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New Urban Cowboy: Toward a New Pedestrianism

How to turn crack town into a garden district

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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May 29, 2008 -- This planning and zoning manifesto documentary film shows how a visionary developer turned a rundown, crime-infested neighborhood rife with condemned buildings and abandoned properties into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with eden-like landscapes. The transformation is amazing. It is like a change from a slum to the Land of Oz. Artist and developer Michael E. Arth, worked this miracle in the city of DeLand, Florida (southwest of Daytona Beach), but he has big ideas about changing the rest of the world, too, and he just might.

The documentary film, shot and edited by Blake Wiers, follows the transformation of Crack Town to the Garden District from 1999, when Arth moved in, to 2006. The district is now a national historic district, featuring some of the same houses the city had planned to tear down before Arth intervened. Everyone thought Arth was just some crazy hippie when he bought the run-down neighborhood called “crack town” for pennies on the dollar. It was cheap property, but for good reason. The police advised him to buy a gun to defend himself against the drug dealers, pimps and other criminals. He did buy three guns, two nail guns and a power stapler, and he went to work transforming the neighborhood. He didn't do it alone, but he was the catalyst that drove the transformation. At one point, municipal red tape was about to choke the project to death, but the mayor of DeLand told city officials simply, “make it happen,” and they did.

The film is somewhat disjointed. It jumps back and forth in time and place, from Arth's childhood to his time in Colorado and California and Florida, to his global travels, from his past projects to future projects. It is all over the map. Eventually, however, it gets its point across about what Arth calls his “new pedestrianism,” which is a wrinkle in what is known as “new urbanism.” Arth's idea is to create small, self-contained communities where food and other essentials are within easy walking distance from all houses. Instead of houses facing car traffic and noise, houses face pedestrian walkways, vegetation, fountains, pools and other niceties. Residents enjoy all this from their front porches. Cars are confined to alleyways, where the trash is picked up and cars are parked off the street. The difference between this and the new urbanism is subtle, but profound. It creates old-fashioned neighborhoods where noise and traffic are reduced to the point where you can sit on your front porch and have a conversation with your neighbor. You don't have to drive four miles to buy a gallon of milk or a hammer. You seldom have to drive anywhere, even to work. It is sort of like a new modern version of Mayberry, the old idea of small town life made famous in the Andy Griffith TV show.

The film follows Arth as he tours other kinds of housing developments and streetscapes ranging from old fashioned downtowns, modern new urbanism towns, and those awful oversized “McMansions” with their enormous garages and their tiny porches. What is wrong with standard suburban development is summed up nicely in the film by author James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere). He said, “The system we've been using for creating suburbs for the past 50 years, based on single use zoning, has been a catastrophe. The idea that we have to separate everything rigorously from everything else, so that you can't live near the shopping and you can't work anywhere near where you live and you can't work anywhere near the shopping. It's all separated and each one of these things requires automobiles to get to. That's bad enough from a logistical standpoint, but what you're also getting is the loss of experience of even being in a place that's worth living in.”

There is no doubt that Arth is very opinionated and specific about what he likes and what he will and won't tolerate in a renter or home owner. He just might be a real pain in the butt as a landlord or neighbor, but he is also a miracle worker and he has some great ideas about urban planning. Arth is a visionary, he sees urban planning as a key to solving the great problems of modern society, crime, homelessness, high oil prices, global warming. You name it. He might just be right. He has proven himself to be not just a dreamer, but a hard worker who gets things done.

In addition to the 83-minute film, the DVD comes with diverse subtitles in English, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Chinese (Arth is determined to change the whole world). There are also extras, a trailer, deleted scenes (including a feature on the San Antonio riverwalk), new arrivals in the Garden District, a brief presentation by actor-activist Ed Begley Jr. and a some TV segments aired about Arth and his projects. Soundtrack music is diverse, ranging from classical music, Maurice Ravel's Bolero, to Irish tunes, including “Pretty Maid Milking a Cow” to drumming from the DeLand Drum Circle. The DVD screener I got was defective. The last couple of chapters and all of the extras were unwatchable and unlistenable on my DVD player, but it all played fine on my computer. Luckily, I've got a big screen monitor. This film rates a B. For more information, visit the Michael E. Arth website.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)