A Kickstarter campaign has successfully raised the necessary money to buy a Robocop statue for the city of Detroit, after Mayor Dave Bing said there were no plans for one. The city finds itself in the position of having to decide what to do with the gift - many local politicians don’t want the statue honoring the robot cop hero of a hard R-rated movie in their town.
I understand why some people from Detroit think a Robocop statue in the city is a bad idea, or even tasteless. My friend Jeff Katz, who runs Geekweek (among many other endeavors), is from Detroit and thinks this is terrible hipster irony being forced on his town. I respect that position. But the reality is that Jeff’s just wrong. Here’s why:
Detroit is Detroit. Pussyfooting around the fact that this once-proud American manufacturing capital has been laid low doesn’t change the reality of the situation. And what’s more, it isn’t like this is a secret - Detroit’s place in our national consciousness is no longer the home of American cars but the home of American ruins, a look at the world after the apocalypse. Detroit isn’t so much about the past anymore as it is about the future - a future where the American empire crumbles like the Roman, leaving behind skeletal remains of buildings to be puzzled over by future generations.
So what Detroit must do is confront that head on. Skirting the issue comes across as false, because everybody knows the issue. It makes Detroit’s city fathers seem clueless about their own situation and the relationship the rest of us have with their city. Detroit has taken on a mythological level unseen in American cities since New York went bankrupt in the 70s and all the subway cars got a new coat of paint from taggers.
Robocop, though, is the symbol of hope in that dystopian town. The original film isn’t just good, it’s flat out great. A masterpiece of hyperkinetic satire, Robocop also cuts to the heart of the demise of cities - it’s all about someone giving a shit and doing the right thing. Robocop does the right thing; in this case it’s an extraordinarily violent right thing, but it’s right nonetheless. And in the end he stands strong for Detroit - Old Detroit, not Delta City.
It’s interesting that the bad guys in Robocop didn’t want to fix Detroit, they wanted to erase it. But the reality is that you can’t kill the heart of a city when people care about it - that’s the basic metaphor of Robocop/Alex Murphy. Yes, you can tear down old Alex Murphy and replace him with shiny new Robocop, but he’ll always end up as Murphy. That’s who he is.
To me Robocop represents the men and women who work to keep Detroit going - men and women who work against all odds. It’s not like New York ignores its status as a tough town and in fact it embraces it. “If you can make it here,” they say, “You can make it anywhere.” That’s not just about the city being the best, it’s about the city being the hardest. New York will test you, is the implicit understanding there. And many of you won’t pass that test. As a New Yorker I love that attitude, and I’ve seen many people broken by New York. Every time someone goes scurrying home to the Midwest from NYC true New Yorkers feel a bit of pride.
Let Detroit have that same pride. Yeah, it’s a hard town. Yeah, these are hard times for Detroit. Own that. Don’t pretend otherwise. Own Robocop, the symbol who stands for a troubled Detroit but never turns his back on it, the symbol for Old Detroit, not Delta City.