The Truth Hurts: Students React to Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”

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Anthony Bourdain films

Anthony Bourdain films "Parts Unknown" in Pittsburgh

Anthony Bourdain films "Parts Unknown" in Pittsburgh

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In Parts Unknown, acclaimed chef Anthony Bourdain traverses the globe, interviewing locals as part of a vignette on a city’s culture, history, and current state – done through the lens of food. Recently, the show came to Pittsburgh, and response was mixed to say the least. As Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted, “For some it was a sobering look at our faults, challenges & change – for others it was unfair, overdone & missed the point.” The question is, who exactly makes up those respective camps? These two reactions are polar opposites – is the divide truly arbitrary?

In an attempt to answer this question, I organized a focus group of 25 freshmen and sophomores at Obama. After viewing the controversial episode, each participant was asked to record their thoughts in a short survey.

First, each individual was asked to share their race. 68% (17) of those surveyed were African American. 20% (5) were white. 8% (2) were mixed. One preferred not to say.

Compared to the racial makeup of the city, this sample was not perfect. In Pittsburgh, 44.7% of kids aged 15-17 – close to 3% of the populace – are white. 44.1% are black. 4.4% are mixed. That being said, our test group was a fairly accurate representation of Obama’s student body, and the outcomes nonetheless offer valuable insight into the minds of Pittsburgh’s youth when it comes to their city’s standing.

The survey also asked each member of the group to record their neighborhood. The results broke down as follows: 20% (5) from Homewood; 16% (4) from East Liberty; 12% (3) from the Northside; one delegate each from Chartiers, Garfield, Lawrenceville, Manchester, Oakland, Shadyside, Highland Park, and the Southside. Two participants declined to answer.

Now, you might be asking yourself why these statistics are relevant to the question at hand. And to understand why these statistics are relevant to the question at hand, it’s first important to understand what exactly Anthony Bourdain had to say about the City of Champions.

The central theme of the piece is that Pittsburgh is divided. With each new street that gentrification claims, Bourdain charges, the city strays further and further from its roots. While the techies and the suburbanites flock in to work at Google or watch the Penguins, true Pittsburghers – the ones that have stuck around since the steel crash of the ‘80s – are forced to sit idly by, year after year receiving the short end of the stick.

So, what do Obama’s underclassmen make of these sentiments? On balance, their feelings seemed to reflect those of the city as a whole – torn. When asked to quantify how much they agreed with what was said in the episode, the average student ranking was a 3.36 out of 5, with only one person in complete agreement and none in complete disagreement. To discern why exactly results came back so inconclusive, let’s take a look at the written responses. In addition to the numerical evaluation, the survey featured four open-ended questions, detailed below.

If the episode covered their neighborhood in particular, students were asked to record their thoughts regarding how their home areas were portrayed. For participants in our group, this applied to those from East Liberty and the Hill District only, and for both, students seemed to concur with what Bourdain had to say. Said Ashanti Anderson of the former, “Anthony Bourdain talked a little bit about how high the house and apartment payments are in East Liberty. I think what he said was accurate.” Jaymar Jones from the Hill seconded that: “Yes, I saw some of my streets that I walk on. His point of view was accurate about my neighborhood.”

The second survey question pertained to East Liberty in particular, as it is here that Obama resides. The majority of those surveyed voiced assent with the show’s depiction. As Isaac Degenholtz put it, “He showed how people are pushed out of their homes and the city is becoming more gentrified. I thought he was right.” However, some felt that Bourdain was too harsh: “I felt a little offended because [of what Anthony Bourdain said],” said Destiny Saunders. More, even, did not feel that the show necessarily painted East Liberty in a negative light or as a place solely for the wealthy; to Chazzlyn Burke, Bordain’s version of the neighborhood was “poppin’”, and John Wesesky took away that the area was “portrayed as a place not worthy of rich folks and more directed as a place of low class people.”

Next, participants were asked to react to the notion that Pittsburgh was focusing too much on the industries of the 21st century without preserving its roots or taking care of the residents that have been around the longest. Here, answers were far more split. The opinions of some, such as Mekka Lloyd, were on par with those articulated in the show: “I agree that there needs to be an economic plan that fits everyone because right now people who know nothing about [Pittsburgh’s] history are moving in and destroying it and acting as though we don’t belong here.” Others, meanwhile, voiced a very different assessment of the city’s course. Said Silas Maxwell Switzer, “I honestly very much disagree with this. I think that Pittsburgh is making progress and moving forward, but it also has a strong hold on its roots.” Then there were those who lay somewhere in the middle. “I think that that is kind of true and false because technology and renovation to Pittsburgh is changing the type of people here, but those people are more assimilating than separating,” wrote Talib Smith.

Finally, members of the group were given an opportunity to express their view of the piece as a whole. The consensus seemed to be that, while Bourdain’s take was mostly accurate, he still didn’t do Pittsburgh justice, and that the conclusions he dished out were at times hard to swallow. Sean Snead’s response summed up the general attitude: “I feel as if the episode was talking about the negatives and not the positives, but it was accurate and they were stating facts.”

If one thing is to be gleaned from this experience, it seems safe to say that it’s right there in the title of this article: sometimes, the truth hurts.

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