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Robocop got Detroit about right

Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop was prescient in its depiction of urban America, says Rory Olcayto

When I first saw Blade Runner (in 1985, on the telly - I was too young in 1982 when it got its AA-rated cinema release) I remember issuing forth a derisive snort when the opening credits read: ‘Los Angeles, 2019’. The scenes this direction overlaid were of flaming towers, incessant rain, brutalist megastructures - apparently miles high - and brown, sulphurous skies …Nah. Don’t think so. That’s not LA.

Yet, despite its wonky set-up, Blade Runner rocked. Great story, great soundtrack, amazing scenography. Whenever it’s on the box these days, I’m watching. It’s a favourite among architects, too, perhaps because it was one of the first big-budget science fiction movies to imagine a future cityscape where old buildings mingled with new ones, which is how most cities actually are. Nevertheless, with just six years to go, it’s fair to say that snort in ‘85 was justified: LA still doesn’t look like that and probably never will.

Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, on the other hand, first shown in 1986, was considerably more prescient in its depiction of urban America. It’s set in a near-future Detroit, a city on the verge of collapse due, as the Wikipedia entry explains, ‘to financial ruin and unchecked crime’. That sounds like now.

Last week the city, famous as a centre for music and car production and, more recently, ‘ruin porn’ - photos and films of derelict buildings - filed for bankruptcy. With debts totally $18 billion, the Michigan state governor, Rick Snyder, explained to the world’s press last Friday: ‘The city is basically broke.’

robocop

robocop

The facts underlying Detroit’s perilous condition are astonishing. In the first decade of the 21st century its population fell by 25 per cent. At the turn of the millennium it was the USA’s 10th largest city. Today, it ranks 18th. With around 700,000 residents in 2013, that works out as a 60 per cent drop from its peak in 1950, when a census reported 1.8 million inhabitants. When people leave at that kind of rate, it’s William Butler Yeats time: things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. There are 78,000 abandoned buildings in Detroit. Nearly half the streetlights don’t work. The murder rate is at a 40-year high and only a third of Detroit’s ambulances are fully operational. The police force too is underperforming: apparently it takes an hour to respond to calls.

In Robocop, a new future for Detroit beckons. An omniscient corporation (Google? Facebook? Apple? Could be.) plans to demolish the old city, replace it with high-end regen and rename it Delta City. And it funds the new city’s police force, introducing Robocop - half man, half machine - to bring law to the streets and make it safe for gentrification.

Back in the real world, not everyone in Detroit is as down about its future as the state governor. Multibillionaire Dan Gilbert, for example, founder of online mortgage lender Quicken Loans, is leading plans to rework the city as a technology hub. Twitter has already taken office space there and Gilbert himself owns or runs 30 downtown buildings. The similarities with Verhoeven’s film are uncanny.

In truth Robocop was never a favourite of mine; Judge Dredd, a big influence on Verhoeven’s film, renders America’s urban future with far more aplomb. But I didn’t snort over my popcorn, either. If Gilbert suggests a name change for Detroit, however, in the weeks and months to come as the city’s future is considered, I’ll probably choke on my hummus.

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