Remembering Anthony Bourdain's influence on place...
Like many of you, I was gutted by the news of Anthony Bourdain's passing on Friday. Not one to be particularly personally moved by "celebrity" deaths (albeit sad of course), the demise of this consummate wanderer, food seeker, city lover - a true place-aholic - has been especially devastating. I embody - or at least aspire to - all of these monikers myself, living a decidedly digitally-nomadic life (the last four months took me to four countries and 14 cities all the while never hitting my head on my own pillow), having started cooking when I was 7 years old, and of course, you know my track record and passion for cities, doggedly dedicating myself to the defense - and promulgation of - better places (all around) over 20 years ago. I suppose my surprisingly intimate response to Bourdain's suicide is actually quite natural - and I'd venture to say that you, as fellow place-aholics, feel strikingly similarly.
So, I guess it was fitting that I heard about this sad news while I was having dinner with my husband at a new uber-hip Taiwanese style Izakaya restaurant in Shanghai that the hubby had discovered during my four-month absence from home. The food was inventive without pretension, comforting but sophisticated, served by genuinely cheery staff who clearly knew they were dishing out a heaping spoonful of joy along side yes, shochu, and of course, offal - a truly fitting, if unintended tribute to the master storyteller. But besides noting the simple complexity of the food, I'm sure "Tony" would have also poetically depicted the setting. We enjoyed this meal "al fresco" (though he definitely would not have used that term!) on an unusually temperate, dry evening during Shanghai's traditional plum rain season. The restaurant, and the cluster of other equally effortlessly modern eateries neighboring it, had set up outdoor dining along a recently revamped alley (the home of Jiashan market) in one of Shanghai's historic, older neighborhoods, Xuhui. The perfectly proportioned corridor was lined with delightfully dim, human-scale lighting, lush greenery, and warm wooden trellises - the perfect hideaway from the electric pulse of Shanghai city - and night - life.
And yet, as seemingly cosmic as it is to have found out about Bourdain's passing during this perfect intersection of food and place and people, they have and always will be intrinsically aligned. Bourdain had a magical, hypnotizing ability to not just transcendently capture this "intersection," but to exploit it to show us something deeper in ourselves, to inspire empathy for "the other," to connect us to communities far afield and familiar alike, to deliver unto us a sense of place(s), to embolden us to seek out and relish the unknown, to find joy in the simplicity of food - and the human experience. He's made me a better traveler, better eater (and cook), and better placemaker. Indeed, as someone who has spent the better part of the last five years since initially moving to Shanghai on the road, I've gradually begun to think about the meaning of place in a more metaphysical sense. Clearly the physical manifestation is and always will be a big part of my life, but my nomadic lifestyle has forced me to attach - and detach - quickly. So these days, I don't spend a lot of time "judging places" (well, yes, I deconstruct them to death from an urban design perspective, clearly as I swear I can mentally inventory all of our 290 features automatically in my head). I've stopped trying to "make sense" of them or deconstruct them in a way that will just end up being annoyingly pedantic or condescending - especially since I now know I will be dead wrong anyway (and honestly, this is one of the reasons we take a data-driven but non-formulaic approach to citymaking - we're simply laying the foundation for better exploration and experimentation by you, the placemakers).
I learned this lesson firsthand when I first arrived in Shanghai for my Fulbright, aiming to document the many "ill-advised" urban design features that made me feel like walking was a full-contact sport. But I soon realized that I seemed to be the only person - or more precisely, the only crazy laowai (foreigner) intensely bothered by what I perceived as erratic traffic patterns. So I created a meetup group called Shanghai Walk & Talks, with the outwardly innocuous aim of taking people on walks through Shanghai, talking a bit here and there about urban design and of course convening with a meal and/or drink. But the maybe-not-so-covert purpose of this group was to really understand the Chinese people and their connection to place in its many manifestations - food, drink, culture, and yes design. And yes, I did it by walking their city in their shoes, breaking bread, asking simple questions, and listening...
Today, I make a concerted effort to immerse myself immediately and just take it all in - the place, its food, its people - and cherish them - as well as the privilege to have the opportunity to discover and connect to them. After countless journeys, I know I can "find" myself wherever I am but I also know that self will be different from the one that arrived at that place initially. And that's truly the honor and responsibility of what I do. Tony put it best:
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
If you think about it, that's not all that different than what it feels like to be a citymaker...As Richard Florida so dearly shared a few days ago, Bourdain was ultimately the most "authentic, inclusive, quintessentially human" type of urbanist. In that light, I want to sincerely thank Anthony Bourdain for not just opening our hearts and minds to new experiences, cultures, food, and places, and teaching us to relish in their simplicity, complexity, and humanity - but for also pushing us in the gently cynical, sardonic way only he could to fervently - but genuinely - seek them out. While we all knew - and will remember - him as the consummate Seeker, despite not leaving a physical trace on the people and places he visited, he clearly touched me, touched us, touched them indelibly. For that and more, Bourdain embodied all the characteristics of what it means to truly be a placemaker. Thank you sincerely. You will be severely missed.