Robocop: Detroit's Statue of Liberty, or, Who Decides the Image of a City?

If you saw the movie, then you can skip ahead. If not, in brief, Robocop, made in 1987 around the time of other post-apocalyptic sorts of distopias (all the Mad Max movies, for instance) chronicled a lawless American city featuring the clearly recognizable features of everybody's favorite punching bag, Detroit, and, the title character, an armored law enforcement machine in human form (no C3PO, this humanoid robot had a moral center, but man was he fierce) sent to quell the denizens of the dark and scary city.

Flash forward to 2011, and a small group of irony-clad hipsters seizes upon the idea of a Robocop statue. They raise 50,000 dollars, quite rapidly, through the online micro giving platform, Kickstarter. Push back from Detroiters ranges from bemused to hostile--I'm with the more extreme end of the spectrum for a number of reasons.

It does make one think of numerous other instances where symbolic gifts from outsiders are met with a cool response. A prime example is August Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, a gift from France to the United States that has come to symbolize the immigrant experience, liberty and a democratic ideal. But this warmth and positive brand image did not come easily. Bartholdi was largely unsuccessful on a cross country US fund raising effort, resorting instead to private contributions from his side of the Atlantic. The shared history and alliance between France and the US (from the resistance to the British and collaboration across the 1776 and 1789 US and French revolutions, parallel human rights doctrines and similar Constitutional rhetoric) did help smooth communication and ultimately the statue was constructed, shipped and set atop her plinth to great public adoration.

So why then, you ask, given this example, am I, lets say lukewarm, about this intended gift? Who asked? I mean, who asked for it? The image of the city of Detroit, as painted by outside media, as a lawless urban zone, is not without its points of truth. Ask anyone living on the lower East Side, or in Brightmor, or Del Ray, and they'll tell you a police officer is hard to come by, and that, yes, the environment can be harsh at times. All the more reason that detached irony and quick money to celebrate it is a less than appropriate response. The velocity at which the money raised is inversely proportional to the appropriateness of the gesture--and extends the legacy of patronage and paternalism that privileged segments of our society continue to use with abandon.

The other parallel I think of comes from Philadelphia. When I graduated from college, I had one of my first jobs working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I also worked as a doorman at a hotel to support myself while I worked at my job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On my first day, a tour bus pulled up to the front of the museum and disgorged its passengers who ran up the stairs to the front door. I could not believe what I was seeing--people so excited to visit the Museum that they ran. And then they stopped, turned to the city, pumped their fists like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, and ran back down. A few years back, Sylvester Stallone had this likeness of himself cast in bronze. He offered this to the city, to place at the top of the steps of the Museum. His request was at first denied, later granted, as civic culture bowed to popular culture.

But by this point, Philadelphia did not need Rocky's brawn to save it. Detroit needs plenty of things--better schools, better transportation, services for the people who live and work there. These are the lives and images and faces and voices who should make an image of the city. That would be a fine use for the quick cash. For now, I am a big fan of Robert Graham's massive Joe Louis fist down by Hart Plaza.

For more, check the Facebook page for Detroit Does not Need a Robocop Statue:


If you're not a facebooker, this is a great piece from
Crain's Detroit Business

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