The final episode of CNN’s award-winning travel show Parts Unknown focuses on a place that host Anthony Bourdain visited frequently as a young man: Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “This is a show about a very special place, a special time, and some very special people,” Bourdain says in the intro. “So much happened, so much began on New York’s Lower East Side.” It was here where Bourdain would score heroin and watch rock shows during an aimless period of his life, the late 1970s, when the neighborhood was becoming the epicenter of the punk and “no wave” scenes. This episode was filmed in April 2018, just two months before Anthony Bourdain died in a hotel in France.
Watching the series finale, it’s clear that Bourdain drew a lot of cultural inspiration from the art and music produced on the Lower East Side during that era. Over the course of the episode, Tony chats with a number of influential musicians (Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Richard Hell, Harley Flanagan), artists (Joe Coleman, Kembra Pfahler, John Lurie), and filmmakers (Jim Jarmusch, Amos Poe, Fab 5 Freddy). And he visits an array of East Village and Lower East Side institutions with these local legends, including Veselka, John’s of 12th Street, and Ray’s Candy Store. The Zero Point Zero Production crew did an amazing job paying homage to the punk and no wave scenes with the editing and musical cues in this episode, and the incorporation of archival footage.
Although the episode doesn’t feature many biographical details about Bourdain in his youth, it’s a satisfying series finale because it shows the author/TV host doing something he seemed to love: sharing meals with fascinating people. This episode is a great example of the “less me, more be” mentality that producer Sandra Zweig remarked upon in a recent chat with Eater about working with Bourdain. “I think that as Parts Unknown went from the beginning toward the end, it became more and more about him as the observer and really making sure that we as the team understood that was the priority,” the producer explained.
The episode ends with a powerful, frenzied montage of LES sights and sounds, followed by thirty seconds of silence and darkness, plus a sweet post-credits sequence of Bourdain and John Lurie joking around in the artist’s apartment.
Here, now, are the best quotes and moments from the series finale of Parts Unknown:
Harley Flanagan, former member of The Stimulators and the Cro-Mags, on walking through Alphabet City with Bourdain: “I got PTSD, man. It’s like, I just feel like I’m seeing ghosts when I’m down here, man. I miss it, though. I tell you: As much as I painted it as this horror story, which it was, I loved it. It will always be a part of who I am.”
Richard Hell on whether or not people over-romanticize the ’70s history of the neighborhood: “I think the creation of the mythology of the ’70s kind of began in the mid ’90s. I can see why people who weren’t there wish they were there, but it goes against all my instincts to think that way, just because the idea was [that] we didn’t like where things were, so we decided to change them.”
Performance artist Kembra Pfahler on the spirit of the Lower East Side: “It’s a wonderful amusement park of good and bad ideas, all happening at once.”
Bourdain, telling artist Joe Coleman about his recollections of the neighborhood in the ’70s: “I missed all the great art at the time. I came from heroin, and I came for music. But other than that, I didn’t live here. But man, a lot of people didn’t make it, and I remember, I guess around 1980, it was like, ‘Something was happening and no one knows what it is.’”
Joe Coleman on the start of the AIDS epidemic: “A lot of that time exists in my mind like a dream, like an opium dream. I have these people that I loved that would just, like, drop out and fall out. I’m a little bit sad that I wasn’t there, that I wasn’t present for them, because I was too off in this other world.”
Fab 5 Freddy on one of his favorite neighborhood restaurants, El Castillo De Jagua: “This is one of the places, like, Keith Haring and I would love to come here, Jean-Michel [Basquiat] would join us, and we would have good meals here on the regular, and it was consistently [good]. You know, it’s great when you can go to some place and get the exact same food. Come on, this is it. Still exactly same. Which is great, even though there’s a hotel three doors away, and high rises going up, you can still have a decent meal.”
Bourdain on the surprise box office success of Fab 5 Freddy’s movie Wild Style: “You gotta love that moment of corporate terror in the film industry when people are looking at the weekend grosses and it’s like, ‘What’s this? Who is this audience that did not appear in our matrix?’”
Bourdain asking Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe about the neighborhood: “What do you think now when you walk around the neighborhood? You paid some dues to walk down back in the day, now it’s projectile vomiting frat boys with their baseball caps on backwards. Does this give you a sinking feeling or make you angry?”
Jarmusch, responding: “The thing that I always tell myself is: Look at the history of New York City, and it’s always about hustling and change. And if you want it to stay the same, man, you’ve got the wrong historical spot, because there used to be a Native American trading post on the tip of Manhattan. It’s now Wall Street.”
Bourdain looking at a scrapbook that includes an old baggie of “toilet” heroin: “You knew you were doing something bad when you bought a product called ‘toilet,’ and, you know, shot it in your arm. Oh man, memories.”
Photographer Clayton Patterson on life in the neighborhood after the Tompkins Square Park riot: “When they cleared off the drugs, a lot of people said, ‘Hey great, we’re now going to have a neighborhood and everything’s going to be safe.’ And then in came the gentrification. So the whole concept of America’s been wiped out, because you can’t pull yourself up by the boot straps anymore, because you can’t get in the game. Gentrification has affected the whole city. You have to now make a huge amount of money to be here.”
John Lurie, on the heyday of the Lower East Side: “The energy was enormous. It was probably more fun than anybody’s ever had in human history, for about a year or two. But there was no discipline. Which, I mean, I like people who can play their instrument like they just found it on the street. But they can’t just do it once — they gotta work on it.”
John Lurie on the heyday of the Lower East Side, continued: “We really felt like the universe was between Houston [Street] and East 14th Street, and Bowery and Avenue C. And if you went outside there, you were a phony, you were a traitor.”
Bourdain on the hard-boiled eggs that Lurie ceremoniously cooked for him: “Silence is the highest compliment, just the gnashing of my jaws.”