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From 'Old Detroit' to Delta City: RoboCop's Dystopia in Detroit

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by Sean Posey

In the future as depicted in the RoboCop movies, Detroit’s people struggle against the tyranny of corporate rule. That future is about to arrive, way ahead of schedule, as wealthy predators scheme to build a new city in Detroit’s downtown and waterfront, a “free market utopia, ideal for corporate growth.”

 

by Sean Posey

"I say good business is where you find it.” – Dick Jones, Senior President of Omni Consumer Products

 

”Detroit's once mothballed downtown buildings are being bought up one by one by a local billionaire.”

In 2014, twenty-seven years after the release of Paul Verhoeven's dystopian film RoboCop, a statue of the part man, part machine will go up in Detroit on Wayne State University's tech campus. That same year, a remake of RoboCop will also be released. To both the joy and dismay of many, the futuristic cyborg has come to represent "The D" in many ways in American popular culture – supposedly symbolizing Detroit's reputation for crime and corruption.

In the film, a large company called Omni Consumer Products is planning to build a corporate-backed "New Detroit," dubbed "Delta City," to gradually replace the crime-ridden ruins of "Old Detroit," where most of the city's population lives. Privatization and gentrification are, of course, the main goals. RoboCop is created to police Old Detroit and make the city safe for corporate investment.

RoboCop, however, was a futuristic film in the 1980s. The idea of large corporate interests investing in Detroit seemed enormously fanciful. Equally fanciful was the idea that privatization or gentrification could ever come to the city. No corporate giant like the film's Omni Consumer Products would invest in a city like Detroit, right?

Yet, the intervening years have moved Detroit, in many ways, in these directions. Now, as the Motor City formally enters bankruptcy, a fight for the future of the metropolis is ramping up in earnest – and the seeds of an "Old Detroit" and a Delta City are emerging. The outcome of this fight will have long-range consequences, not just for Detroit, but also for other metropolises all across the country.

Welcome to Old Detroit

As RoboCop hit the theaters in 1987, the city that spawned the "Future of Law Enforcement" was hitting bottom. In the previous two decades, Detroit had become the symbol for America's "Urban Crisis." The city averaged sixty-three homicides per one hundred thousand people in 1987, more than any other urban center in the country.[1] Like the previous three years, neighborhoods burned in a wave of arsons on the night before Halloween – which became an annual event known as "Devil's Night."

Ze'ev Chafets, a former Detroiter who returned to the city in the 1980s, wrote that in 1987 "…. downtown Detroit is now pretty much empty. Entire skyscrapers – hotels, office buildings and apartment houses – are vacant and decaying; you can walk a downtown block during business hours without passing a living soul."[2]

That same year, the bare beginnings of downtown development began with the opening of the much-derided "People Mover," an automated transportation system that travels around downtown. Nearly three decades later, the Woodward Avenue Light Rail is scheduled to link up with the People Mover in 2015. Detroit's once mothballed downtown buildings are being bought up one by one by a local billionaire. Plans are in the works to change the face of downtown and Midtown.

In 2012, Detroit's murder rate was fifty-three per one hundred thousand.[3] Crime has decreased since the late eighties, but Detroit still has the second highest murder rate in the country. Recently, the city practically celebrated the fact that thirty-six hours passed without a murder or a shooting. However, 2013 brought more bad news: bankruptcy.

On July 19, Detroit filed for chapter 9-bankruptcy protection. Earlier in the year, Governor Rick Snyder appointed bankruptcy lawyer Kevyn Orr as the emergency manager for the city. Under Public Act 436, Orr usurped democratic control of Detroit's finances. Detroit seemed to be at its nadir. But where others might see privation and poverty, Orr and those in the business community see profit and privatization.

Good Business Is Where You Find It

Like OCP – whose motto for Delta City was "The future has a silver lining" – Fortune also saw a "silver lining" in Detroit's bankruptcy. Perhaps the political will to address "insufficient growth" could now be mustered.[4] Others, however, have seen the real silver lining for years. Despite being a mess, there is still money to be made in Detroit. Just as Omni Consumer Products (in the film) saw profit making opportunities where others saw nothing, so have the forces pushing privatization in the real city of Detroit.

For years, the right-wing Mackinac Policy Center has advanced the idea of privatizing government services in Detroit and across Michigan. They have called for the sale of assets – like electrical utilities, water/sewer, and public electricity. Now the city's electrical grid is on its way to being sold to DTE Energy. The emergency manager will also put up Detroit's trash collection for private bidding.

Mackinac is not to be taken lightly. The center itself worked closely with the State Policy Network – a collection of corporatist think tanks covering all fifty states – to successfully make a Michigan a "Right to Work" state. The State Policy Network is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization where legislatures and corporations get together to, essentially, craft legislation.

”Despite being a mess, there is still money to be made in Detroit.”

One of the Mackinac Center's more brazen ideas is a plan, originally set up in a fictional book by Michigan businessman Rodney Lockwood, to buy Belle Isle Park – a one and a half square mile park located on the Detroit River – from the city for a billion dollars. From there, Belle Isle would be transformed into a commonwealth (a "free market utopia," according to Lockwood.)[5] Mackinac's dream of a privatized Belle Isle for the wealthy is not entirely outside of reality, as the city has now passed control of Belle Isle to the Neoliberal state government. [6]

At this early stage of the bankruptcy and the rule of Kevyn Orr, the future of privatization is unclear. However, Donald Cohen, founder of In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization efforts around the country, warns of the possible consequences for Detroit: "You'll have a city with enormous corporate and private control over some pretty fundamental things, pretty fundamental public goods and services. They could sell anything, from water and libraries and parks, and well, I don't know what they're going to do just yet, but conservative voices are calling to get rid of it all."[7]

Delta City: The Future Has a Silver Lining

According to the novelization, RoboCop takes place around 2043. Omni Consumer Product's dream of a gentrified Delta City to replace Old Detroit would be a mid-century project. However, in the real world, Detroit could look dramatically different before then. Building off of the "Detroit Future City" long-range plan, Huffington Post recently ran a story entitled "This is What Detroit Could Look Like in 2033…And Beyond." The eighteen projects listed run the gamut from the building of Detroit's first office building in eight years, to the creation of a "Western Downtown" area. [8] And some of the most powerful corporate leaders and wealthy businessman in the region are already getting in on the ground floor.

Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert has been on a buying spree in Downtown Detroit. He now owns thirty buildings in the downtown and over seven and a half million square feet of city office space in total. Far from fearing what bankruptcy might due to the market for his recent acquisitions, Gilbert stated that the bankruptcy "is a tsunami we all think is going to come…. But I think it will be over relatively quickly. The faster we get there, the better. This is good news."[9] Good news indeed for business interests, like Gilbert's company Rock Ventures, which stands to make a killing off of the burgeoning market in downtown and Midtown Detroit.

Earlier this year, George Jackson Jr., the head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, told a local group in Detroit's affluent Grosse Pointe Farms suburb, "When I look at this city's tax base, I say bring on more gentrification…. I'm sorry, but, I mean, bring it on. We can't just be a poor city and prosper." Unfortunately, Jackson didn't mention the price already being paid by the hundreds of mostly poor residents being evicted from apartments in the Cass Corridor, which is almost certainly part of a buying spree by Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Detroit Redwings. Ilitch reportedly is eyeing the area for his new development projects.[10]

Even as bankruptcy proceedings begin, Detroit will still pay almost three hundred million dollars to help build the Red Wing's stadium – this in a city with a poverty rate three times higher than the nation as a whole and with a household income half that of the national median. Clearly, the vast majority of Old Detroit's citizens are not the targets of this new development in Midtown and in the central business district. Who is then?

Tidal Magazine succinctly describes this evolving "tale of two cities": "There are two Detroit's in the making. One connects downtown with sports facilities, outdoor markets, and good restaurants to the residential suburbs with good schools. Imagine a bull's eye in a circle. In between these spaces is the other Detroit, 85% African-American, abandoned and ignored but still footing the bills for the new development."[11]

"There are two Detroit's in the making.”

The issue of the growing class and racial divides between the downtown, Midtown, and most of the neighborhoods are becoming more and more contentious. In an op-ed article for the Detroit News entitled "Will Downtown Detroit Became a White Enclave," Nolan Finley writes, "Downtown seems immune to Detroit's broken finances…. Private dollars take care of everything from street clean-up to security within the downtown and Midtown zones." [12] These small sections of the city are becoming the purview of young professionals and the moneyed elite. The real beneficiaries, however, are a few wealthy businessmen who are in the position to control a large share of a burgeoning retail, real estate, and entertainment market – all while the emergency manager helps to, in the words of the fictional Chairman of Omni Consumer Products, "create an economy ideal for corporate growth."[13]

In a recent interview, the screenwriter for the original RoboCop reflected on how the film's script is starting to play into reality: "We are now living in the world that I was proposing in RoboCop…how big corporations will take care of us and…how they won't." [14]

In Detroit, that means a corporate playground for tech workers, professionals, and suburbanites visiting Delta City; for the rest of the city, it means the conditions of Old Detroit: crime, collapse, and glaring inequality. And of course Detroit's creditors, represented by corporate czar, Kevyn Orr, will have access to everything from the precious works at the Detroit Institute of Arts to the pensions of the city's retired workers.

By the time of RoboCop 3 in the films series, the abandoned citizens of Old Detroit come to refer to Omni Consumer Products as "Oppressive Capitalist Pigs." After corporate forces attempt to evict the residents of Old Detroit, a guerilla force arms itself to take on OCP. Author M. Keith Booker refers to this installment as "one of the few genuinely radical political films in American cinema."[15]

Only a genuinely radical response from the public will be able to counteract the selling of Detroit. And Detroit will not be the only city subjected to a dystopian narrative in this age of inequality. Municipalities, and even entire states, face staggering debts and pressure to privatize services and departments. Other Kevyn Orr's are waiting in the wings; waiting to adjudicate in favor of corporate creditors. Only an educated public refusing to bargain away their public rights will stand between the Dick Jones' of the world, and the greater public good.

Sean Posey is a photographer, activist, and historian. He is a graduate of the photography program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He also holds a graduate degree in the field of history from Youngstown State University.

 

Notes

[1] Ze'ev Chafets, Devil's Night and Other True Tales of Detroit (New York: Random House, 1990), 4.

[2] Ze'ev Chafets, "The Tragedy of Detroit," The New York Times, July 29, 1990.http://www.nytimes.com/1990/07/29/magazine/the-tragedy-of-detroit.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm (Accessed December 1, 2013).

[3] "Murder Detroit: Mayor Dave Bing Releases 2012 Crime, Homicide Statistics, Huffington Post, January 3, 2013. (Accessed December 1, 2013).

[4] Mohamed A. El-Erian, "Could Detroit's Tragedy Have a Silver Lining?" Fortune, July 22, 2013. 

[5] For a further look at Mackinac's privatization goals in Michigan, seehttp://www.mackinac.org/3153;http://www.mackinac.org/3162; andhttp://www.mackinac.org/4149

[6] For more information on the Belle Isle Commonwealth plan seehttp://www.commonwealthofbelleisle.com

[7] Candice Bernd, "Detroit: Donald Cohen Warns of Privatization, Calls for Bailout" Truthout, July 25, 2013. (Accessed December 4, 2013).

[8] Ashley Woods, "This is What Detroit Could Look Like in 2033…And Beyond" Huffington Post, November 26, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/26/detroit-in-20-years-2033_n_4269422.html?utm_hp_ref=detroit (Accessed December 4, 2013). Also seehttp://detroitworksproject.com

[9] Michelle Maynard, "Billionaire Dan Gilbert's 7.6 Million Square Foot Stake In Detroit" Fortune, June 19, 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/michelinemaynard/2013/06/19/billionaire-dan-gilberts-7-6-million-square-foot-stake-in-detroit/ (Accessed December 4, 2013).

[10] Steve Neavling, "'Bring on More Gentrification,' Declares Detroit's Economic Development Czar"Motor City Muckracker, May 16, 2013.

[11] Nicholas Mirzoeff, "Detroit: The Laboratory of Neo-Liberalism" Tidal Magazine, October 10, 2013.http://tidalmag.org/blog/intensify/detroit-the-laboratory-of-neo-liberalism/ (Accessed December 7, 2013).

[12] Nolan Finley, Editorial, "Will Downtown Detroit Become a White Enclave?" Detroit News,November 17, 2013.

[13] RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, Orion Pictures, 1987.

[14] Oliver Joy, "RoboCop Creator: Detroit Shows the Fictional Future is Upon Us" CNN, July 25, 2013.http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/25/business/robocop-neumeier-detroit-bankruptcy/index.html(Accessed December 7, 2013).

[15] M. Keith Booker, Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Santana Barbara: Praeger, 2006), 216. 

 

 

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