" Oh come come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler. "
— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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Walking around town with my brother, a city planner, is probably a lot like walking through a video store with me: you might get your ear talked off if you’re not careful. Some of his better rants sound a lot like the documentary New Urban Cowboy: Toward a New Pedestrianism.

Crack’s in the Foundation

Crack alley, after and before
Crack alley, after and before

Michael E. Arth (yes, it’s his given name) takes the camera of filmmaker Blake Wiers around his neighborhood in Deland, Florida to show what New Urbanism has to offer. When Arth takes us around his neighborhood, it really is his neighborhood. He bought several lots in 2001 (and a few more since then). At the time, the neighborhood was called “cracktown” and the city was ready to condemn many of the buildings in the area.

By 2006, when the latest footage was shot, the neighborhood — now called The Garden District — was safe and friendly, with fresh paint, scores of new trees, clean walkways, even a lighted, bubbling fountain at the center of 8 remodeled houses.

If you don’t already know what new urbanism is, New Urban Cowboy might give you the wrong impression. The first 20 minutes are all about renovating the dilapidated structures in Michael’s neighborhood. But there’s more to new urbanism than This Old House. And it’s not a panacea to get drug dealers out of your neighborhood.

As I understand the term, “new urbanism” is a swing of the pendulum. “Urban” has some negative connotations, conjuring images of failed housing projects and dangerous streets. But city planners say we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. “Urban” also means higher density and mixed use, which lets people fill their day-to-day needs — coffee, lunch, basic groceries, laundry, etc. — on foot, and within a few blocks. Since driving is expensive, polluting, fattening, and socially distancing, New Urbanism tries to make it easier to choose a stop at the market on the way home over a drive out to the big-box store by the freeway.

If only this movie were that concise.

New Urban Sprawl

The sprawling documentary opens with a biography of Arth, mixed with the story of his redevelopment of the Florida neighborhood. After 40 minutes the movie branches out further, showing other neighborhoods, a drive though McMansion suburbia in Dallas, and Arth’s Disney-like dreams for the future of his pedestrian-friendly utopia. Arth’s idea of “new pedestrianism” as an extension to “new urbanism” is barely touched on, and only at the very end of the movie.

Arth only needs 2 guns for protection: staple and nail
Arth only needs 2 guns for protection: staple and nail

The biography section makes Arth seem like a drifter and a dreamer. Ironically, I think it was trying to do the opposite: to portray him as an established artist and architect. The movie tells us a book of his artwork has been published, but the book was self-published. Arth’s architectural plans for homes have been built. But always by Arth himself. At the end of the movie, we see Arth today trying to sell his ideas to potential investors, still seeming more like a dreamer than an architect.

The strongest scenes are the five minutes of Arth and his brother driving around Dallas commenting on the beige McMansions that illustrate the opposite of good design and planning. For example, In most cases, the garage is the most prominent feature of the house. The porch, if it exists at all, is just a covered spot to keep the rain off your doorknob. And the only reason to take a walk is for the exercise, because there’s no place that you can walk to.

The movie tells us a little about a lot, but the one piece of information I felt was missing was the type of services available in Deland. We see Arth walking on the main drag, but we can’t tell what businesses are available downtown, and therefore whether The Garden District is really livable, or whether it’s just pleasant.

Still, a walk around his neighborhood in Deland looks pretty inviting, with its pedestrian walkways, newly planted palm trees, and a delightful fountain in the middle of a footpath intersection.

Perhaps I’ll take my brother for a walk there someday.