Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

"Making something big happen at an urban scale is more than a popularity contest."

Did you know the Statue of Liberty was one of the first civic crowdfunding campaigns in America? This piece of century-old news made the rounds last year, as readers rediscovered the central role of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in raising $100,000 ($2.3M in today’s dollars) to fund the pedestal to receive Lady Liberty in 1885.

As MIT researcher Rodrigo Davies pointed out then, and does again in his recent thesis on civic crowdfunding, it wasn’t just the five-month, centrally organised campaign that makes the Statue a historical precedent. Rather, it was the skilful way Pulitzer’s paper made it seem as if everyone were donating, with daily updates, a reward system, and personal anecdotes underlining the idea that no amount was too small. The World also used anti-elite sentiments to rally the working classes to the cause – traditional, big-donor fundraising hadn’t closed the gap on the pedestal’s cost – mentioning donors by name in daily updates, and used the platform of the newspaper to make the campaign appear to be ongoing national news. Social media requests for backing, frequent emails once you have given, a commemorative tchotchke once it’s all over: all news from 1885.