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Dreams and reality

Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US City by Mike Davis. Verso, 2000. 174pp. £12

Macondo, the village in Gabriel Garcia Marquez'One Hundred Years of Solitude, is an extraordinary place: flying carpets abound, the dead remain in conversation with the living, and a priest levitates by means of chocolate. Amid this 'Magical Realism' the village becomes an industrialised township, as scientific instruments arrive and the railway brings a banana company.

The title of Magical Urbanism is inspired by a literary movement, in which Marquez' books are pre-eminent, but the 'realism' of American cities has none of the magic or joy of his fictions. Davis' short book, about the impact of Latino populations on American cities, is often a depressing read

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Davis makes much of the idea that people of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban descent could be the 'sleeping dragon' of American politics. In 1996 Latinos overtook African-Americans as the second largest ethic group in New York City, and he estimates that by 2025 they will make up 43 per cent of the Californian population.

Despite this demography, Davis paints a picture in which Latinos have very little political or planning power in their cities, while on the frontier with Mexico, in labour battles, and in relation to the police, they are routinely repressed. Indeed, his subtitle 'Latinos Reinvent the US City' seems to overstate the possibility of action for a community that is all but impotent.

In his previous books - City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear - Davis has documented the relationship between popular culture (notably films) and architecture, mostly of Los Angeles. But as Latinos have not had sufficient influence so far to really shape the American city, this book becomes more of a hardedged polemic than the cultural histories of his earlier works.

Within this there are glimmers of a different future. In the blue-collar Los Angeles suburb Huntington Park, Latinos have restored a run-down high-street - previously only populated by thrift stores and flop-houses - to its former Art Deco glory, and have made the space into the heart of Mexican culture in southern California. In New York, Tucson and Denver, similar Latino quarters are being formed.

Moreover, grand Latino urban visions are being pioneered. Bario Planners, a Los Angeles urban design company, boldly proposed to retro-fit the Los Angeles neighbourhoods with small plazas, each of which would be a stage for local identity. Their concept - under-pinned with the slogan 'Let a hundred placitas bloom!'- was to reshape urban space to celebrate Mexican culture. Despite the planners rejecting the proposal and allowing private speculators to create 2,000 mini-malls (ironically mostly in Taco-Bell Moderne style), this example does provide a distinctly Latino blueprint for urban space once the dragon awakes.

Until then Magical Urbanism adds to Davis'near definitive studies of the American city and the dreams and cultures that it inspires and crushes. It is a pity that the hope and wonder promised by the title is unavailable, either in the text or in reality.

Adam Wishart produced Trouble at the Big Top for the BBC

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