Any of you who are in the know when it comes to New Urbanism have probably already heard of the New Urban Cowboy, aka Michael E. Arth. He’s the mind behind New Pedestrianism, a more extreme form of New Urbanism in which pedestrian lanes instead of streets are the main connectors, with garages and car lanes relegated to the backs of buildings. Arth is also an idealist, a visionary, and an insanely hard worker–he’s one of the (too few) idealists/visionaries that have the practical know-how and gumption to see their dream through to the end, to its absolute completion.
In Michael Arth’s case, the dream was to recreate one of the worst neighborhoods in central Florida to a beautiful pedestrian village. And by worst neighborhood, I mean worst neighborhood; prostitutes, drug dealers, and gangs were on the streets day and night, shootings and stabbings were frequent, and the many crackhouses in the neighborhood would see 50 cars of people come through on a single night. “Cracktown,” as it was called by locals before its transformation, is in the smallish town of DeLand, near Daytona Beach and Orlando. Arth found the neighborhood in his search for a place to try out his New Pedestrianism, after years that he spent as an artist, and designing, building, and remodeling homes for himself. So, Arth moved himself and his pregnant wife Maya out to Cracktown (and, to my relief, as soon as they got there he sent Maya home to her native Bulgaria for a few months, while he tried to make the place at least moderately safe for her).
He spent those months fixing up the house they were to live in, which was practically falling down, and introducing himself to neighbors – including the drug dealers. Friendly to a fault, it was very encouraging to hear that Arth’s method of walking up, shaking hands, and saying “I’m sure you’re not doing drugs, but I’d just like to let you know that if I do see anyone doing drugs, I’ll be notifying the police,” actually worked. Arth said in the film that they were usually so taken aback that they left him alone after that.
There are many such incredible episodes, as well as daily threats that he just learned to deal with. A few of the homes in the neighborhood (which used to be called The Garden District, before all the dealers moved in) had been burnt to the ground by local gangs, and Arth was constantly overhearing or being told face to face that the homes he was fixing would suffer the same fate. The change in the neighborhood is truly astonishing:
And yes, that really is the same house and streetscape.
One thing that Arth’s websites, www.michaelearth.com and www.goldenapplesmedia.com, don’t tell you though is that there is plenty more about Arth and his mission in this film than just Deland. There’s his art, for example, and his earlier work with home building, and his exploration of a new site on which to build a New Pedestrian town. It’s an interesting, complex documentary, and my only complaints about it were that there were a couple things I would have liked to know more about. One was a proposed “homeless village” that Arth came up with; we see a meeting about it at Arth’s home, but nothing afterwards. Something else that made me curious was the end of the film: Arth is tramping around a beautiful expanse of grass and trees, swimming in a lake, and when he comes out, he looks around and says how this is a good place for a swim, and a great place for a town. One can’t help but feel saddened at the idea of this lovely undeveloped tract – in Florida too! – becoming a town, no matter if it’s a New Pedestrian one or not. Because of his stance on so many other things which do get covered in the film, one can safely assume that he is highly aware of and careful of conservation issues; it simply didn’t come across very well in this documentary. But then, I admit, that’s not what The New Urban Cowboy was about.
I’d advise anyone who is overly skeptical of solutions to the problems facing our civilization to see this movie, and to pay close attention. For that matter, anyone who is overly skeptical of our capacity to work together, create positive, major change, and to fulfill our dreams, ought to take a long look at what Michael Arth has done. You just might be inspired.