New Urban Cowboy

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/30/08 10:22:55

"The John Wayne of Urban Redevelopment."
3 stars (Just Average)

With a name like Michael E. Arth, of course the guy would have to become an environmental champion, just like Dr. Acula would have to be a vampire. Arth is an artist, architect, and founder of the New Pedestrian movement, which aims to remodel city living to minimize car use and promote eco-friendly transportation and a stronger neighborly connection.

His work rehabilitating the town of DeLand, Florida, is chronicled in Blake Wiers’ documentary “New Urban Cowboy: Toward a New Pedestrianism,” the first in a proposed trilogy of docs studying Arth’s work and activism. Using news footage, Arth’s own home videos, and, most importantly, numerous before-and-after shots, we see how the corner of DeLand once known as “Cracktown” was retooled, slowly but surely, into the Garden District, a safe, quaint place to live.

Arth’s m.o. is to find a town in need of repair, buy up as much property as possible (the DeLand venture began as a million dollar enterprise), then rehab all the buildings - effectively turning dilapidated areas, which serve as magnets for drug dealers and prostitutes, into booming villages. Arth winces at the term “gentrification,” which he equates with whitebread yuppie hipsters invading a neighborhood; Arth brags that his rehab efforts ensure more cultural and economic diversity from the residents.

It is, understandably, a risky enterprise, not only financially (Arth sometimes struggles to find investors willing to gamble on neighborhoods previously left to rot), but personally. Arth’s wife laments that when they moved into one of the DeLand properties, she was eight months pregnant yet living in a house with mold, fungus, no electricity, and no air conditioning. Meanwhile, the artist recounts several tales of confronting crack dealers face-to-face; when the local police suggested that Arth get a gun for himself, he laughed off the idea, noting that he has a nail gun and a staple gun, the only weapons he needs.

And he was right. Criminals moved out on their own after a while, and the crime rate in DeLand dropped by ten percent. Property values went up. A sense of community returned to the neighborhood.

Ah, but Arth was not satisfied. The film juggles footage of the Garden District rehab with clips of Arth itching to move on. In one scene, he travels to other cities, pitching his theories to those who will listen, examining other similar communities throughout the country. In another sequence, he’s shown walking around downtown DeLand, lamenting that the city’s design emphasizes automobile use - which in turn makes downtown living and pedestrian browsing unpleasant.

All of this fits with Arth’s frequent hyping of New Pedestrianism, a spin-off of the New Urbanism design movement. Under Arth’s plan, drivable roads would be relegated to out-of-sight back alleys, while the main avenues would be for walking and biking. It’s a tempting proposition, although Arth’s vision of a nearly carless utopia comes across as a bit of eco-hippie fantasy that would require a massive change in American thinking that’s probably not bound to happen in quite some time. It’s nice to see him try, though.

Too often, the film lingers long on scenes like the one where DeLand’s mayor declares Michael Arth Day, and the whole thing feels too much like a vanity project (Arth is the film’s producer). It refuses to be openly critical of Arth’s plans, and even pokes (lighthearted) fun at his critics, such as the right-wing radio hosts who mock Arth’s hopes for a village for the homeless. Rather than offer a clinical examination of the possible cons of Arth’s ideas, the film chooses to champion his every proposal and tsk-tsk anyone who’s asking questions.

There’s one scene that almost seems to show Arth in a negative light: as he strolls one neighborhood, complaining about unkempt landscaping and cluttered yards, fuming that every community needs a strict neighborhood council to monitor such unsightly lawns, you get the impression that you’d hate to have Arth live on your street, lest he pester you every day about why you haven’t trimmed your hedges just right. Even then, however, the film seems to be agreeing with Arth the whole way.

And yet at times it’s hard to fault the movie for putting Arth on a pedestal. Here’s a guy who’s honestly doing something to push for change, not simply talking about it. “New Urban Cowboy” celebrates someone who walks the walk, in more ways than one, and the stories of DeLand’s restoration might just be the first push some people need to start walking themselves.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.