The futuristically named Michael E. Arth is from a rare breed of idealists who actually put their money (more accurately the cash of friends, family and sceptical investors) where their mouth is and attempt to change the world. Candidly admitting he’s had “more failures than success,” the New Urban hippie specializes in neighbourhood makeovers. For most of Blake Wiers’ documentary, the focus is on converting Deland Florida’s seedy “Cracktown” into a people-friendly Garden of Reason.
In 2001, the area in question was “the neighbourhood to find anything and everything you wanted (i.e., drugs, guns, sex workers, gangs …).” Arth and pregnant wife Maya left a spectacular home in Santa Barbara (having had the likes of Keanu Reeves as a tenant) to snap up abandoned or neglected houses (saving many of them from the wrecking ball) at distressed prices and begin the humungous task of clearing out the roaches, rats and reluctant-to-be-relocated Lion King (so Disney) gang of drug dealers then rebuilding the storied structures from the roof to the foundation.
The longtime visionary grew up in Texas having dreams of being a surfer, filmmaker, author and architect. His first car-free pod was designed in the ‘70s. Once in Florida, Arth chopped through the mountains of municipal red tape (a directive of “Make it happen” from the mayor seems to have moved his senior staff and fellow politicians from obstructionists to wheel greasers) and managed to revitalize The Garden District with nary an eviction, quashing the charge of “gentrifier” from the inevitable critics.
Similar to Radiant City (cross-reference below) the production spends some of its time bemoaning mammoth housing for the ego-extremists and an ever-increasing reliance on automobiles, which the construction of every new highway unstoppably fuels.
With side trips to a “solution” for housing the homeless and James Howard Kuntsler’s important notions about single-use zoning, the production covers much territory even as it loses pace and momentum. Probably worth a mini-series.
The congenial music is slightly marred by a heavy-handed reading of Ravel’s Bolero (Hungarian National Philharmonic, Adam Fischer, conducting) and a few miss-hits from the folksy guitar, but those deficiencies are more than made up for by the historical photos and footage that will make everyone wonder just how a once thriving, clean community could slip so far into the abyss.
Arth is driven in all of his work by the lofty notion of mankind being able to “live harmoniously in a beautiful earth.”
His courage, dedication and passion are most commendable, the results impressive, but the world will continue to fall into disrepair as long as those bent on self-destruction (or happy to profit from the plight of others) are merely forced to relocate rather than retool their raison d’être and methods of survival. JWR