Llano Del Rio: excerpts from Mike Davis's "City of Quartz," 1990, pp. 3-11
The best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future. Standing on the sturdy cobblestone foundations of the General Assembly Hall of the Socialist city of Llano del Rio–Open Shop Los Angeles’s utopian antipode–you can sometimes watch the Space Shuttle in its elegant final descent towards Rogers Dry Lake…Closer at hand, across a few miles of creosote and burro bush, and the occasional grove of that astonishing yucca, the Joshua tree, is the advance guard of approaching suburbia, tract homes on point.
The desert around Llano has been prepared like a virgin bride for its eventual union with the Metropolis: hundreds of square miles of vacant space engridded to accept the future millions, with strange, prophetic street signs marking phantom intersections like ‘250th Street and Avenue K’.
Class war and repression are said to have driven the Los Angeles Socialists into the desert. But they also came eagerly, wanting to taste the sweet fruit of cooperative labor in their own lifetimes. As Job Harriman, who came within a hair’s-breadth of being Los Angeles’s first Socialist mayor in 1911, explained: 'It became apparent to me that a people would never abandon their means of livelihood, good or bad, capitalistic or otherwise, until other methods were developed which would promise advantages at least as good as those by which they were living.’ What Llano promised was a guaranteed $4 per day wage and a chance to 'show the world a trick they do not know, which is how to live without war or interest or money or rent on land or profiteering in any manner’.
In the spirit of Chautauqua as much as Marx, Llano was also one big Red School House. While babies (including Bella Lewitzky, the future modern dancer) played in the nursery, children (among them Gregory Ain, the future modern architect) attended Southern California’s first Montessori school. The teenagers, meanwhile, had their own Kid Kolony (a model industrial school), and adults attended night classes or enjoyed the Mojave’s largest library. One of the favorite evening pastimes apart from dancing to the colony’s notorious ragtime orchestra, was debating Alice Constance Austin’s design for the Socialist City that Llano was to become.
Llano began to fall apart in the later half of 1917. Plagued by internal feuding between the General Assembly and the so-called 'brush gang’, the colony was assailed from the outside by creditors, draft boards, jealous neighbors, and the Los Angeles Times. After the loss of Llano’s water rights in a lawsuit–a devastating blow to its irrigation infrastructure–Harriman and a minority of colonists relocated in 1918 to Louisiana, where a hard-scrabble New Llano (a pale shadow of the original) hung on until 1939. Within twenty-four hours of the colonists’ departure, local ranchers began to demolish its dormitories and workshops, evidently with the intention of erasing any trace of the red menace. But Llano’s towering silo, cow byre, and the cobblestone foundation and twin fireplaces of its Assembly Hall, proved indestructible: as local patriotic fury subsided, they became romantic landmarks ascribed to increasingly mythic circumstances.
Now and then, a philosophical temperament, struggling with the huge paradox of Southern California, rediscovers Llano as the talisman of a future lost. Thus Aldous Huxley, who lived for a few years in the early 1940s in a former Llano ranch house overlooking the colony’s cemetery, liked to meditate 'in the almost supernatural silence’ on the fate of utopia. He ultimately came to the conclusion that the Socialist City was a 'pathetic little Oymandias’, doomed form the start by Harriman’s 'Gladstone collar’ and his 'Pickwickian’ misunderstanding of human nature–whose history 'except in a purely negative way…is sadly uninstructive.’
Llano’s other occasional visitors, lacking Huxley’s vedic cynicism, have generally been more charitable. After the debacle of the 1960s-70s communitarianism (especially the deadly trail that led into the Guyanese jungle), the pear trees planted by this ragtime utopia seem a more impressive accomplishment. Moreover, as its most recent historians point out, Huxley grossly underestimated the negative impact of wartime xenophobia and the spleen of the Los Angeles Times upon Llano’s viability. There but for fortune (and Harry Chandler), perhaps, would stand a brave red kibbutz in the Mojave today, canvassing votes for Jesse Jackson and protecting Joshuas from bulldozers.
On May Day 1990 I returned to the ruins of Llano del Rio to see if the walls would talk to me. Instead I found the Socialist City reinhabited by two twenty-year-old building laborers from El Salvador, camped out int he ruins of the old dairy and eager to talk with me in our mutually broken tongues…We talked about the weather for a while, then I asked them what they thought about Los Angeles, a city without boundaries, which ate the desert, cut down the Joshua and the May Pole, and dreamt of becoming infinite…One of them argued that it was better to stay out in the open whenever possible, preferably here in the desert, away from the center. He compared L.A. and Mexico City (which he knew well) to volcanoes, spilling wreckage and desire in ever-widening circles over a denuded countryside. It is never wise, he averred, to live too near a volcano. 'The old gringo socialistas had the right idea.’
I agreed, even though I knew it was too late to move, or to refound Llano.