By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Film Festival: <i>New Urban Cowboy</i>
An interview with Michael E. Arth

KNOWN TO URBAN PLANNERS and designers the word over as the father of “New Pedestrianism,” Michael E. Arth decided to put his groundbreaking ideas about compact, walking-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods to the ultimate test.

He chose an almost unbelievably blighted area in DeLand, Fla., outside Daytona Beach. In an area of town once called the Garden District but then known simply as “Cracktown,” he bought several delapidated houses at auction in 2001 and renovated them extensively. He reoriented the houses around a central communal courtyard, creating a “pedestrian lane” around them to link to other parts of the neighborhood.

The work was fraught with physical peril in the form of the entrenched crack cocaine retail industry and its associated crime, but Arth managed not only to bring his idea to fruition but to flourish. His renovations quickly formed the core of an entire downtown DeLand renaissance which has tripled property values, yet still provided affordable and safe housing.

Arth’s documentary about his efforts, New Urban Cowboy: The Labors of Michael E. Arth, will be screened at the Savannah Film Festival. We spoke to Arth last week.

Wouldn’t some people criticize what you did as simply “gentrification?”

Michael E. Arth: That’s a red herring, this idea that gentrification is bad. How it got started I don’t know. How else are you going to reduce crime and blight, unless you start some massive public works program? There’s got to be the motivation to save old neighborhoods and redo old homes. This idea that we have to let housing deteriorate in order to provide flophouses is nuts.

In my instance in the Garden District we ended up doubling the population. But we have just as many people on Section 8, and the cost of housing is not going up appreciably, though I so-called “gentrified” it.

So the point is not necessarily to stop gentrification but to have multiple income levels.

Michael E. Arth: Gentrification is a total non-issue in the Garden District, even from the point of view of the people there. My neighborhood is multiracial and has multiple income levels. There’s the same proportion of black and Hispanic residents as before. The difference is there’s not a lot of people hanging around engaging in criminal enterprises.

Of course the ultimate solution to the drug problem is something that won’t happen for a long time. It’s legalization and regulation. Everything I’ve seen reinforces that. My experience in “Cracktown” just reconfirmed everything I already thought about the issue.

Even police I talked to admit it. One crackhouse in DeLand had upwards of 100 people coming through every day. There were busts all the time. But that didn’t change anything. You can clean up certain areas, but to address the overall problem, ultimately you’ve got to legalize it.

You have some close scrapes in the film. How did you guarantee your safety through it all?

Michael E. Arth: I realized the lowkey approach is the best and the safest. The police said “Buy protection.” I thought about that, but I’ve never owned a gun, I don’t like guns, and I think a lot of problems are created by gun ownership. In general, violence begets violence. Besides, the criminals had more force than I had. They would have crushed me easily.

There were a few times I did feel I was courting disaster. I wondered if I hadn’t made a big mistake, especially in the first two months. But I kept the same approach. I would stick out my hand and introduce myself. Sometimes they wouldn’t shake it, or sometimes they refused to tell me their name. I put them on the defensive by being friendly and low-key, and it worked very well. The bad guys just melted away.

I would come up to them and say something like, “I know you’re not dealing drugs, but if I see people that are I’ll be calling the cops and stuff.” They would get very defensive and then I wouldn’t see them anymore.

My incident with the lightning bolt didn’t hurt, though, whether it happened by sheer synchronicity or serendipity or whatever. It gained a lot of notoriety, especially among the religious people in the neighborhood. They thought, “OK, this is about God.”

How it happened was I saw five guys standing on the street, obviously up to no good. So I walked up to them just to shake hands. As I came up one said something about one of my properties like, “I wouldn’t fix that up if I were you.” And the rest sort of gave me that drug dealer’s stare.

I thought, I can’t just walk away now, I’ve got to follow through. So just as I’m coming up to them this lightning bolt strikes in the middle of the street. One guy jumped straight up in the air, and another guy’s pants went down to his ankles. I never saw any of them again ever.

The lightning came out of the clear blue sky?

Michael E. Arth: No, this was Florida, so you’ve always got some afternoon storms coming through. I don’t believe in miracles, but I would say that incident is what you’d at least call a meaningful coincidence (laughs). It certainly qualifies as synchronicity.

How does your Garden District project advance New Pedestrianism?

Michael E. Arth: The main purpose is to introduce New Pedestrianism as a more ecological version of New Urbanism -- which is of course just a revival of old urbanism. That’s what you have in Savannah, old urbanism, but New Urbanists love it because that’s what they want to do all over again. One thing New Urbanists don’t bring into account is there’s a whole lot more cars now than anyone predicted. I remember growing up playing baseball in the street, and it would be hours between cars.

There’s a growing problem in Savannah, the issue of suburbs turning into slums. Is that particular to us or is it nationwide?

Michael E. Arth: Across the entire country it’s happening. Those 1940-1980s suburbs are already in decay, so there’s nothing much worth saving. As they continue to decay eventually we need to just bulldoze and start over. What I propose is putting pedestrian villages around every city, making that preferred form of zoning. Then city councils can say to developers, here’s an easy path for you, to build something that includes a village center within 10 minutes walking of the farthest edge of the village. Each is separated by a small green belt so that each center is connected to a ring of transportation around cities. That also makes for extremely efficient public transportation.

How could Savannah apply your ideas?

Michael E. Arth: One problem with older cities is that any built environment already exists, so it’s difficult to change the existing infrastructure. And your historic district is nearly intact. The way to do it is if you have extremely deteriorated neighborhoods. If they have an alley, that’s even better. Then you can condemn the rear ten feet of each lot and make a pedestrian lane. You can then take all aboveground utilities and bury them under the pedestrian lane. In houses you renovate, you reorient them to the pedestrian lane at the rear. Suddenly you have a pedestrian grid.

Our area is infested with prefab “village” developments But they’re really the same old gated communities, just marketed differently.

Michael E. Arth: Yeah,what the builders do is evoke images of pedestrianism and community but the reality is very different. They have show models where they close down the street to traffic and disguise the garages. They create this village-like feel to the model homes, but as soon as the first few get sold it’s all ripped out and it shows its true nature.

New Urban Cowboy screens Sun. Oct. 28 at 2:30 p.m. at the Trustees Theatre and Thurs. Nov. 1 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre.