Detroit — November 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Anthony Bourdain comes to Detroit and finds it’s mostly white people


C’mon, it’s not that hard to find black people in Detroit…

[Photo credit: Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]

I want to start off by saying that I think Anthony Bourdain’s CNN program “Parts Unkown” is some of the best programming on television right now. From the insanely high-quality and artful videography to Bourdain’s ability to capture the heart and soul of places like Hong Kong all the way to our very own Detroit, we should all wish that television was comprised mainly of programs with this level of quality. Sadly, that’s far from the case.

Last night, Bourdain aired an episode featuring his visit to the Motor City. Filmed last summer, he came during the upheaval of bankruptcy and the takeover of the city by the state government. I was both delighted with the show and disappointed by it, as well.

I loved that Bourdain captured the gritty resilience of Detroiters and that, though he showed it in all its catastrophic splendor, he didn’t overly-glamorize the ruin porn we’ve come to expect from shows about Motown. Here’s a bit of what he had to say about Detroit and its residents:

The last episode of our second season of “Parts Unknown.”

And I’m glad it’s set in Detroit. Because Detroit, for many Americans, is an abstraction — truly, if incredibly, a part unknown.

One only need look at some of our representatives, who, a while back, were actually suggesting it might be OK to let the beleaguered auto industry fend for itself, to leave Detroit to its fate to see how blithely willing much of America would be to point the gun straight at their own heads and pull the trigger.

Detroit isn’t just a national treasure. It IS America. And wherever you may live, you wouldn’t be there — and wouldn’t be who you are in the same way — without Detroit.

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.

These aren’t just empty buildings — they’re monuments. And we shot them, illuminated them like monuments, with, I hope, the same respect as the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the remains of a magnificent — if ancient — civilization. […]

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.

It’s where so many of our uniquely American hopes and dreams were forged — the things that make us who we are: the automobile, the highway — the dream of mobility — for ALL Americans. Credit. Music. It’s where the American dream was created. And it’s STILL the American dream — if a different one that we are, all of us, together, sooner or later, going to have to figure out.

Detroit is shrinking.

And changing.

The artists and innovators, activists, and artisans, who are coming in will no doubt, do much to transform the city — mostly in very positive ways.

But who will live in the Detroit of 25 years in the future?

It will still be beautiful. That’s for sure.

It will certainly be smaller.

But will all the tough bastards who stuck it out for so long — against ridiculous odds — who fought and continue to fight for their neighborhoods and their homes — will they still be there?

Those who watch this show, smugly thinking, “that could never happen to my city” are dreaming. Detroit’s problems are America’s problems.

There’s more in his trailer for this episode:

But, watching the show, there was something glaringly missing: African American Detroiters. Of the many segments to this episode, only a couple featured black Detroiters. The part about Greedy Greg’s was splendid and his chat with Malik Yakini from D-Town Farms was inspiring. Other than that, though, you might come away thinking Detroit was populated mainly by white people. Even his main tour guide, Charlie LeDuff, was white. Besides that, what LeDuff knows about cuisine, even in Detroit, barely warranted his role on the show. I like LeDuff well enough, but he is clearly no culinary expert, in Detroit or elsewhere.

According to 2010 census data, Detroit is 82.7% African American. The city has countless restaurants, diners, and other food establishments owned & run by and catering to black Detroiters. Restaurants like COLORS, founded on the very “Detroit” principals of social justice and the idea that people should be paid a fair wage for a days’ work, were entirely missing, as were the faces of the people who keep them going.

When Bourdain talks about the survivors in Detroit, about the tenacious people that have toughed it out and stayed in the city while it was being hollowed out by white flight and the collapse of its manufacturing base, he’s speaking primarily about black Detroiters. These are the people who have been most heavily and most negatively impacted by events of the past couple of decades and who are working the hardest to bring Detroit back again. Unfortunately, with a couple of exceptions like Greedy Greg’s and the D-Town Farms, these voices and faces were bizarrely absent from last night’s program.

Overall, I think Bourdain captured the spirit of Detroit very well. I only wish he would have allowed the people whose story he was telling to be a more prominent part of the story telling. That would have the tale richer and more accurate.

There are survivors in Detroit, people who fight the good fight every single day, and the vast majority of them are black. I just can’t understand how he missed them.