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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.

By Staff writer / February 17, 2011

Robocop, portrayed by Peter Weller, is the hero of a 1980’s film of the same name in which a cop dies and is reborn as a cyborg in a dystopian Motor City.

Orion pictures/Newscom

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Old movies can cast a nostalgic glow on just about any setting – even a struggling Rust Belt city such as Detroit.

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That’s what a group of youthful idealists say they are hoping to do with a sculpture of, yes, Robocop – the hero of a 1980’s film of the same name in which a cop dies and is reborn as a cyborg in a dystopian Motor City.

It’s been a while since Detroit was mentioned in the same breath as “cool.” But add this idea – and the viral attention it has garnered online – to the moody, super-hip Super Bowl ad fronted by rapper Eminem, and Detroit is, if not exactly “grooving,” at least stepped a bit out of its old rut in the pop-culture imagination.

RELATED: Detroit's next step to combat blight: buy and rehab vacant homes

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 – 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 “blight chic.”

The idea took off online barely two weeks ago, when the city’s mayor responded to a Twitter inquiry about the sculpture idea. When the mayor’s office tweeted, “There are not any plans to erect a statue to Robocop,” a social media campaign erupted online, raising $25,000 that was then matched by a private donor.

“It just hit a sweet spot,” says Jerry Paffendorf, creative director for Imagination Station, the non-profit that helped organize the fund-raising campaign through its website Kickstarter.

“Detroit usually has this profile of being scary and a place you don’t want to come to,” he says, adding, “but this is just something that makes Detroit feel more welcoming.”

The proposal certainly fits into a trend already well underway in many rustbelt cities – positioning art as a magnet for urban renewal.

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