspect of industrial developments along the border but also urban America reveals "immigrant social networks" that often depend on the "super-exploitation of women," reinforcing traditional gender roles. Violence toward women has been an especially notable development in the maquiladora region.

Davis points out that many working-class Latinos have occupied formerly working-class white suburbs such as South Gate [think My Blue Heaven]. Additionally, as many have found in New York's housing market, immigrant homeownership and housing starts have served as an economic catalyst for many urban regions. A little-noted insight into such growth reveals that Black homeowners benefit significantly from such racial succession, "the insatiable immigrant demand for family housing has allowed older African American residents to reap unexpected gains in home sales …" (52). Dilapidated neighborhoods now bustle with economic, social and political activity. Without Latino immigration into the nation's cities, economies would diminish, and populations decline.

Patterns of Immigrations between US and Mexico altered

Transportation and technological innovations alter the traditional pattern of immigration. The ability to send remittances over long distances serves to support the economies of various nations such as Mexico. The example of Redwood City, where Mexican residents remit wages back to their hometown in which to construct infrastructure, illustrates this unique facet of globalization. Technology also means a reorientation of ethnic and class identities. If the Latino residents of Redwood City occupy working-class status in America, their contributions to economic development in Mexico marks them as "dons" or significant players in their respective hometowns.

Moreover, dual citizenship and the ability to vote in national elections despite physically residing in the United States magnifies this new transnational identity and influence. However, the growth of sister cities like TJ/SD have not proceeded equally. Though Tijuana's demographic remains significant, its infrastructure continues to lag well behind population expansion.

How did cities react to influx of Latinos?

Still, Davis and others see problems in how American municipalities and the nation itself responds to Latino demographic change. Davis deconstructs the various border methods used by authorities to make immigration more difficult. These methods included the construction of ten-lane highways near the border to zoning laws that limit social and economic activities in the homes of Latinos. City ordinances that restricted the use of public spaces to specific hours or charging fees for park usage were designed to discourage Latino civil presence.

The media seems only to highlight the adverse events that occur in regard to Latino immigration as in the case of Woods and S.O.S. A 1990s repetition of the Sleepy Lagoon case, media outlets from the conservative Orange Country Register to the Los Angeles Times unfairly portrayed Latino residents as welfare recipients and gang members. White Orange County's reaction to the Woods incidents seemed to be anchored in racial mistrust and demonization.

In most cases, Latinos remain underrepresented in municipal, state, and federal governments. Lack of education, racism, immigration status, and the inability or the prevention of Latinos from exploiting the growing technological labor markets have retarded economic and political advances. Worse, in a situation that seems to parallel the fortunes of the African American community in the 1970s and 1980s, Latinos and Asians inherit the "hollow prize" of municipal control just as federal and state monies shrink while deindustrialization (and demilitarization in places such as SoCal) robs blue-collar workers of employment.

As well, several mayors, most notably Richard Daley, have co-opted Latino populations at the expense of African Americans, which furthers antagonisms between the two communities, preventing more fruitful unified political action. Even worse, as Davis suggests except for Chicago, it remains unclear if Latinos gain any economic or political advantages from such alliances.

Urban education, long in shambles, also trapped Latinos. Latinos faced the unfair demonization of bilingual education. Davis suggested that bilingual education and that its success depended on teacher quality and implementation more than any flaw in its actual premise. Rising higher education costs, including those of community colleges, remain out of reach for many Latino workers. The lack of commitment to urban education and the proliferation of inexperienced, unprepared educators continue to limit student success.

For example, per capita, student investment in California has declined in recent years. The emergence of a public sphere that denigrates Latinos, as previously mentioned, did not limit itself to media and protest movements like S.O.S. Prop 227 [English Only] and 187 furthered such discourse. Davis argues that 227 "was about reinstitutionalizing discrimination and legalizing the deprivation of knowledge and educational opportunity. The proposition sanctions the rejection of Latino culture and our language in society and public schools." (128)

How does Davis envision a brighter future? Vigorous trade union activity such as that of the SEIU's "Justice for Janitors" and activities serve as Davis' hope. Unions have traditionally not adequately reached out to Latino workers. Still, a unified multi-ethnic/racial alliance might reinvigorate trade unionism. Davis' point seems somewhat dubious because union membership has been consistently shrinking for decades. Perhaps David is successful at highlighting the greater potential for cities such as LA, Chicago, NY, S.F. rather than other less union oriented cities.


One problem with Magical Urbanism stems from its occasional dip into essentialism or something akin to essentialism. For example, Davis posits the following, "Latin American immigrants and their children, perhaps more than any other element in the population, exult in playgrounds, parks, squares, libraries and other endangered species of U.S. public space, and thus form one of the most important constituencies for the preservation of urban culture." (55) Does one wonder how this is proved?

Moreover, most urban communities enjoy public spaces; determining the hierarchy of who likes it "most" seems problematic, especially since cities such as Chicago and N.Y. In recent years, cities have expanded public space enormously, but the hope that such "green spaces" might lure back the middle classes.

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