On February 7th, someone tweeted the mayor of Detroit with a passing thought: “Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky & Robocop would kick Rocky’s butt. He’s a GREAT ambassador for Detroit.”  The city’s mayor (and former NBA all star) Dave Bing replied, “There are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop. Thank you for the suggestion.” Thus an idea was born and, as these things happen, took off like wildfire.

First a Facebook group was set up with a name that couldn’t miss: Build a statue of RoboCop in Detroit.  Then a local art/technology community group donated a site on Roosevelt Park, in front of the derelict Michigan Central Station. A sculptor with experience in producing massive iron works for artists like Matthew Barney offered to oversee the statue’s creation.  The project would require money, an estimated $50,000, so an online fundraising effort was launched. In just eight days it raised about half its target; in one more day, it went over the top.

Here, then, is a glimpse of what arts-based urban revitalization may look like in the age of the internet meme.  I’m of at least three minds on this topic.

Why not! A 1987 sci-fi action movie directed by Paul Verhoeven, “RoboCop” is loved by many for its mix of robots-on-steroids FX, social commentary, extreme violence, and cop-movie clichés.  If the film lacked the prophetic vision of “Blade Runner” or edge-of-your-seat pacing of “The Terminator” (both I and II), it compensated with its B-movie sensibility, trashy dialogue, and the cheesy-but-I-like-it look of its titular protagonist, played with just the right level of humor by Peter Weller. Gen Xers and Yers are likely to have seen the movie at least a half-dozen times in bits and parts; many a quote (“Well, give the man a hand!”) has been recited over bonghits and text messages. “RoboCop” puts Detroit on the map in a world where the culture of basic cable TV comprises the common frame of reference.  Sure, it’s not Detroit in its best light, but that’s not the film’s fault.

More to the point: a statue of RoboCop would be awesome! Yes, it takes a sense of humor to see that—but shouldn’t Detroit have pride in its willingness to laugh at itself? Imagine all the people who would travel just to see it! (As one funder wrote, “I will pilgrimage from Australia to see this statue, it will be one of the proudest moments of my life.”)

Why not? Because have you watched “RoboCop”? Closely? Does a city where police suppresion has had a hand in urban revolts since 1863 need another memorial to a cop, much less a fictional cyborg cop? Sure, the movie purports to take the little guy’s side with its story of a dedicated public servant besieged by a corrupt local power structure, but its drama—indeed, the emotional charge delivered by entire dystopian city genre of that era—draws upon a fucked-up conventional wisdom in which America’s urban crisis stems from the deterioration of social order and decency among the urban population. The fearful gaze that frames the viewer’s perspective in “RoboCop” is deracialized in some respects (for instance, the ruthless criminal boss is played by the white dad from That ‘70s Show), but in the real world its object is unquestionably a black face. In this sense, “RoboCop” hates Detroit’s majority population as much as the racist cops who started the 1967 riots did.

And $50,000 for a statue?! How many hungry people could be fed, how many after-school programs could be funded, how many small businesses could stay afloat with that kind of money?

Why this isn’t really about Detroit at all. In truth, I don’t know enough about the people behind the RoboCop statue or their opponents to assign them these contrasting viewpoints. I confess that whenever I read about community development via “the creative use of digital technology and the arts,” I’m tempted to project the gentrification framework on them: they are the outsiders, dispossessing the locals of their own cultural representations (if not their actual homes, which were probably taken from them long before). But in this case, I don’t know who is newcomer and who is old-timer. The statue’s proponents hail from the creative class, hardly the principled opponents of gentrification, but they advocate an uplift of and upgrading for Detroit that’s desperately needed. Maybe the statue will really set in motion the virtuous circle that one organizer envisioned:

Beyond the statue even, there’s every chance that this crowd funding experience will go on to kickstart the kickstarting of other amazing things in Detroit. Imagine that? Your kickstarting of a RoboCop statue cascades into greater positivity and more connections coming into Detroit…

Personally, I don’t find the joke made by the RoboCop statue to a particularly mean-spirited one. It’s kind of funny, and I’ve had a few good chuckles sharing the story of the RoboCop statue with friends and colleagues.  It is, however, not a joke being told by Detroiters. That is, the background of experiences and worldviews its humor draws upon isn’t Detroit. It’s the teenage world of late-night TV, beer and bonghits, and B-movie sci-fi/action fandom.

In a smart and compelling review essay, John Patrick Leary situates recent photography and documentaries of Detroit’s scarred landscape within a genre of ruin porn. “All the elements are here,” Leary writes (with specific reference in this quote to Julien Temple’s documentary “Requiem For Detroit?”):

the exuberant connoisseurship of dereliction; the unembarrassed rejoicing at the “excitement” of it all, hastily balanced by the liberal posturing of sympathy for a “man-made Katrina;” and most importantly, the absence of people other than those he calls, cruelly, “street zombies.” The city is a shell, and so are the people who occasionally stumble into the photographer’s viewfinder.=

Not all Detroit aesthetes subscribe to the ghoulish fetishism of this genre. These days, “well-meaning defenders of the city’s possibilities,” Leary explains, “are often politically active, often young, and, it should be noted, often white. This class of Detroit story chronicles Detroit’s possibilities, with a heavy emphasis on art and urban agriculture on abandoned land.”

I’m not sure which side the proponents of the RoboCop statue fall on, but in either case what both views on Detroit share is the “evacuation of context”: real histories and community relations are traded out for the particular obsessions of the beholder. With the RoboCop statue, the cultural references of the college dorm-room now constitute a strategy for arts-based urban revitalization. (That, and the internet-based fundraising technique of “crowd funding.”)  The self-serving, narcissistic thrust of creative-class politics, so often just below the surface of proposals to create bike lanes or questions about “what would Jane Jacobs do?”, now appears to huff the fumes of 80s nostalgia and adolescent humor. Where is the ‘real’ Detroit in this picture?