Thoughts on Pittsburgh's "Parts Unknown"
News came out this summer that Anthony Bourdain was in town to film a Pittsburgh-based episode of his Parts Unknown program. I like Bourdain and his tv shows, and I am weirdly passionate about Pittsburgh, so I was eagerly awaiting the episode, especially after we learned of his visit to our favorite local bar (I say that like it's some overlooked hole-in-the-wall; I'm talking about the Squirrel Hill Cafe, aka "The Cage," which is an East End institution and deservedly so). Ahead of the episode's premiere last night I saw several articles online calling Bourdain's trip to Pittsburgh "inevitable." Pittsburgh was an inevitable stop, they argue, because the city's booming food scene and consistent ranking as a most-livable city has put it in the national spotlight. Pittsburgh has gotten a fair bit of national attention the last few years, but let's not kid ourselves. Bourdain and crew came to Pittsburgh because he's on the 10th season of his show and they've already gone to the exciting cities, so the only thing that made a Pittsburgh-centric Parts Unknown inevitable was the show's continuation.
When word broke last June that Bourdain's crew was filming around town user rockandrollcityplan posted this forecasted episode rundown on the Pittsburgh subreddit:
"Once downtrodden steel town (que shot of the Carrie Furnace) now changing in the face of gentrification that is creating a burgeoning food scene based on tradition (visit to Pierogies-Plus and then Apteka). Talk about a tradition of pushing out the city's African American population with a visit to the Hill District (shot of the arena site and then new construction in East Liberty as a juxtaposition). Walk around Squirrel Hill and remark how one of the country's largest Jewish enclaves is filled with a new Asian population (Everyday Noodles) but some vestiges of old Pittsburgh remain in its dive bars (Squirrel Cage). Something, something, filler in the Strip District... interview with Fetterman."
Aside from Everyday Noodles and the Strip District, which did not appear in the episode, this prediction ended up being pretty spot-on. Now, the basic narrative beats of the episode can be inferred from Bourdain's approach across the last 9 seasons of his show. I would characterize the overriding theme of Parts Unknown as old-vs-new: how places have changed, what has emerged, what has disappeared, and what it all means to the people who live there. And within this overriding theme I think there are 2 sub-categories that an episode of PU can fall into: (1), charting the (ostensible) erosion of local culture and tradition in the wake of globalization ; and (2), defying audience expectations about a place by showing that their stereotypical views are outdated and do not reflect modern conditions. There are other threads that run through many of the shows, like "the price of success" (new local businesses are doing well but they're sowing the seeds of gentrification!) and "accepting the transience of existence" (tradition diminishes but a new generation emerges).
So now that I've seen the episode, what do I make of it? Overall I was very impressed with the episode, and by the people and places the producers' decided to include. I have to qualify my take on the program by saying that I am not a native Pittsburgher, have only lived here for four years and will likely move away in the not-too-distant future. But I have loved this city from my first day here, embracing its wonders and its flaws, and a great deal of my scholarly research centers on the city's past, present, and future. Based on my experience here I thought they did a decent job of representing Pittsburgh, showcasing scenes of everyday life along with glimpses of the extreme ends of the economic divide, and was ultimately a more nuanced portrayal than I anticipated (not that I expected much in the first place). My criticisms of the presentation have to do with what was included rather than what was left out (Pittsburghers will surely argue endlessly about the episode's grievous omissions), so let me run through some of the things I did and did not like about the show.
- The opening teaser featured hand-made pierogie production, which might seem hackneyed to Pittsburghers but it's also unavoidable.
- The first sequence took place in Bloomfield, the neighborhood nearest and dearest to my own heart. I spotted some familiar neighborhood characters in the background and the sausage and peppers are all-too-familiar. Coming home across the Bloomfield Bridge I see the bocce players there regularly, even late into the evening. As I said I like the neighborhood, but a table of meats and sauce being overturned and spilling onto the ground seems like an apt representation of Bloomfield.
- Wasn't sure they would feature the Hill District, very glad that they did. An integral part of this city's history and character that far too many Pittsburghers pass by unawares on a daily basis.
- Bourdain's ride-along with Sala Udin captured one of the most characteristic aspects of the Hill District: the neighborhood's vocality, the call-and-response culture of friend and neighbors acknowledging one another on the street (even when passing in cars, as was seen in the episode).
- The Hill District sequence also featured my favorite image of the entire episode: a woman ordering lunch at Grandma B's wearing a Penguins jersey and a hijab .
- The neon lights of Kelly's at night seemed particularly telegenic.
Gripes and omissions:
- No Liberty Tunnel shot. This is the biggest omission for me, way more than any bar or restaurant that went unmentioned. Arriving in Pittsburgh through the Liberty Tunnel is one of the great unique experiences that this city offers. From my first time careening through the tunnel in a U-Haul truck, to every time I return home after a trip, it is always a spectacular sensation to have the world open up upon exiting the tunnel as the city and river valley bursts into being all around you.
- A small pet peeve, but Fetterman's addressing Bourdain as "chef" is anachronistic considering Bourdain's current full-time gig. If anything his honorific should be "TV Producer Tony," or is it like the Presidency where you carry the title even after you leave office?
- Other folks seem very upset at the wrestling sequence's inclusion; it didn't bother me, as a non-native Pittsburgher and non-wrestling fan I recognize the wrestling angle as an idiosyncratic quirk of the local culture.
- The demolition derby, on the other hand, seemed out of place and served as a particularly weak ending to the episode. After traveling well beyond the Pittsburgh city limits, the show closes with scenes of automotive carnage underneath some banal closing narration from Bourdain. I'm paraphrasing from memory but this captures the gist:
"What will become of Pittsburgh? How do we welcome the promise of change while preserving what we love about our past? There are probably no easy answers, so for now, let's just wreck some cars."
I mean, I get that this show is essentially 'food & place porn' that airs on the wince-inducing middle-of-the-road CNN, but even with these measured expectations in mind, that's a strikingly sophomoric and flippant sentiment to go out on. You're already equivocating, so why use even more unnecessary weasel words? I mean, "probably" no easy answers? Why not just say that there are no easy answers? Would that risk offending the viewers who believe that there are easy answers, whatever their personal brand of myopic small-mindedness might be?
I've watched all of Bourdain's tv series and enjoy each of them to varying degrees (Cook's Tour is a grainier grungier early cut and The Layover is the underappreciated peak-travel-tv Bourdain), and his Zero Point Zero crew do excellent work but their reliance on certain templates becomes evident once you've seen enough of their productions. One of their favorite go-tos (more evident lately in their non-Bourdain projects) is the technique of editing around a big laugh. Need to transition to the next scene? Insert a clip of everyone having a nice big laugh then cut. And the derby finale sequence represents this sort of "big laugh" thinking on a larger scale: throw up some noise and spectacle to distract the viewers so we can make the big out. And Bourdain's perfunctory closing narration plays a part in this as well, since who's going to notice the utter vacuity of your parting words with all that slam-bang car crashing and little-kid-American-flag-waving going on?
I get it: Pittsburgh is so uninteresting the film crew had to drive 30 miles outside the city to film an *ahem* rural, all-American crowd enjoying a demolition derby. Television is a visual medium, after all, so perhaps they couldn't find sufficient visual spectacle within the city limits. It is important, too, to recognize that Pittsburgh can't represent all of the greater region, and the rural population is an important part of the contemporary political condition as indicated in the episode's discussion of the state turning Republican in the last presidential election. But without any semblance of full-circle denouement or contextualization within all that had preceded it, this closing sequence was muddled and disappointing.
After the episode aired I went back to the Pittsburgh subreddit to gauge reactions. Initial responses were overwhelmingly negative, which is perhaps to be expected. Every place means many different things to the people who live there, and it is impossible for a 40 minute TV program to fully capture and represent the essence of a city from even a single individual's perspective. The user-base of reddit probably skews young, and a number of the negative comments seemed to be responding to perceived attacks upon their generation and lifestyle choices. Among the perceived slights were dispersions cast on millenials, bicyclists, craft beer aficionados, and suburban residents who travel into the city for sports and other entertainment. What these commenters are overlooking, and others in the forum have pointed out, is that the show is called Parts Unknown and aims to represent the sort of lived experiences that are usually absent from mainstream media discourses. I mean, people actually expected a Rick Sebak-style milquetoast promotional showcase of the city? The bottom line is that if these self-identifying millenials want to be constantly catered to and reassured in their lifestyle choices they have no shortage of outlets.
Another theme in the negative reactions, and one I find much more troubling, is indignation that the Hill District was even featured in the episode at all. Apparently this historic neighborhood "doesn't represent our city." One commenter particularly criticized the depiction of the deleterious effects that the Civic Arena's construction had on the Lower Hill. This person characterizes the Hill District's development as sacrificing "a dying neighborhood in exchange for economy". Ignoring the obvious vapidity and implicit racism of this statement, I have to ask what "dying neighborhood" this person is invoking? The vibrant Hill District of the 40s and 50s that was destroyed by this malign urban renewal scheme? The neighborhood which was among the most culturally verdant African American communities in the country? The neighborhood that produced August Wilson, Teenie Harris, and Gus Greenlee's Crawford Grill? Or is it the Hill District of today that is "dying"? The one that remains cut off from the rest of the city (spatially, racially, economically, etc.) 60 years after the Civic Arena project? The one that is so far removed from the eyes and minds of most Pittsburghers we are angered when it appears on our television screens?
Make no mistake: the history of the Hill District, both good and ill, is integral to Pittsburgh's identity and to its place in the history of this country. Pittsburgh mills may have contributed to the building of skycrapers and the defeat of tyrants, but the razing of the Hill District is just as significant to the history of our national consciousness. It is a history of residential segregation, uneven development, the destruction of black homes and neighborhoods, racial ghettoization, concentrated poverty, and discriminatory policing. More than 100 years ago the journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote about political corruption in Pittsburgh in his book The Shame of Our Cities. Pittsburgh's industrial production and pollution may have earned the city's nickname of "hell with the lid off," Steffens said, but the city's political landscape was "hell with the lid on." The sprawling parking lot on the former Civic Arena site that once connected the Hill District to downtown Pittsburgh, and the bungled attempts at redeveloping that land, are continuing sources of shame for this city.
As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, there are no easy answers. But who needs answers when we can go watch the demolition derby? Let’s go wreck some cars.