This is it.
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 need only look at some of our representatives who, a while back, were actually suggesting that 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 head 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 and gawkers—and television crews—come to your city to pose giddily in front of abandoned factories, public buildings—the symbols of a 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 and the engine of U.S. capitalism.
But there was no turning away. It’s there everywhere you look, right in your face, taking up the 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, as the remains of a magnificent—if ancient—civilization.
As much as many of our Detroit fans might have wanted this show to be about what’s going right in their city, neither is it particularly about 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.
But I love Detroit. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in America—still. The same incompetence and neglect that led to its current state of affairs have at least left us with a cityscape that even now taunts us with the memories of our once outsize dreams. Unlike most other cities that ran into trouble when steel or textiles or industry left town, Detroit didn’t (or couldn’t) go on the usual idiot building spree, tearing down old buildings and paving over city centers with “pedestrian malls,” ruining a city’s character and stripping its center in favor of the “shopping district,” convention center, and faux “ye Olde Towne” hubs. So many places imagined that all the building would revive their fortunes. Instead, it left their city centers empty, characterless, and without heart—looking like everyplace else.
Detroit looks like nowhere else. Detroit looks like motherf****n’ Detroit. As it should.
Bourdain originally published a version of this post on Tumblr on Nov. 8, 2013.