Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rust Belt Chic: Harvey Pekar

I consider Anthony Bourdain to be the quintessential connoisseur of Rust Belt Chic. I think of his television show as the intersection of food and place. Authentic doesn't always taste great (occasionally, it is disgusting), but the overall experience is beautiful. Apparently, some of his fans don't understand Bourdain's driving ethos:

Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman run a solid operation at Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar, serving the food they want to serve the way the want to serve it. Very nice, and illustrative of the ability of those of us in the Great Middle to run a serious restaurant. But the food truck segment is worn out and uninteresting. Drunk people like to cobble together bizarre doughnuts late at night? I'm sure Austin is thrilled that that will be their culinary legacy. Also highlighted in this segment is that Bourdain didn't really do much of the legwork for this episode. He doesn't appear at any of the trucks, offering only narration.

The bulk of the critique of the Heartland episode concerns Bourdain giving short shrift to "serious" restaurants. Appropriately, one of the comments highlights a shared experience concerning Bourdain's Rust Belt tour:

I felt really the same way about the Baltimore/Detroit/Buffalo episode (being from Baltimore). Tony really played up the "The Wire" angle and painted Baltimore as this suffering ghetto of run down buildings and abandoned townhomes, and went to a couple of dives, talked about how the steel industry died here and the economy suffered and then left. The problem being that the steel and shipbuilding industry died like 25 years ago and Baltimore bounced back about 20 years ago. Sure there are bad areas in the city but painting it all like "The Wire" is just making the city a characiture. In fact one of the run down closed up old industrial buildings they featured in on a couple of times was run down looking because it was being rehabbed into half million dollar condos. A bit of creative editing I guess.

The other issue I had is when they did talk about the food (as opposed to the supposed blight of poverty and crime that runs rampant through the streets of Baltimore), he didn't focus on anything other than the places where a couple of the people who worked on The Wire like to eat. I mean above all else the one thing that Baltimore is culinarily known for is the steamed blue crabs with Old Bay seasoning (that and the crab cake). Did we see either of those? No we saw some sort of roasted crab in garlic sauce concoction that having lived in Baltimore for 35 years I have never seen nor heard of anyone eating.

Much like Bourdain's trips to the heartland seem like just an excuse to hang out with Ruhlman, his trip to Baltimore just seemed like an opportunity to play The Wire Fanboy rather than to discover what's unique and great about this city.

(sorry for the long comment. I'm still rather bitter)

Baltimore didn't care for Bourdain's working class caricature of the city. World renown culinary skill is a big part of "No Reservations" and many cities in Flyover Country aspire to that recognition. Which brings me to Cleveland, home to the fascinating contrast between LeBron James and Harvey Pekar.


Miami offered the best place where these three savvy, talented, and surpassingly entrepreneurial young men could create their own kind of space – a more open-ended space, where they could realize their ambitions and dreams. The more I think about what they have pulled off, the more amazed I am. They are true Wild West cowboys; Horatio Alger made flesh. They have shown us how very good they are at America’s most important game, one that goes beyond sports and even money-making to the very heart of the American dream: of writing your own ticket and forging your own path, of doing it – and having it – one’s own way.

I figure people from Milwaukee, Baltimore and Cleveland would like outsiders to think about their town the way Florida gushes about Miami. Superstars crave to live in superstar cities. Superstar cities have world class cuisine. Watch out LA and NYC, here comes Miami.

Bourdain doesn't want Cleveland to aspire to the Creative Class pantheon of cities. Instead, he celebrates Harvey Pekar:

After all, Cleveland, the city he lived in and loved, had, he reminded us, lost half it's population since the 1950s. A place whose great buildings and bridges and factories had once exemplified 20th century optimism needed its Harvey Pekar.

"What went wrong here?" is an unpopular question with the type of city fathers and civic boosters for whom convention centers and pedestrian malls are the answers to all society's ills but Harvey captured and chronicled every day what was--and will always be--beautiful about Cleveland: the still majestic gorgeousness of what once was--the uniquely quirky charm of what remains, the delightfully offbeat attitude of those who struggle to go on in a city they love and would never dream of leaving.

What a two minute overview might depict as a dying, post-industrial town, Harvey celebrated as a living, breathing, richly textured society.

To me, this is the frontier. Florida contends it is Miami, while spewing nonsense about that city's tolerance and open-mindedness. Cleveland should ignore both James and Florida. Focus on Pekar's sense of the city's soul. Cookie cutter urbanism won't right the ship.


I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what's coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will "attract business", always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it's a "normal" city -- or a "perfect" or "safe" one. They go because it's crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy -- and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don't arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philarmonic.

Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter smacks "of racism and classism." It's the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James. I can find King James World just about anywhere. Give me more Rust Belt Chic.

4 comments:

Janko said...

nice post.

Baby Doll Dance begins tonight!!!

Stephen Gross said...

I particularly appreciate his final comment: "I didn't come to Cleveland for the orchestra". Compare Cleveland hype to Cleveland reality. I lived there for 5 years. I went to the orchestra a few times, tops. I went to my favorite diner (Borderline Cafe in Lakewood) maybe 50 times.

What's the lesson? Look for the activities people do regularly to understand what's valuable about a city. Then advertise the living hell out of those amenities.

h said...

Fantastic post. I too prefer the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar to the Miami of Lebron James. As a die-hard, returned Clevelander I find the authenticity of its residents and its establishments so refreshing. Unique to this city. Something I've never seen duplicated in any of the other cities I've visited.

Defend Youngstown said...

Your posts are always fantastic but this has to be one of your best, to be sure. Nice work, Jim.