New Urban Cowboy by Michael E. Arth
100 minutes + extras
Golden Apples Media
kinda hard to defend yourself wearing flip-flops" Earl Van Dyke indignantly
declares half way through the film. As a long time resident of the neighbourhood
known as 'Cracktown' in DeLand, Florida, one would be wise to listen to his
experiences with the local dealers. When the aptly named Michael E. Arth moves
into town from his home in Santa Barbara, California, he heeds the advice and
replaces his flip-flops with a couple of nail-guns and some big ideas. So begins
the story of one neighbourhood's metamorphosis from decaying urban jungle into
the historical Garden District.
With US$16,000, Arth purchased two buildings scheduled for demolition in an area of DeLand that had lost all sense of community and character. The houses in the area all dated between 1906 and 1939 and Arth envisioned following the example of towns such as Beaufort and Savannah, where restoration under the influence of New Urbanism had created oases of communal spirit. The film documents Arth's trials from day one; his dealings with local crack dealers, murderous employees, doubting financial supporters, demolition orders and incredulous locals. It documents the implementation of some of the basic tenets of New Urbanism: reducing traffic, increasing pedestrian amenities and creating compact, residential centres. In other words creating a place where pedestrians and residents regain their precedence over the car. Starting with just two properties, the project continued to expand and now structures representing 28 homes, in addition to many other buildings purchased by other like-minded individuals, are already restored. Families, journalists, photographers and artists returned, along with the elusive sense of community.
Throughout the film Arth is described separately as a visionary, an artist, a surfer, a writer, an architect, a philosopher, an ex-hippy and a friend to the stars. With clips of DeLand Mayor dedicating a day to Arth, stories of his Herculean achievements and convenient interventions by lightning strikes, it is easy to mistake Arth for a blessed Homeric hero; and the film can be easily written off as shameless self-eulogy. Despite the cynic within, it is difficult to emerge from this film without deep respect for Arth and his efforts. New Urbanism and New Pedestrianism may not provide completely carfree environments, but they provide realistic and realisable solutions to the design flaws in so many American towns, immeasurably improving the lives of the residents. And this is why Arth deserves so much respect: he is a dreamer, but a realistic and hardworking dreamer who gets results. The film ends with Arth planning his first carfree town (and I'm inclined to believe it will work). If you're still not convinced you should see this film, then a two-minute cameo from Keanu Reeves muttering insanities about red velvet should provide reason enough.