In the 1980s, if you wanted to understand the future of cities, you paid a visit to the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. While attending an academic conference, Fredric Jameson noticed how many of his colleagues got lost inside this “postmodern hyperspace.” Here was “a kind of miniature city,” he wrote in the 1984 essay that became the basis for Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Many others agreed, including such famous visitors as Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja, and Jean Baudrillard. From its completion in 1976, the hotel stood for LA’s reinvention as a “world city,” through which Downtown became a major outpost in the global realm of financial dealing, real estate speculation, and elite cultural production. The hotel’s distinctive mirrored facade, labyrinthine layout, and deliberately disorienting design, according to the postmodernists, epitomized the unstable condition of contemporary life.1
But for Mike Davis, the Bonaventure was not a window into some postmodern zeitgeist; instead, the hotel was a battleground in the war between transnational real estate capital and the city’s multiracial working class. Davis—then an editor at the New Left Review (where Jameson’s essay appeared) and the future LA “voice of doom”—found it obscene to write breathlessly about the Bonaventure’s maze of balconies and gondolas and not “the great Hispanic-Asian city outside.”2 In his famous 1990 City of Quartz, Davis warned that LA had become a model “carceral city”—a morass of hostile architecture, surveillance technology, and militarized police—within which the celebrated hotel was a diabolical corporate fortress.
Not all agree. Today, the latest of those taking issue with LA’s more radical critics is historian Sean T. Dempsey, who, in City of Dignity: Christianity, Liberalism, and the Making of Global Los Angeles, follows an ecumenical group of church leaders who fought for the rights of workers, people of color, gay people, and refugees in the decades after 1945. According to Dempsey, Los Angeles is not an archetypal “carceral city,” as Davis and others have argued, but, instead, a “city of dignity” where the arc of history bends toward justice. Such critics, Dempsey contends, have gotten Los Angeles all wrong; they have been “overly focused on the complicity of liberals” in reproducing inequality, mass incarceration, and the deportation machine. Rather than dwell on defeats, Dempsey seeks to recover a usable past—“a glimmer of hope”—for today’s Angelenos working toward progressive social change.
Yet, ultimately, City of Dignity fails to inspire. Dempsey’s Los Angeles is impossible to square with the Dickensian reality of a place where inequality has exploded, the police kill with impunity, and forty thousand people are banished to sleep on the streets. Instead of a rousing call to faith, the book reads more like an apologia: for a compromised politics of “dignity,” for a narrow vision of global justice, and for the liberal power structure that oversees so much immiseration.
City of Dignity begins at the high-water mark of urban liberalism in the US, following how Christian leaders engaged with the civil rights movement between World War II and the Great Society of the 1960s. The first chapter follows Father George Dunne, a Jesuit who assailed racial injustice from the pulpit and from his position at Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount University, where Dempsey teaches). A pioneering voice for “social Christianity,” Dunne denounced segregation as a sin in the pages of Commonweal magazine in 1945. Three years later, he helped overturn California’s ban on interracial marriage.
Yet other events unfolding outside the walls of the church made clear that when it came to changing hearts and minds, Christian leaders were sometimes out of step with their own congregations. In 1964, when Californians voted to overturn the state’s fair housing law against the protests of liberal Christian leaders, it exposed the limits of the latter’s political power amid the growth of the evangelical New Right.
After 1970, demographic shifts and the rise of multicultural politics combined to reorient social Christianity. City of Dignity’s later chapters consider how churches responded to migration from Latin America, the war on drugs, the AIDS epidemic, and the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Christian Angelenos met this period with a “capacious vision of social justice,” linking long-standing concerns over poverty and hunger with protests against homophobia, deportation, and police violence. For Christian activists, these issues were opportunities to prove “that vigorous civic engagement, advocacy, and social ‘witness’ could transform” a deeply unjust city into a beacon of dignity, tolerance, and respect.
While mass migration altered the composition of LA’s churches, Christian leaders also acted upon the emerging global city. Dempsey argues that the church in this period became a “crossroads” for various liberation struggles, including the movements for Black Power, gay rights, and democracy around the world. Most notable is Father Luis Olivares, whose Downtown church offered sanctuary to the poor and the persecuted and solidarity to the revolutions in Central America. In this “transnational crusade against violence, war, and injustice,” Dempsey sees a blueprint for a different kind of Los Angeles.
In a city as unequal as Los Angeles, religious and interfaith organizing has helped to ensure at least a minimum level of dignity and sufficiency for many of those who have been abandoned by the state. City of Dignity shines a light on the Christian leaders who sought to realize a truly just city.
Dempsey’s Los Angeles is impossible to square with the Dickensian reality of a place where inequality has exploded, the police kill with impunity, and forty thousand people are banished to sleep on the streets.
Yet reading the book, one is left wondering about the ability of such movements to effect transformational change. On this point, Dempsey himself seems conflicted. At some moments, his tone is triumphant: liberal churches, he believes, ushered in a more inclusive, tolerant, and world-minded Los Angeles—his titular “city of dignity.” This “diverse and consequential urban social movement,” he argues, succeeded in “bringing the world to Los Angeles.”
Other times, the author is more circumspect. Leaders’ “large-scale efforts” failed, he notes, while “smaller more neighborhood and community-based projects flourished, albeit briefly in many cases.” What matters, according to this more ambivalent assessment, is that liberal Christians were there: that they “occupied a distinct place,” railed against “the worst excesses” of capitalism, and provided “pushback” to “the dynamics of the carceral city.”
What has been the sum total of this “pushback”? As Dempsey observes, Los Angeles today is certainly defined by its “racial, ethnic, and religious pluralism,” but perhaps just as much by its stark “socioeconomic inequality, residential segregation, and lingering racial tensions.” Yet City of Dignity does little to help us resolve the apparent paradox of a city whose liberal, multicultural image masks a violent social order.
What is perhaps most frustrating is the book’s refusal to engage the wealth of critical scholarship on Southern California, except at the most superficial level. In his introduction, Dempsey positions himself against Davis, Donna Murch, Kelly Lytle Hernández, and Max Felker-Kantor—politically committed historians whose collective work he calls at once “necessary” and “grim.” (Even when acknowledging his debt to more radical thinkers, Dempsey does so hurriedly: in the notes, the Latina activist-scholar Laura Pulido’s surname is doubly misspelled as “Polito.”)
Dempsey’s tendency to talk past more critical scholars—especially women of color—points to a broader problem with City of Dignity. Throughout the book, the Angelenos who experienced injustice most directly appear mostly as passive recipients of church leaders’ sympathy, charity, and “advocacy.” It’s an approach that puts City of Dignity at odds with most social history, which seeks to recognize the criminalized and the dispossessed as people with the ability to make sense of their own circumstances—as well as the capacity to change them. It’s this conviction that led Mike Davis to call his hometown a “junkyard of dreams”; or Kelly Lytle Hernández to assemble a “rebel archive” from the traces left by Indigenous people, workers, migrants, prisoners, and revolutionaries.3
Such “grim” histories have always yielded more than a glimmer of hope. At some moments, viewed from the right angle, the brilliant light is almost blinding.
To ask what kind of city Los Angeles is today is, also, to wonder what kind of city it could be tomorrow. For one possible answer, look to the Bonaventure hotel. For years after their initial debate, Davis and Jameson continued their bitter public correspondence. And yet, while they disagreed over the Bonaventure’s meaning, the two urbanists shared one essential idea: if you wanted to glimpse the future, this was the place to look.
On this count, history has proved them right. The building, which in the 1980s was synonymous with the global, postmodern, or carceral city, shape-shifted in the following decade. Amid a severe local recession triggered by the end of the Cold War arms race, LA’s tourism industry ground to a halt. The Bonaventure was purchased by Taiwanese investors, who demanded major concessions from UNITE HERE Local 11 (formerly the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, or HERE).
Local 11 itself was changing: the membership had elected Maria Elena Durazo, a militant organizer whose parents were immigrant farmworkers, to lead them. Durazo and the union defeated management’s demands by directly and publicly confronting the wealth and power concentrated in Downtown LA. They mailed copies of a video, City on the Edge, which exposed the poverty wages in the hotel industry, and warned of LA’s explosive inequality shortly before the 1992 uprising. To publicize the union’s fight locally, Catholic clergy joined a mock funeral procession past the Bonaventure, complete with pallbearers, mariachis, and a worker dressed as Death. For the first time since it opened in 1976, the hotel’s architecture had been upstaged by people whose labor made global Los Angeles work. The union prevailed; management backed down.
The victory at the Bonaventure helped revive Local 11 and changed the course of Los Angeles. In a period defined by free trade and the information economy, the US labor movement appeared destined for irrelevance. Without a strong vehicle for collective self-organization, the best that working people could hope for was the provision of dignity through charity. But along with the better-known Justice for Janitors campaign and more recent teachers’ strikes, hotel and restaurant workers built a militant labor movement committed to winning “common good” demands. In 2004, Local 11 helped secure a “Community Benefits Agreement” at LA’s international airport, securing major investments in both jobs and climate infrastructure for the Black and Latinx communities that had long suffered the airport’s noise and pollution.
In June 2023, as negotiations with the hotel industry wore on, workers including employees at the Bonaventure voted 96 percent yes to authorize a strike. During the Fourth of July weekend, more than 15,000 employees at over 60 hotels walked off the job. Workers at the Bonaventure were not among them: LA’s largest hotel was the first to crack, having reached a deal that includes a significant raise, increased staffing, and protection from discrimination for immigrants and the formerly incarcerated, among other historic gains.
Viewed from this angle, the Bonaventure hotel is not (only) a corporate fortress in a carceral city—as Davis believed—or a postmodern miniworld—as in Jameson’s view. Like the global city itself, the Bonaventure’s meaning has never been fixed in place. But here, and across the city, a struggle continues over how the risks and rewards of the global economy should be distributed.
- Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, no. 146 (1984), pp. 80–81. ↩
- Mike Davis, “Urban Renaissance and the Spirit of Postmodernism,” New Left Review, no. 151 (1985), p. 112. ↩
- Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990; repr., Verso, 2006), pp. 433–80; Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), pp. 199–220. ↩