I was a little excited to see this picture of Anthony Bourdain sitting at the counter of Lafayette Coney Island. But then I read his teaser blog post and heard nothing but the self-serving, racist, classist views of my parents and the disingenuous, fetishizing, novelizing of guilty white tourists.
It’s very hard for me to articulate my disdain for the outsider prospective on Detroit I’m always running into in the news, in part because I am practically an outsider, too. It’s been six years since I lived in Detroit, which is at least twice as long as the time I spent feeling like a part of it, despite spending the full first eighteen years of my life living there.
These feelings of not belonging are probably common for my generation of Detroiters. We grew up more familiar with stories of Detroit used to be than what it is now. The expanse is so sprawling, its populations so kept apart, that claims to a monolithic Detroit are only ever offered by its residents with tongue-in-cheek.
I’m envious of the tourists, too. They have the ability to access this place, leave with a snapshot, and return to whatever life they have elsewhere. For me, returning as a tourist is a poor consolation prize. Going back is a reminder of how I can’t stay. Each return brings on an intense longing to return home, to delve into the home I can now only experience in vacation doses, bound to work in a distant city because I couldn’t find work at home.
Detroit is a home I vacation to. So I really can’t stand those who visit to survey the state of the “Detroit plight,” eat “Detroit cuisine,” take in “Detroit music,” or “Detroit art,” and then measure it against other Metropolises. It’s some sort of irony for Urban Americans to demonstrate a lack of cultural understanding when traveling in their own country, especially from a professional traveler like Anthony Bourdain.
Bourdain’s assessment of Detroit is extremely troubling to me. He says he understands why it’s wrong to exploit Detroit’s fall from grace — but not why, and limits this understanding to its ruins, not its people. In the same breath he professes love for Detroit and Detroiters, he calls it “relentlessly fucked.” He gleefully surveys the Detroit “born and bred” who would die before pulling up stakes, but doesn’t mention the thousands of people who have had to leave because of the dismal job market. While he whimsies on the similarities between New Orleans and Detroit, I wonder how it will be when I one day raise children far away from their grandparents, who will only ever know Detroit through biannual Christmases and maybe a few summer vacations, if we’re lucky.
Bourdain, in his unwillingless to admit to his fetishization of Detroit’s hardships, asks, non-committedly, “Empty lots and burned out buildings are bad. But are cupcake shops, galleries and artisanal baristas necessarily better?” Detroit has the latter in plenty, but it’s almost as if he refuses to see it. You’d think he was talking about an abandoned oil refinery (actually, at one point, he is). Bourdain is quick to surmise, “We know what went wrong. The fall of the automobile industry, the shrinkage of population, flight of the middle class, drugs… and some of the most spectacularly, unapologetically rapacious, incompetent and corrupt leadership imaginable.”
I wonder why humans are again so absent from his understanding of Detroit problems, specifically the role systematic, violent racism has played in its undoing? Why did Bourdain choose the words “flight of the middle class,” rather that the “white flight” normally ascribed to this period of history? Why omit the tradition of violence against black residents that resulted in the destruction of so many of Detroit’s “ruins,” or the and exploitation of black labor that contributed mightily to the struggles of today’s unions and industry? I’m very much curious about Bourdain’s insights into the “corrupt leadership,” as I wonder which leaders he speaks about — the white mayors in office who implemented this legislation, or Kwame Kilpatrick’s sexting scandal?
Detroiters don’t possess the pretensions of other cities, don’t live by cultural absolutes, and don’t see what others portray as unifying aesthetics. Community, heritage, and locality are extremely important to the Detroiter, but the things that make Detroit unique are far from precious. While there are many beautiful and unique aspects to Detroit living that should appeal to tourists on their merit alone, it seems that it, instead, appeals to them despite an overwhelming sense of pity for the persisting affects of white flight.
But to dismiss Detroit culture as humble would oversimplify the climate of what it’s like to have grown up there. Above all, Detroit is fragmented, racially and culturally segregated, to the point of isolation. It is impossible to get a comprehensive look when even insiders are restricted to their cultural dispositions.
So of course it can only be defined by the easily accessible, endless expanse of abandonment and vacancy — but I wonder why Detroit is only viewed through the lens of gentrification as a measure of vitality, a dichtonomy of “have” and “have not.” Perhaps I am merely frustrated with Bourdain’s lack of nuance, tired of the Detroit of topical current events, tired of New Yorkers arguing with Los Angelians about the Institute’s collection of Cezannes, tired of reading travel exposés that make judgment calls about the vitality of the Detroit tourism industry as if they had a PHd in Urban Planning. I’m tired of people who speak of Detroit culture as a revival as if we didn’t produce decades of Motown, garage rock, and techno while The Big Three were wasting away. In other cities, travelers seek only an authentic experience. Far be it from me to suggest Detroit is like any other city — I just wonder why Detroit is so narrowly boxed into an American Dream narrative, when everything about it defies the very notion of an American Dream.
I don’t believe Detroit should be defined by its presence of “burned out buildings,” nor should any city’s vitality be measured in its “cupcake shops.” Of course, Detroit is a place where people struggle. Detroit is also a home to many intensely wealthy people who have profited off that struggle. And perhaps it is because of this that the people of Detroit feel a responsibility to love their city, to respect the rich cultural heritage, and nurture it into the future.
Perhaps this is why I’m compelled to speak in response to Bourdain’s survey of Detroit. Even separated from my city, I feel obligated to my experience, to firmly plant myself as one who wants not the Detroit of television fantasy, but the city I know as home.