Robocop statue: A youthful lift for Detroit or a monument to blight?
Could a Robocop statue do for Detroit today what the sci-fi movie hero did for the dystopian Motor City of the future? Critics of the proposal dismiss its pop-culture pop as Rust Belt chic.
Thatâ€™s what a group of youthful idealists say they are hoping to do with a sculpture of, yes, Robocop â€“ the hero of a 1980â€™s film of the same name in which a cop dies and is reborn as a cyborg in a dystopian Motor City.
Itâ€™s been a while since Detroit was mentioned in the same breath as â€ścool.â€ť But add this idea â€“ and the viral attention it has garnered online â€“ to the moody, super-hip Super Bowl ad fronted by rapper Eminem, and Detroit is, if not exactly â€śgrooving,â€ť at least stepped a bit out of its old rut in the pop-culture imagination.
While these upticks on the zeitgeist meter hardly mean a major turnaround for a city that has suffered record manufacturing and population losses over decades, they do represent something else that has been in short supply around the once- booming home of the American car industry â€“ youthful energy and maybe even a tad of whimsy.
On the other hand, given the negative image of Detroit in the film, observers are mixed on whether or not the Robocop sculpture is a less-than-useful form of â€śblight chic.â€ť
The idea took off online barely two weeks ago, when the cityâ€™s mayor responded to a Twitter inquiry about the sculpture idea. When the mayorâ€™s office tweeted, â€śThere are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop,â€ť a social media campaign erupted online, raising $25,000 that was then matched by a private donor.
â€śDetroit usually has this profile of being scary and a place you donâ€™t want to come to,â€ť he says, adding, â€śbut this is just something that makes Detroit feel more welcoming.â€ť
The proposal certainly fits into a trend already well underway in many rustbelt cities â€“ positioning art as a magnet for urban renewal.
â€śThe artist communities bring exactly the kind of young, energetic energy that these cities need,â€ť says Syracuse University pop culture expert Robert Thompson, adding â€śitâ€™s what many cities from New Yorkâ€™s Soho to New Orleans have done and done well.â€ť
An â€śimageâ€ť is composed of everything we know about a place, filtered through our value systems, he says via email.
â€śThere are many ways that we â€śknowâ€ť about a place â€“ news media coverage (including the hapless Detroit Lions), fictional portrayals (the movies, â€śRobocopâ€ť â€śGrand Torino,â€ť and TVâ€™s â€śDetroit 187â€ť), messages created by city, spotlight events that draw public and media attention,â€ť he points out.
The real trick â€“ and the reason why the Super Bowl spot struck a chord around Michigan and beyond, he says, â€śis to tell the story of how the city is trying to claw back.â€ť
The meaning from this comes subtly, he adds, â€śto the extent that these messages spur conversations about whatâ€™s next for Detroit, theyâ€™re meaningful.â€ť
To the degree that they sentimentalize and overlook the ravages of displaced workers and manufacturing flight, they are what John McCarthy, a professor of urban history at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, calls â€śRust Belt chic.â€ť
He maintains that viewing blighted cities as blank slates for outsiders to compose upon â€“ artists or not â€“ is arrogant and undermines genuine progress towards renewal. â€śI donâ€™t see anything in the Robocop image that is positive for the city of Detroit,â€ť he says, noting that the primary message it sends is at best, â€śan ironic one.â€ť