A RoboCop Statue for Detroit?

Behind a viral campaign to build a RoboCop statue for Detroit.

February 17, 2011, 3:41 PM

Feb. 17, 2011 -- What's the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Detroit? The auto industry, no doubt. The music of Motown, perhaps.

How about RoboCop?

What started as a joke, casually tossed off in a tweet, has turned into a topic of heated debate in the city where it could end up having a lasting physical impact: a giant, solid metal, $50,000 permanent sculpture of RoboCop -- the titular character from the 1987 movie set in dystopian Detroit -- plunked down on the street.

On Feb. 7, less than two weeks ago, Twitter user @MT sent an ironic tweet addressed to Detroit mayor Dave Bing: "Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky & Robocop would kick Rocky's butt. He's a GREAT ambassador for Detroit."

It should have ended there. But when the mayor replied via Twitter that "There are not any plans to erect a statue of Robocop," an Internet campaign was born.

"I think it hit the sweet spot of interest and curiosity of the mayor not only being on Twitter, but responding to a tweet about RoboCop," Jerry Paffendorf, one of the statue's backers, told ABC News. "It led to a lot of smiles and turned into a lot of interest in how that could actually happen."

Detroiter John Leonard started a Facebook group called Build a statue of RoboCop in Detroit and teamed up with friends like Paffendorf, who works at the local nonprofit Imagination Station, to explore their options.

Working with sculptor Casey V. Westbrook, the organizers determined that building a full-scale, solid metal, permanent sculpture would cost $50,000. Undaunted, they launched a campaign at the hip crowd-sourced funding platform KickStarter a week ago with a goal of raising the money by March 26.

They had made it to the halfway mark Tuesday when a donor agreed to match it. Up until that point, the average contribution, from 1,500 people, was about $17, according to Paffendorf.

"I think this is a good lesson for everybody," he told ABC News. "It creates an awareness that in a city like Detroit that has so many severe systematic problems you can still get something with this kind of energy. My hope is that when people see something like the RoboCop statue -- even if they're angry about it -- it fires them up to do something for the city."

And make no mistake: there are plenty of people who are angry about it.

"Detroit's not a character in RoboCop; the city has nothing to do with what's going on in the plot except to be a horrible place," says small business owner Joe Posch, who has criticized the project on his blog.

Scrolling through the Kickstarter records, Posch determined that the amount of funding that was coming from Detroit residents was less than 10 percent. "It's not saving Detroit," he said. "What it is, is providing the backdrop for a funny Internet photo."

Others complain that the $50,000 could be put to something much more productive, pointing to other, less silly proposals to beautify the city -- even on Kickstarter -- like raising cash for the Greening of Detroit.

"It does seem like an awful lot of money to spend on an awfully frivolous thing," says Jeff Wattrick, a blogger for the statewide news site MLive. "There have been some really good arguments about why RoboCop isn't a great icon for the city in terms of the themes of the movie and the things that are going on. No, it's sort of ominous."

The honoring of fictional characters by real-life cities is not without precedent. Philadelphia does have a statue of Rocky Balboa near the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which featured prominently in the movie's rousing training montage.

Detroit has no official stance on the RoboCop project, but it should perhaps be noted that most of the movie was shot in Texas.

"We're surprised at the amount of interest that's been received as a result of a tweet, a tweet that was a joke," Karen Dumas, a bemused-sounding spokeswoman for the mayor's office, told ABC News. "We understand that public art is important and we're certainly willing to honor the interest, but we do have rules and regulations that we have to adhere to. We just have to take this one step at a time."

As for "@ML," the Twitter user who inadvertently got the $50,000 ball rolling, he's from Massachusetts. "That Robocop thing was a joke run amok," he tweeted Wednesday. "I've never even been to the D."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events