Anthony Bourdain speaks plainly when he talks about Detroit. It’s beautiful, he says, but it’s a sinkhole. A city on fire.
“It is post-apocalyptic. I mean, it’s like a science-fiction film. What the hell happened here?” a seemingly astonished Bourdain asks on his “Parts Unknown” episode about the city.
The season finale of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” about Detroit will run at 9 p.m. Sunday on CNN. Bourdain, the noted chef, writer and brutal commentator, uses the show to take “incredible adventures to extraordinary locations,” including Sicily, Tokyo and Copenhagen. (I received a copy of the show in advance; it is what is known as a “screener” for media. I received approval to write about it before it airs.)
So why Detroit? Bourdain has been here before; he knows the city’s food, faces and failures. Yet he loves it – that much is clear. He sees throughout the broadcast the horrors of the burned-down houses, the empty factories, the vacant landscapes. Yet he seems drawn to the drama, the stubborn resolution of its residents and its entrepreneurial self-starters.
Let me say that if you come to this show expecting Bourdain to tiptoe around the obvious (empty shells of buildings and homes), then you’re going to be bitter and angry by the first commercial break. If you think he’s going to talk to anyone wearing a tie, suit coat or blazer, then you don’t know anything about how Bourdain works. He talks to plain, regular people. He swears a lot. He eats a lot. And he pretty much says exactly what he thinks, without a filter.
Most importantly, if you want to see the shiny side of Detroit, don’t watch. There’s very little of the downtown here. There’s absolutely no Midtown. You won’t see a retail store or high-tech office suite. Don’t tell your friends to watch if you want to show off the city’s lofts, restaurants (save Guns + Butter, but more on that later) or artist galleries – those places take second place to the hard-core truths about Detroit…that it has a lot of land, few residents, poor management, no finances.
Bourdain himself writes on the CNN blog associated with his show that he found the Detroit he wanted.
“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.”
The show starts with grainy, gray footage of Detroit during what seems like the 1950s with this voiceover: “Detroit’s the city of champions. The whole world knows that Detroit is the American city whose products have revolutionized our way of living. And only in Michigan will you find the men and women whose talent made us the arsenal of democracy in wartime and the economic pacesetter in peacetime.” Under these words, you see men and women working in factories, big highways, skyscrapers.
Then, with what sounds like a bomb dropping, the visual changes. It goes to a single house, broken and shattered. Trees and brush grows wildly. A man walks past it, never noticing the decay. BOOM. There’s your introduction to Detroit. We see the problems, but we don’t see them, either.
And in the first segment of the show, the viewer sees everything that is wrong with the city. Fields filled with weeds. Everything has gone back to the wild. Hideous hulks of houses that once held the families of local business magnates.
The opening line? “It’s where nearly everything American and great came from. The things the whole world wanted, made here,” Bourdain notes. But it’s also the same place where you can buy a skyscraper’s worth of office space for just $5 million. He adds that you couldn’t get a garage in the Hamptons for that much.
His tour guide is Charlie LeDuff, the Channel 2 reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. They visit the usual haunt: The Packard Plant. Later, they’ll see the Detroit Fire Department and enjoy several meals together at backyard barbecues and the high-end, fine-dining pop-up Guns + Butter. But, for Act One, it’s the Packard. Again.
The images selected for the broadcast are stark. Uninhabitable structures. Gaping holes in buildings. Wood piled up on gray, dusty floors. The camera slowly pans the Packard Plant. Then, the next scene shows raindrops falling into a puddle just outside. (Rain = sadness. Film Theory 101.)
“It’s hard to look away from the ruin…boundless dreams of the day left to rot,” the disembodied voice says.
The sad violin music that accompanies these moments is like something out of “Saving Private Ryan.” You’re pretty sure someone is going to die in the next scene. Luckily, Bourdain leaves out the crime stats. He focuses instead on defining “urban exploring,” or “sifting through the remains of Detroit’s great American ongoing tragedy.”
And this is just the first 10 minutes.
Then, he eats a coney dog at Duly’s Place. It taste great; in fact, he says it has a delicate interplay with its ingredients similar to a symphony. Then comes additional images of decay – a hole in a sign, an abandoned boat. Detroit’s empty structures, lit up like Roman ruins, come next.
And then there’s the first commercial break.
The rest of the show is devoted to eating and cooking, two things Bourdain does well. He talks to people about the messed-up politics. He visits Squad Three of the Detroit Fire Department and breaks bread with the firefighters. He hangs out with fedora-wearing hipsters at Guns + Butter. He eats Salvadorian greatness at a home-based restaurant (where he drinks Vernors to gain some “street cred.”) He meets the Mower Gang and helps clear a Detroit park of its tall grass. He visits D-Town Farm, an urban garden. And then there are more images of liquor stores, “ghost gardens” and empty houses.
“Is Detroit going to turn things around? I could lie and tell you, ‘Yes,’” Bourdain narrates. And then he goes on to compare the city to Chernobyl.
For anyone living in Michigan, here’s the honest truth: There’s very little to love about this episode of “Parts Unknown.” You won’t walk away thinking Detroit is America’s turnaround city. You, like Bourdain, may marvel at your resilience to live, work and love here. He does add toward the end that Detroit will come back because it is too beautiful to crumble, and that this is not just a Detroit issue…It is an American issue.
Then, as the end credits roll, you see block after block of those dead houses. Dead trees. Crickets.
On his blog about the show, Bourdain writes, “So this show is not about what went wrong, or how bad things are. It’s about improvisers. About what it takes to dig in and stay. I hope, that even among ruins, audiences will see what I see: an extraordinarily beautiful city – unlike any other in America – still.”
Is it beautiful? Is it my Detroit, the one I’ve created and carefully edited in my own way? No. But it is Detroit.