Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bourdain's Detroit: An Unfinished Story

Flowers reaching for the sun in Detroit. Photo by A. Burtka

Points of view. Biases. Misperceptions. Truths.  Everyone’s narrative is shaped by all of these. They blend. They diverge. They contradict. But in the end, every story is skewed by the lens through which it is seen.

Detroit has several million narratives, the narratives of those who live in the city, those who live in the suburbs and those who used to live there. Even commentators who “parachute in” from the coasts with preconceived notions of a city in ruin craft their own narratives, even though they are horribly shaped by their own personal biases.

After Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode aired, the internet exploded with knee-jerk reactions, positive and negative, to the show. I sat on my couch stunned. I was not surprised by anything the show revealed, except for maybe the ghost gardens growing in yards where families had not lived for decades. I thought to myself that I needed to digest the show for a few days before being able to summarize my feelings about it, but nearly a week later, I am still dumbfounded.

Digesting this show, more than any other exposé on Detroit, is as difficult as digesting the entire history of the city. My stomach cannot handle the history of Detroit in one sitting. I can nibble off a piece here and there, but I quickly become full and have to turn to something else.

Although I did not grow up in the city, I was born there and grew up in its suburbs. My mom did grow up in the city, and her schools and church are now long gone, but the street she grew up on is still there. My grandparents moved to the city and this street in search of the abundant opportunities that Detroit offered.

My grandma loved to garden, and I think of her planting flowers, trees or bushes in the family’s yard on Bangor Street in the 1950s. My grandma passed away a decade ago in her native Pennsylvania, and I now wonder if her memory lives on in a ghost garden in Detroit…something I never considered before the Detroit episode of Parts Unknown. It is painful to think that something she once cared for and nourished may still be living and yet I have never seen it because I have never set my eyes upon my mom’s old street.

I believe knowing your history, especially knowing what went wrong, is important and not to be ignored. Like any Detroiter, I am offended by “ruin porn” that merely exists to sell a story that Detroit is dead. It is unproductive and is insulting to the many people who live in Detroit and the many more who still love it and consider it home. Showing an abandoned building or burned out house does not offend me if the blight is offered in a constructive manner that reflects on what went wrong, but also what can  be done to make things right.

Like any narrative, Bourdain’s show contained nuggets of truth but did not tell the whole story. The footage of the Packard Plant and the abandoned buildings are truths that punch you in the gut harder than any blow from Joe Louis. Bourdain did say Detroit was “screwed” over and over again, but unlike some commentators’ jabs, it did not feel like an insult. It felt as if Bourdain truly felt the pain of a city that has been continually knocked to the ground but that keeps getting up saying, “Is that all you’ve got?”

Bourdain did not focus on Midtown and Downtown as many hoped he would, but those are the more well-known parts of Detroit that are flourishing. He took his viewers to actual neighborhoods where actual Detroiters live, and he did give us Chef Craig Lieckfelt who loved Detroit enough to do the unthinkable of leaving a world of opportunity in New York to come back to his hometown. There are many more doing what Lieckfelt did, and Bourdain unfortunately missed out on them.

It’s easy to understand the knee-jerk reactions about the show from Detroiters because each reaction is valid in its own right. Each was the composite of an individual’s points of view, biases, misperceptions and truths. Detroiters know the truth more than the rest of us, but even Detroiters do not agree on what the truth is. The important thing is that the past is not accepted as the narrative for the future. What’s done is done. It’s time to move on.

Detroit is moving on, maybe slower and more painfully then we would like, but it is moving on. Blight busters, mower gangs, public art projects, urban farms, startup businesses and new ideas are shaping a new narrative for this city. Insults and jokes from every national pundit and comedian would break a lesser city, but Detroit is still there. It still fights, much like the flowers in ghost gardens pushing their way through the weeds to reach the sun.

If you love Detroit, do not bemoan its past. Believe in its future. The city’s narrative is not finished. Millions of souls have and will contribute to this great city’s story.

What will your contribution be? 

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