Detroit and Commodification

In my Socio 100 class on wednesday we watched an episode of “Parts Unknown” by Anthony Bourdain. (side note: Do all CAP professors like Bourdai?) The episode focused on Detroit and the deindustrialization that occurred in the city leading to its decay. The episode journaled Bourdain’s travel around dilapidated Detroit as well as interviewing the citizens striving to survive in the city. He found not a city of helpless people, but a city of proud Detoriters who were adapting to new niche markets and did what they had to do to survive.

First let us address the elephant in the room. If you recall I was not that impressed by a previous episode Bourdain did in its catering to a western audience. Bourdain still carries his arrogance of being a world class chef. There is a  scene when he goes into a new upscale eatery in the “hipster” area of town and questions the chef’s sanity of moving back to Detroit as there was nothing here for him. The chef could be working in Las Vegas and instead he chooses to come back home to support him hometown. Bourdain seems unable to wrap his mind around this concept. However, perhaps Bourdain has taken a class in cultural appropriation because he seems much more respectful in this episode. This is probably attributed to the fact that Detroit is not a far away place like Nicaragua was and cannot be so easily “othered.” After all as Bourdain mentioned Detroit was once the manufacturing hub of the USA, pumping out weapons during WW2 and luxury cars after it, so it makes sense if he is familiar with it.

Much of Detroit is abandoned. The population fell from 1,850,000 in 1950 to 701,000 in 2013. There are many reasons why this happened, but a main factor is the rise of the suburbs and the hollowing of the urban core as white families fled in a phenomena dubbed “white flight.” This created a sparse spread out population with a lot of abandoned factories in-between. This led to the rise of  the “‘ruin porn‘ scene, in which tourists and others gawk at and take photos of the city’s abandoned and blighted buildings.” As this article by David Muller points out people from all around the world come to Detroit to take photos and explore this urban decay.

Let’s look at how this relates to commodification. Bourdain mentions the fact that film studios, professional photographers, wedding companies, and other media agencies  come to these abandoned locations to take “urban” and “gritty” photographs. However, they do not have to pay for doing this as it is abandoned. What these people fail to realize is that they are benefitting from other people’s suffering. Detroit does not want to be a poor city. They do not want to have to deal with bankruptcy. Detroit is not an empty city, it has culture, so by only showing the decay these people are furthering stereotypes. By taking pictures of “ruin porn” you are commodifying a living breathing city into a exhibit to serve your own purposes. There is something morally uncomfortable going in and profiting from people’s hardship just so you could get a “cool shot.” It shows a complete lack in respect.

Click here for a very interesting blog highlighting some of these issues.

2 thoughts on “Detroit and Commodification

  1. Niklas,

    You raise key ideas about the commodification aspect of Detroit’s Ruins and I do think that you make an important connection between Anthony Bourdain’s identity and how it reflects on his show and is catered to a certain audience. I am an avid follower of Bourdain, I began watching his show “Anthony Bourdain No Reservations” which what primarily about restaurants, food and culture. This show as featured on the Travel Channel, but when Bourdain got a better offer from CNN to air a new show “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown”. he had to adjust his video to appeal to a difference audience. Like you mentioned earlier, how Bourdain still has this “hot shot chef” mentality about him and hasn’t shaken that identity into his new show. So it is interesting to see how your perception is negative of Bourdain because he did not address these issues as one would expect, but for me who has followed him from his first show, I see what you mean and I see it as him having issues adjusting into a new identity to fit the network of CNN

  2. This is definitely my bias towards the privileged attempting to understand/articulate the socioeconomic problems of the not-privileged, but I agree that Bourdain, in true Western fashion, is “othering” Detroit, no only on a personal level, but the influence of his show and network further contribute to Detroit’s abysmal reputation. Despite the fact Detroit is well within the West, it is often referred to exclusively from other major American cities. A lot of factors, obviously, go into this. White flight, as you mention, is not only a problem that takes economic stability from Detroit, but compromises how Detroit is received with a predominantly black middle class as opposed to a white middle class. As we have read, many stories like these reflect the intentions and opinions of the powerful, and in Detroit, followed around by a camera crew, Bourdain is powerful. While the episode did address the new economic prospects of Detroit, it left the blame and fault of class and race division out. Might this be intentional? Hmm.

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