Battle Rages Over Anthony Bourdain's Portrayal of Detroit On CNN

November 11, 2013, 7:06 AM

Renowned chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain visit to Detroit in the season-finale of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” has ignited a battle royale over the way he portrayed the city to his international audience. 

From fine dining to fire station cuisine, Bourdain "showcased a range of local eats while exploring the city in July," notes Tony Briscoe in The Detroit News. One of his constant companions was Fox 2's Charlie LeDuff, who at one point poured gin into his soup, prompting Bourdain to tell him if he had done that when Bourdain was a chef he would have stabbed him in the neck with a fork.

"The hour-long show also highlighted Detroit problems, including blight and lack of resources in yet another national look triggered by the bankruptcy filing. Bourdain’s piece comes weeks after a “60 Minutes” piece aired a similar look at Detroit’s decline."

While Bourdain said Detroit was "screwed," and compared the city to the nuclear-ravaged Russian city of Chernobyl, he added: "You have to admire the bold, proud, ferociously enterprising survivors who have decided to hang on, hang in and figure out a way to not only survive, but do something extraordinary."

A discussion thread on Reddit has 60 mainly disappointed comments.

One major complaint: While Bourdain paid a lengthy visit to the Packard Plant, the well known food emporium on Detroit's East Side, he managed to miss Eastern Market, one of the nation's largest outdoor food shopping centers.

"I feel like I'm at a funeral for a person you didn't know personally but had great respect for," one person tweeted during the show, as reported on a compilation of social media reaction in the Free Press.

Kim Trent, a member of the Wayne State Board of Governors, posted a complaint on Facebook:

If I lived somewhere else in America and watched Anthony Bourdain’s show about Detroit last night I would think folks are insane for living here. He literally did not show ONE neighborhood where blight doesn’t rule the day. I get that stark visual images are sexy to national media outlets and I’m not delusional about the fact that many of the city’s neighborhoods are in horrible shape.

But do you really think 700,000 people would live in a city where the only neighborhood choices are: 1. Blighted urban prairies or 2.Hipster strongholds? The show is allegedly about culinary tourism. What the hell does the Packard Plant have to do with food? How about a segment on Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, America’s oldest jazz supper club? Baker’s is surrounded by Detroit’s most stable neighborhood – a beautiful neighborhood – so I guess it doesn’t fit into the “Detroit as a falling down wreck” narrative. How about a piece about the new vegan soul food restaurant in West Village? I’m not going to deny that Bourdain’s piece was interesting. But I cannot handle the Charlie LeDuffication of Detroit’s media image. LeDuff said middle-class blacks abandoned the city. Go tell that to people who live in Rosedale Park, University District, Sherwood Forest, East English Village, etc. We’re still here and I’m getting a little tired of being ignored by folks who get paid to tell Detroit’s story.

Briscoe reports Bourdain visited some of the city’s well-known downtown restaurants before venturing to less fancy digs like roadside barbecue stand Greedy Greg’s, which had a simple six-item menu written with a black marker. Next was an underground pupusa, a Salvadorian restaurant in someone’s home (the camera didn’t show the cook’s face to shield the unlicensed owners' identity.)

Free Press editorial writer Nancy Kaffer posted that she understands why the ruins must be shown, but had some suggestions:

I think it would have been cool if he had gone to a private dinner in someone's really great house. Showing devastation is legit - there's certainly plenty of it, and I'm not one who thinks that pretending it's not there, or that it's not damaging both physically and psychologically, is particularly helpful - but as Kim Trent said, 700k people wouldn't live in Detroit if it was all scrabbling out a living in a little urban prairie homestead. Having a private dinner cooked by someone badass at a swanky home would have been a nice flip. Also, as a tour guide? John Carlisle. 

Bourdain clearly liked Detroit, and praised it enthusiastically during the show and in an essay on the CNN website. And he performed a mea culpa for the attention he paid to the crumbling city:

Detroiters hate what they call "ruin porn." And it's understandable, the unease and even anger, that must come with seeing tourists, gawkers, (and television crews) come to your city to pose giddily in front of abandoned factories, public buildings, the symbols of former empire.

I, too, I'm afraid, am guilty of wallowing in ruin porn, of making sure we pointed our cameras, lingered even, in the waist-high grass, overgrown gardens, abandoned mansions, crumbling towers, denuded neighborhoods of what was once an all-powerful metropolis, the engine of capitalism.

But there was no turning away. It's there -- everywhere you look, right in your face, taking up skyline, dead center: the things that were left after Everything Went Terribly Wrong.

Vaughn Derderian, of the Anchor Bar, writes on Facebook:

Detroiters want validation for their decision to still be in Detroit. That's why things like Parts Unknown can sting so badly. It's not that Bourdain wasn't complimentary to the city and its cuisine, it's that he repeatedly pointed out that:

a) Things aren't automatically going to get better.

b) Things as they stand are actually pretty bad, and possibly getting worse.

c) Living in and staying in Detroit is, on the face of things, a pretty insane decision given the above two factors.

Obviously, I don't feel the same way, and I'd imagine that most of my friends don't, either. Bourdain, however, is an outsider looking in, and from his point of view, there are an infinite number of other places that are more attractive to be. Even as he recognizes the good and awesome things going on here, and the amazing people who live here, the dominant story of Detroit right now is that the city is and has been dysfunctional for decades. Bourdain might not have offered validation for people's decision to still be here, but he firmly drove home the simple fact that, right now, here is a pretty screwed up place.

Read more:  The Detroit News

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