Friday, November 29, 2013

Did Anthony Bourdain Diss Detroit?

Anthony Bourdain came, saw, spoke brashly, and went on his way. He came to Detroit to film an episode of his popular CNN series "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown." After the segment aired, he had plenty to say concerning his experiences and personal judgment of Detroit and Detroiters. Detroit Free Press writer Sylvia Rector wrote the following describing Bourdain's assessment of our rust-to-riches city:
Anthony Bourdain proves himself to be a romantic, unabashed admirer of Detroit’s history, spirit and resiliency — even as he declares it “utterly screwed” and compares it to Chernobyl...
Bourdain later wrote the following in a Tumblr post:
I love Detroit. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in America—still.
...Detroit looks like nowhere else. Detroit looks like motherfuckin' Detroit. As it should. 
...I love Detroit. I love Detroiters. You’ve got to have a sense of humor to live in a city so relentlessly fucked. You’ve got to be tough—and occasionally even devious. And Detroiters are funny, tough—and supreme improvisers.
Though some Detroiters were slighted by his mishmash of post-visit messages, I think that overall Bourdain left a very positive spin on the city of Detroit. Sure, the first half of Bourdain's show highlighted the usual empty fields and ruin porn, and he even compared Detroit to Chernobyl. He had this to say about his dabble in the porn fields:
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.
In fact, he took things a step further and did some urban exploring inside the notorious abandoned Packard Plant, a place that has become a playground and photography backdrop for locals and curious outsiders. The result is a stunning video for those who are not familiar with the landmark.


Nevertheless, Bourdain's emphasis on ruin porn wasn't all misplaced - in fact, the Phoenix rising from the ashes happens to be our extraordinary story that makes this city such an exceptional place to be right now. Everyone wants to know about, talk about, and understand the Detroit story, from its long history of raging capitalistic successes to its decades of plunder, and ultimately, the city's nosedive into the depths of blight and neglect. The story of discovery and rebirth of this part unknown starts with, yes, images of ruin porn and the lobotomized mass of bedraggled real estate. After all, unlike most anti-Detroit, media naysayers who google and write about the city's woes from behind a computer bearing distorted information, Bourdain came to Detroit and gave the city a shot at redemption.


After the highlight reel of ruin porn and Detroit on the fritz, the episode’s narrative focused on some do-it-yourself and unregulated dining experiences in the D. In fact, I was pleased to see that Bourdain took to attending local dining spots that are not on the government's radar. He visited one of Detroit's many unadvertised, unlicensed, non-restaurant, back-alley pop-ups wherein the locals take to opening up 'illegal' cooking services for willing diners. He also visited a pupusa house in an unlicensed, unregulated home environment. All to the good, and yes, this culture is one of the many components of the ground-up revolt for which Detroit is becoming known.

Bourdain then travelled over to the legit side of dining and visited a firehouse, where cooking great meals is a long-standing tradition. Here, much of his attention focused on the same yawn material: little fire engines that couldn't and all the other dysfunction around the Detroit Fire Department. Mr. Bourdain, 60 Minutes has been there, done that, and only a few weeks ago. [See my article, "60 Minutes is Intellectually Insolvent on its Detroit Doctrine."]

Next up was a visit to Detroit's celebrated, regulated pop-up scene, and one famous pop-up restaurant in particular: Guns + Butter. This is where he couldn’t comprehend how it is that a very talented, young chef, Craig Lieckfelt, has chosen to make himself a hangout here in Detroit, where his pop-up quickly became the hardest spot in town to get a reservation. Said Bourdain:
This guy could be running a 300-seat restaurant in Vegas, but here he is, in Detroit. 
He calls that both heroic and a foolhardy adventure. He can’t seem to fully appreciate why a first-rate chef would give up the conventional career path to come to Detroit. Chef Lieckfelt is a Detroit native, and he returned to his hometown after a stint in New York City. He plans on establishing a permanent restaurant in Detroit.

Along those lines, Bourdain can’t seem to understand how Lieckfelt’s restaurant “benefits Detroit.” Does a restaurant - or any other service-oriented business - need a special purpose for benefitting its customers because it is located in Detroit? All market services exist because they benefit customers and fetch a profit for the entrepreneur. But Las Vegas versus Detroit? Could there be a more flawed comparison?

While I certainly understand the conventional path of making dough and obtaining mainstream prominence, Las Vegas is a one-pony town that possesses no remarkable culture or historical appeal whatsoever. It's a gaming and entertainment climate where people go to blow off steam and blow out of town. Good for Lieckfelt for bypassing the nauseating ethos of Vegas and the orthodox path of New York to sink his roots in the rebirth of his hometown as a prominent chef. That’s a risk that this entrepreneur is willing to take to reap future benefits. In fact, Lieckfelt's non-conventional success has recently led him to import his talent to Los Angeles, where Guns + Butter popped up in the Roosevelt Hotel's Spare Room.

Bourdain also harped a bit too much on “political leadership,” not quite understanding how Detroit can be thriving in spite of not having a sound, local government in place to plan and coordinate all of the great happenings. Finally, Bourdain paid a visit to the Detroit Mower Gang, a group that voluntarily mows vacant areas and parks to increase the usefulness of public space that the city government abandoned long ago. So again, he touched on multiple elements of Detroit's community participation that undergirds the more visible features of the renewal.

After the show aired, the Detroit Free Press published an article that displayed Detroiter reactions to Bourdain's take on our city, and mostly, they all reflect the same thesis I use consistently in my Detroit: From Rust to Riches blog: Bourdain and crew did not do an appreciable job of showing the larger scope positives of the city and what is actually attracting people here in the first place. People are coming here to be a part of the resurgence of entrepreneurial and community ventures that are at the core of this city's return to prominence.

A friend of mine who returned to Michigan - and specifically downtown Detroit - after nineteen years in Manhattan noted that what she sees now in Detroit "is what Tribeca looked like 25 years ago." In the end, Bourdain understands this reality. He gets it. He has acknowledged this city’s urban renaissance and understands the influx of innovators and the creative set, and how that gradually leads to investment and density at the urban core.

The media is getting closer to the facts with each story they pull out of the Detroit hat, and that is encouraging enough that we Detroiters should welcome those who spend enough time here to try to deliver an authentic story from the trenches.


  1. Dear Ms. DeCoster,

    Love Detroit's renewed vitality, spontaneously arising from government "neglect."

    But as soon as Detroit returns to life as an unintended result of all that government "neglect," won't government "concern" restart the process of strangling Detroit to death all over again?

    Until a critical mass of the public disabuses itself of the Myth of Authority, I can't help remaining a little nervous about our future.

  2. Bevin -- that is the struggle, indeed. As the feds start to throw their $$$ this way, we start to walk toward that path of central planning once again. However, the theme remains that this vitality still goes on *in spite of* the attempts to lasso Detroit. It will move forward in parallel to anything the feds attempt to do to strangle the runaway market activity. They can't shut down the renaissance of people, ideas, and private dollars.

  3. A couple of things struck me. The Mower Gang. Doing things for the community that benefits the community from the members of that community. With no outside help. It helps give the people a sense, we own this collectively and need to take care of things collectively. Sure there is nothing wrong with making a few bucks, but , we are all in this together, a lot more than some want to believe.

    Another point. We dont need "SOUND GOVERNMENT" we need sound, down to earth people in Government. NO politicians playing both sides against the middle. Way to often today, we want both our cake and to eat it to. You cant have things both ways.

    What ever happened to " The good of the many , out weight the needs of the one ? "
    Once you get people involved in anything, Church, local Gardening club, the whole area benefits.

    The People of Detroit own Detroit. Not the politicians, certainly not the Federal Government. Too darned many strings attached with their money. Way to many.

  4. Detroit is all too likely a microcosm of the United States of America in 20 or 30 years. I suspect that the primary reason Detroit has transitioned from what it was to what it is now is that, unlike the Federal Government, Detroit does not have a printing press at its disposal to prop up an economy that spends more than it takes in. Unfortunately, there are very real limits to how long deficit spending can postpone the inevitable economic collapse that occurs when fiat currency is seen for what it really is.

  5. We'll know Detroit and America have recovered when Bourdain and other refrain from gratuitous profanities. I was born in Detroit in 1955 and have fond memories of it from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Back then, Bourdain's Mom would have washed out his mouth with soap no matter what age he was.

  6. My impression of Bourdain over the years has been one of a total ass with occasional entertainment value. He'll take a preconceived notion (of his own superiority) and manufacture something to prove it. I have my own personal vibe of both Detroit and Las Vegas from when I was in both cities. Las Vegas gives off the transparent vibe of "skinning the rubes". Detroit has the deep underground vibe of a great industrial engine barely running but with great potential of roaring back to life.