This article was originally published in Domus 948/June 2011
The Internet's very local demand for RoboCop
Strange things can happen when the nerdy niches of the Internet mobilise. In less than a week, the wacky-yet-kindaclever idea of building a statue in Detroit of the title character from the Detroit-based 1987 film RoboCop surpassed its $50,000 goal through donations on the fundraising website Kickstarter.
It all started this February, when a flippant remark on Twitter about the city needing a statue of the android police character spurred a response from the city's mayor Dave Bing, who stated that the city had no such plans. But almost instantly, those plans organically emerged. A Facebook page gathered more than 9,000 fans within a day, and that overwhelming interest inspired a few locals to start the fundraising campaign. After its 45-day run, the "Detroit Needs a Statue of Robocop!" campaign raised $67,436 from more than 2,700 people, including one $25,000 donation from an especially interested fan. Thus a crowd of Internet philanthrodorks from all over the world—most of them from nowhere near Detroit—have effectively bankrolled this idea into reality.
It might not be exactly what the city of Detroit needs, but it is something. Dramatic population losses and evaporating jobs have put the city in a state of gradual decay that shows few signs of stopping. That caricature was even more pronounced in RoboCop the film, where crime was rampant and a virtually indestructible robot was the only thing that could stop the city from self-destruction. Brandon Walley, one of the organisers behind the statue campaign, says the plot still resonates in a city fighting for identity and struggling to persevere. "I don't want to take it too far, but there are these parallels with Detroit that are interesting," says Walley. "This city needs so much. I'll be the first to admit that that money should go somewhere else, but there's nothing wrong with a bunch of people wanting to have fun."
Most city governments long for this kind of interest in local decision-making, and they're increasingly relying on the Internet to provide such easy access to what's otherwise a timesuck at city hall. A pop culture statue doesn't exactly carry the same weight as a debate over a sales tax increase or a new mega-development, but Walley says it does represent a positive change for the city that locals and outsiders should get behind. As the project is privately funded, privately organised and slated to go up on land owned by Wayne State University, the City of Detroit is officially agnostic.
"It's not that we don't want to comment. We just don't have
one," says Dan Lijana, a spokesman for the mayor.
People who gave $10 or $5 or even $1 to support
this project are a new sort of stakeholder in civic life, one
enabled and encouraged by the Internet's vast two-way
communications. Niches are magnified and, especially in this
instance, the supporters of an idea, a project or a way of life can
pool together and proactively make something happen.
Paul Serilla, Detroit, $10
First and foremost, to be quite honest, I just thought it was kind of a funny idea. I think it shows the potential of asking for help, and having a clear and manageable goal. In this case it's just a little bit of a silly goal.
Misty Mills also kicked in $10 to the project. She lives in
another suburb about 30 minutes from Detroit, and she sees a
greater significance in the project beyond its humour.
Misty Mills, Detroit, $10
The city has this great, rich history that's overlooked in favour of the bad reputation. The statue is more of a symbol of what Detroit is not."
While much of the project's early criticism focused on its
silliness in the face of so many problems in the city, some backers like Joe Zook counter that those criticisms miss the point. He's a
Michigan native now living in New York who contributed $1 to the project, and he argues that the statue is at least something
new in a city largely fading away.
Joe Zook, New York, $1
Frankly, I didn't see it as the type of thing that would offend people who live in a city where there are literally entire blocks that have been razed or burned down or abandoned.
Andrew Hungerford, Detroit $5
Of course it is a little ridiculous. But for me that was part of the charm of it. I'm not sure if I would have contributed if I didn't have any connection with Detroit.
But not all of the project's supporters are from or even familiar with Detroit or Michigan. Paul Rooney, a Web developer from London who contributed £10, has never even been to the city.
Paul Rooney, London, £10
When I think about what I know about Detroit, it's basically cars and RoboCop.
According to organisers, about 80 per cent of donations were given by people who live outside the state. About half of those are from people outside the country. Because the statue idea and its creation are locally-led efforts, Walley says he isn't worried about the potential downsides of outsiders meddling in Detroit's affairs.
"I almost think the opposite. The rest of the world needs to know
more of what good things are actually happening in the city," he
says. "Because, yeah, the numbers are bad."
I live outside the USA. If it weren't for RoboCop I'd probably never have heard of Detroit. For me RoboCop is connected to Detroit like nothing else. I'm going to the USA next year and I'll visit Detroit for sure. It would be great if the statue were ready by then.
Ben Brown is a principal at Placemakers, a consulting firm that specialises in managing public participation for urban planning and development efforts. He says this sort of global interaction and excitement is exactly the benefit of soliciting feedback on civic ventures through the Internet. Aggregating like-minded people from all over the world to create a critical mass, he says, is a major advantage of the Internet. But he also cautions against allowing a global community too much power to influence local decisions. "If people outside the community could change the rules of zoning or building just by virtue of sending money or voting from Europe or Asia, then that makes me nervous," says Brown.
Brown also argues that the Internet should only be one element
of public outreach efforts. Public meetings, design charrettes and
other in-real-life events are really where ideas can be refined,
better understood and accepted by communities.
This statue will be the only reason why I would ever consider visiting Detroit.
Every city needs a RoboCop statue, but Detroit MUST have one!
Walley and his fellow organisers have been doing this sort of outreach to community groups and residents in recent months, and he says it's been good for their project—and the city in general.
"It's been a really healthy conversation. Kind of exhausting
sometimes," says Walley. "Ultimately it's part of helping
and solidifying the community in Detroit to talk and not be
disenfranchised from each other and different ideas."
A lifesize statue will not do. RoboCop needs to be 20 feet tall and standing on a unicorn or something.
Edmond Lorts, Detroit, $5
It will finally be a reason to visit Detroit.
As the funds begin clearing through backers' credit card
companies and the Kickstarter website, a statue that started off
as a pop culture half-joke will be cast in bronze almost 10 feet tall
and installed in the city of Detroit, possibly by this September.
But not because the Internet demanded it. Because the Internet
Nate Berg, journalist, writes for Wired and Architect among others
The images of Detroit in this feature are by the photographer and urban sociologist Camilo José Vergara (Santiago de Chile, 1944). Likened to Jacob Riis for his photographic documentation of American slums and decaying urban environments, Vergara applied the technique of rephotography to a series of American cities, photographing the same buildings from the same vantage point at regular intervals over many years. Since 1991 he has returned every year to the city of Detroit, motivated by an "ongoing obsession to document urban decline, desolation and decay" and by an avid interest in what he calls "America's most impressive array of ruins". According to Vergara, these ruins should be respected and preserved, for example by transforming 12 square blocks of downtown Detroit into an "American Acropolis" (as he suggested in 1995 on the pages of Metropolis). Regarding Motown, he explains: "With nearly one third of its acreage vacant (the ruins of what was once the 'global capital of the automobile industry'), and with the art projects and graffiti commentaries, Detroit has become an unforgettable city of the imagination. Forget the promises of politicians to rebuild Detroit. Let it decay into a global centre of artists, tourists and shopkeepers, its economy remade on an appreciation of ruins and entertainment: the Eternal City of the industrial age."