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Commentary: Why Are Pittsburghers' Palates Too Delicate For What Bourdain Dished Out?

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
October 24, 2017
Posted in: Commentary-Editorial

The following is an editorial expressing an individual's opinion. Opinions expressed in editorials and commentaries are those of their authors, and are not those of Tube City Community Media Inc., its board of directors, volunteers, contributors or donors. Responsible replies are welcome.

(Anthony Bourdain talks with Pittsburghers at Kelly's Bar & Grill in East Liberty. Photo courtesy CNN.)

Whatever else Anthony Bourdain's hour-long exploration of Pittsburgh proved this week, it demonstrated that one fact about the region remains as true as it ever has been:

We are notoriously thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive to even the slightest criticism.

Make fun of New Jersey, and will its residents complain? Ah, fuggedaboutit.

Go ahead and knock Chicago. It rolls right off of the city's big shoulders.

But say anything even slightly negative about Pittsburgh, and we erupt in a blast of black-and-gold fury. (Topped with french fries.)

Over the past seven or eight years, Pittsburgh has received a lot of flattering coverage from the national and international media, focused on how the region has supposedly re-invented itself from a failed steel-mill town into a mecca for high-tech, ethnically diverse and well-educated people.

These "documentaries" tend to depict robotics at Carnegie Mellon, health care research at UPMC, and lovely yellow bridges, with some stirring music in the background. Maybe they include some images of hipster cafes and restaurants in Pittsburgh's East End.

But it's all fairly superficial. They rarely explore the parts of Pittsburgh that have been, so far, left behind --- such as the Mon Valley.

So when I heard that Bourdain, a celebrity chef, author and restaurateur, was coming to Pittsburgh to tape an episode of his CNN series, "Parts Unknown," I cringed.

Great, I thought, another glossy puff-piece.

And that's what I expected to see on Sunday --- more happy-crappy B.S. about the "new Pittsburgh."

To my pleasant surprise, Bourdain committed actual journalism. He dug beneath the surface and got into real, serious issues.

His Pittsburgh episode of "Parts Unknown" depicted the city and its surroundings as a place with amazing people and lots of charm, a vibrant place that values hard work and tradition --- but which is also struggling to overcome racism, sexism and serious (and growing) class divisions.

Alas, it seems lots of Pittsburghers --- but not all --- prefer the happy-crappy B.S.

As the Post-Gazette and KDKA-TV reported Tuesday, Bourdain's show hadn't even ended before Pittsburgh residents were taking to Twitter and Facebook to blast it as "biased," "far too negative" and "unfair."

“Apparently Bourdain set out to make (Pittsburgh) look like a backward, racist town,” the Post-Gazette quotes one viewer as saying. “This is a highly inaccurate depiction of the city.”

Oh, come on.

First of all, I doubt Bourdain had any agenda beyond presenting an hour of entertaining television. Which, in my opinion, he did.

But, since you brought it up, let's examine who Bourdain spoke with --- and what they said.


Writer Stewart O'Nan --- as big a booster of Pittsburgh as you're likely to find, outside of Rick Sebak --- told Bourdain that the rebirth of Pittsburgh's East End --- particularly the Bakery Square area --- has often come at the expense of people (mostly poor, mostly African-American) who had, in many cases, lived there for years.

That's true. And those people who are being chased away from their jobs, churches and friends in Pittsburgh's East End are often landing relatively far away in places such as McKeesport, Penn Hills and Baldwin, where access to public transportation and employment is often poor.

(And as Tube City Almanac reported Oct. 16, advocates believe the transit situation is about to get worse. Again.)

Bourdain also spoke with former Pittsburgh city councilman Sala Udin, who pointed out that displacement of poor African-American people has happened before in Pittsburgh, not so long ago, when the Hill District was gutted to make way for the Civic Arena and the Crosstown Boulevard.

Now, as Udin noted, the Hill is becoming a "playground" for mostly white, mostly upper-class people from the suburbs.

Those are lifelong Pittsburghers saying these things --- not Anthony Bourdain.

Bourdain also drove around the Mon Valley with Braddock's number-one fan, acclaimed filmmaker Tony Buba, who noted that the borough's Brew Gentlemen pub is popular mostly with people from outside the area.

Very few Braddock and Rankin locals are walking to Brew Gentlemen to drink $7 beers, Buba pointed out --- the clientele is largely suburban hipsters who want to pretend they've done something "edgy" by hanging out in Braddock.

And as restaurant entrepreneurs Maggie Merskey and Sonja Finn told Bourdain, Pittsburgh remains, by and large, run by an old-boys network.

How is any of this not true?

Look, it's wonderful that we preserve ethnic traditions such as traditional foods and music and games --- the segments that Bourdain taped with the bocce players in Bloomfield and the German dancers in Deutschtown were terrific.

It's not so wonderful when we cling to things that make no sense. Justin Severino, owner of Cure, an upscale eatery in Lawrenceville, told Bourdain that when he opened his restaurant --- in a location that had been empty for seven years! --- people in the neighborhood complained because he wasn't putting it back the way it had been.

Does anyone doubt that happened? After all, last week, the owner of the James Street Tavern on Pittsburgh's North Side announced he was closing his doors because some anonymous neighbor keeps complaining about the noise.

We Pittsburghers don't like change. What's the old joke about how Pittsburghers give directions? "Go down to where Isaly's used to be, turn left where the Gulf station used to be ..."

It's also, frankly, not so wonderful that Pittsburgh's re-invention as a high-tech, upscale city is, so far, serving to funnel wealth upwards to a small group of people.

Have the "six-figure salaries" being offered to CMU robotics engineers and computer scientists improved the quality of life in McKeesport, Duquesne or Clairton? Not that I can see.

In Bourdain's program, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman joked that despite Brew Gentlemen and Kevin Sousa's new upscale restaurant, Superior Motors, his borough seems to be "gentrification-proof."

For now, McKeesport, Clairton, Duquesne and Glassport seem to be gentrification-proof, too. As real estate values in Pittsburgh's East End climb higher, Homestead is starting to see some benefit --- but many storefronts along Eighth Avenue are still as empty as they were in 1990.

I have to admit, I'd never watched a single episode of Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" before this week, although I'd heard him interviewed and found him to be frank, funny and plain-spoken.

Are there criticisms to be made of Bourdain's program? Sure. I thought it was a little bit choppy and disjoined, and I also thought ending with the demolition derby in New Alexandria was a bit odd.

But overall, I found it to be a nuanced portrait --- far more nuanced than I would have expected from a program that (I assumed) was supposed to be about food.

Apparently, we Pittsburghers like our portraits without nuance. Don't paint us realistically --- just draw a big, bland smiley face.

Yet there are real, serious problems in the Pittsburgh area --- especially when you get beyond Pittsburgh's city limits into places like the Mon Valley, Beaver Valley and the New Kensington-Arnold area.

I don't always agree with Virginia Montanez, aka "JanePitt" or "PittGirl," but she sure nailed it this week.

"If your reaction to Bourdain is 'That's not the Pittsburgh I know!' then you probably have privilege," she wrote. "It's the Pittsburgh some know."

"Look at the things (and) attitudes you aren't proud of --- accept they're real," Montanez said. "Don't like 'em? Help fix 'em."

We could use more of that self-examination. It's just amazing to me that it took a celebrity chef to finally do some serious national journalism about Pittsburgh.

So as far as I'm concerned, Anthony Bourdain can come back here any time. When he does, I'm inviting him to Tillie's for some ravioli.

Opinions expressed in commentaries are those of individual authors, and do not represent those of Tube City Community Media Inc., its directors, contributors or volunteers.

Tube City Community Media is committed to printing viewpoints from residents of the McKeesport area and surrounding municipalities. Commentaries are accepted at the discretion of the editor and may be edited for content or length.

To submit a commentary for consideration, please write to Tube City Online, P.O. Box 94, McKeesport 15134, or email tubecitytiger -at - gmail -dot- com. Include contact information and your real name. A pen name may be substituted with approval of the editor.

Originally published October 24, 2017.

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