Detroit needs RoboCop’s optimistic vision of the future


Off the Record

I might be the only Albertan who is interested in whether a group of concerned citizens is successful in their bid to have a statue of a crimefighting hero erected in a place of honour in Detroit, Mich.

There’s no debating the prime directives of this trendsetting lawman had an impact on reducing the crime rate. His simple mottos, Serve the Public Trust, Protect the Innocent, and Uphold the Law, should be adopted by police forces across the country.

If Detroit is to avoid its certain dystopian future, it needs to erect a statue of RoboCop.

It’s understandable — but shortsighted — why the mayor and bureaucrats in Detroit’s city hall are against spending taxpayers’ funds on art in a time of recession, so it’s inspiring to see that a group united through the Internet has pledged more than $50,000 to create the statue of the cyborg made famous in three movies and a television series.

Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky Balboa, Edmonton has its Gretzky, so why shouldn’t Detroit memorialize its fictional hero?

I’ve taken a bit of a special interest in Detroit after spending about a week there a few years ago for a conference of the International Society of Newspaper Editors (ISWNE).

After hearing a presentation from a journalist about how the city is both in a state of collapse and renewal, a friend and I struck out on our own to see some of the highlights such as Joe Louis’s fist, the original, Hitsville USA Motown headquarters, the “Maritime Sailors Cathedral” Lightfoot sang about, and some of the abandoned residential, commercial and industrial neighbourhoods. I think we were among the abandoned Highland Park municipal buildings when I observed, “This looks like a scene from RoboCop.”

Fitting. This city is in ruins. The science fiction movie was filmed in Dallas, Texas because Detroit itself was too desolate.

Majestic century-old buildings dominate downtown Detroit and make you feel part of a fascinating community that has re-invented itself several times in 300 years — from Midwestern milling and shipping entrepot in the early 1900s, to industrial showpiece as the automobile grabbed hold of North American industry and culture until the 1950s.

The auto industry was on fumes through the Sixties and ran out of gas during the energy crisis in the 1970s.

That decline continues today. A sprawling city, Detroit used to have a population of more than two million people — today its population is less than that of Edmonton. And judging by the rate at which some marvels of architecture are being destroyed, Detroit’s corrupt politicians and bureaucrats aren’t tied to their past. Sadly, if they’re done with it, they just walk away, leaving abandoned apartment buildings, offices and theatres to copper thieves, crack whores and the huddled homeless.

Inextricably linked to the auto industry, the local economy is in shambles, unable to support the mostly black, unskilled population left behind. The white working class has fled to the opulence and safety of the suburbs, taking their money with them. Easily one-third of the city is impoverished.

Travel down streets in residential wastelands and you come to the inescapable conclusion that to survive, Detroit must start all over again. Complete neighbourhoods need to be demolished — already trees have overgrown unused alleys, prairie grasses are taking root, and coyotes and other animals run wild.

But it’s within these huge abandoned neighbourhoods where Detroit’s future lies. More than 10,000 buildings have been identified for demolition. Mayor Dave Bing planned to demolish 3,000 derelict residential buildings last year. That’s more than the number of homes in Ponoka.

With imagination and investment, Detroit could become the model city for North American urban renewal. Community thinkers are talking about returning vast areas of the city to farmland, old downtown industrial areas could be reclaimed for urban parks; others still for new residential development. Detroit needs new infrastructure, green infrastructure to entice and support a variety of industry and its workers.

Incentives may be needed to encourage people to move from areas difficult to adequately service with schools, police and fire protection, and recreation and cultural centres. Detroit must become more compact, more dense, a collection of urban villages within the city that caters to a population of pedestrians or mass transit commuters.

It will be interesting to see what role a RoboCop statue will play in giving Motown the strength and encouragement to regain its soul.