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'Parts Unknown' Wraps Season in Ruins of Motor City
November 9, 2013  | By Eric Gould

Anthony Bourdain has been to some pretty tough spots -- war-torn Libya and Kurdistan to name two you'll probably want to avoid on your next holiday trip. Sunday night he finishes his first season of Parts Unknown, his new CNN series, by visiting more eye-opening wreckage. In Detroit.

Bourdain's inaugural season on CNN has definitely been a step up, both for the travelogue veteran and for the cable news channel. CNN has benefitted from the infusion of some very relevant, fresh content, alongside its other new Sunday night venture, Inside Man, with documentary filmmaker Morgan Sperlock. And Bourdain's production game has gotten better with some jazzy camera work and savvy production that have exceeded those of his old Travel Channel show, No Reservations.

The additions of Bourdain and Sperlock haven't translated into better ratings for the flagging news channel. CNN's ratings were reportedly down again this week.

And that's a shame. As Bourdain wrote in his weekly CNN blog, last week's episode shot in Tokyo was "easily one of the most brilliantly shot and edited episodes we've ever done." He was right. His intrepid sojourn through nighttime Tokyo was surreal, uncanny, full of his trademark literary references that make the show as much about what you bring to a new place as well as what you find there.

Sunday's season finale, 9 p.m. ET, is startling for the sober shots of the urban decay of modern Detroit. You might have read about it, heard references of it, but there really is no substitute for the pictures.

Those would be blocks and blocks of shuttered and abandoned buildings and houses. It's a city of 140 square miles, a former economic dynamo that's contracting, where a lot of people just seemed to have picked up and left.

One of the most recurrent themes in the Detroit episode, after the spectacular ruins, is shot after shot of overgrown fields and multicolored sprigs of wildflowers everywhere -- in parking lots, parks and front lawns that have been abandoned, and where vegetation is taking its natural course -- reclaiming an estimated 40 square miles of the city.

Says Bourdain, "The only place I've ever been that looks like Detroit does now? Chernobyl. I'm not being funny. That's the truth."

As stunning as all that sounds, it is. But typical of Bourdain's informal anthropological method, he meets the locals, samples the native food, gets the pulse, the intellectual vibe, and manages to convey the authenticity of the place.

The cult of his show gets him access to the hardest found spots, this time into a local "Pupusa House" – a private home that functions as an illegal restaurant only for the locals who know the operators. Bourdain samples savory stews and the pupusas – traditional thick-style Salvadoran corn tortillas stuffed with ground pork and tamales wrapped in aromatic banana leaves.

He also has a home-cooked meal made by Detroit firefighters in their firehouse kitchen, learning that the department is putting out an average of five arson fires per day, city wide, because of neighbors wanting to get rid of abandoned properties that squatters and addicts occupy.

And he goes on to meet the Detroit "Mower Gang," a group of volunteers who go around on riding mowers clipping some of the 70 abandoned public parks that have been decommissioned by the city because of lack of funds to maintain them.

It's hardly one of his usual intrepid journeys to a far-off, utterly strange and exotic place you're not likely ever to visit yourself. But it is an adventure. And it's nothing like you've ever seen.

And, it's in Michigan.

Bourdain comments, "If you were looking to describe the quintessential Detroit character, there's sort of a stubborn determination to stay, to see it through, no matter what. Above all, there's an injured but ferocious pride to anyone who's stayed through good and bad times."

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