for the 'Garden District'
Postcard from the past offers hope for renovating Downtown DeLand
By Rick Tonyan - SPECIAL TO THE DELAND
FEB 5, 2002
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Greetings: Postcard from the year 1916 found in the walls
of a crumbling house, gave hope of rehabiliting the crimefilled
roughly 85 years it had lain behind a
wall, a memento of a time when a crime-ridden slum known as "Crack
Alley" was a well-kept, family neighborhood.
was a penny postcard, dated April 22, 1916. All it was supposed
to contain was an Easter greeting for a little girl. But, when it
was recovered from it's hiding place a few months ago, it also held
a message of hope for Michael Arth.
found the postcard when he and a work crew began renovating a house
at 216 E. Voorhis Ave., DeLand. The postcard showed Arth that, at
one time, the neighborhood around the house had streets filled with
playing children instead of nodding junkies and cruising prostitutes.
took the postcard, which had grown brittle with age, and carefully
put it in a photographic album he was compiling. Pictures in the
album showed what "Crack Alley" had been and how he was
going about changing it.
the girl to whom the card was addressed, Alice Bales, was playing
with it in an upstairs closet. She stuck it in a crack in the baseboard,
and it fell down, getting caught behind the wall of another closet
under the stairs of the two-story home.
it stayed. Alice's former home remained a single-family home as
other houses in the neighborhood eventually were converted to apartment
houses and duplexes. Middle and upper-middle-class homeowners sold
out, leaving the neighborhood for the suburbs.
age and a lack of care by often-absentee landlords took their toll
on many of the houses. Paint peeled. Wood rotted. Brick, stone and
masonry became encrusted with dirt. Lawns became overgrown with
weeds and filled with trash.
neighborhood around the house -- bounded by Howry Avenue on the
north, Walts Avenue on the south, Alabama Avenue on the west and
Amelia Avenue on the east -- became a haven for drunks, hookers,
and drug dealers and users. Locals and cops created the nickname
"Crack Alley," shortly after crack cocaine became the
drug of choice among the lower echelons of criminals.
now 48, never heard of DeLand, let alone "Crack Alley"
for most of his life. Growing up in Texas, he developed a fascination
for building and architecture. But, his main passion was reserved
for art. He toured the United States and Europe with exhibitions
of his posters, illustrations, photographs and prints. He published
a coffee-table book, Michael
E. Arth: Introspective 1972-1982, in 1983.
he never got a degree in architecture, Arth also never lost his
childhood love of building design. By the late 1970's, he had melded
his art background with building design. He became a contractor,
working on multimillion-dollar projects in Southern California.
He married and lived in that Valhalla of Southern California chic,
the way, he became fixated on the idea of urban planning to renovate
cities. He began working on designs to solve such problems as highway
congestion by designing the neighborhoods in which pedestrian traffic
is encouraged over vehicles. He began a second book, tentatively
titled The Labors
of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems,
in which he outlines his ideas for combating urban blight.
his ideas had gotten no further than drawings on paper of such things
as streetscapes. Arth began to think of some way to find a real-life
laboratory in which he could test his ideas. Then, while surfing
the internet in November 2000, he came across a real-estate listing
by DeLand civic booster Maggi Hall, now owner of West Volusia Properties.
Hall was promoting a redevelopment plan for southern DeLand that
she called the "Voorhis Street Project."
idea fired Arth's imagination. He telephoned her and, over the next
few weeks, a project called the "DeLand Garden District"
was born. It was to be Arth's laboratory. He eventually contracted
to buy 27 buildings in and around "Crack Alley". The project
would consume the next two years and about $1.1 million. That would
be about the amount it would cost to buy and renovate one house
in Santa Barbara, according to Arth. So, the thought of redoing
an entire neighborhood for that money was irresistible.
E. Voorhis Ave. at the time
Arth bought it for renovation.
house as it is now, nearing
the completion of restoration back
to its glory of nearly 100 years ago.
arrived in DeLand on a dark night in December 2000 and showed his
wife, Maya, the area that would become both the proving ground for
his redevelopment ideas and the couple's new home.
now 26, was a native of Bulgaria who spent most of her life in Santa
Barbara. She was unused to the sight of hookers trolling the streets
for clients and of junkies and drunks passing out on sidewalks.
just looked terrifying when we came here during the night,"
she said. "I couldn't see the potential. I couldn't even understand
what the people were saying on the streets."
her husband soon convinced her of the potential that lay under the
years of crud that had formed on the buildings. Despite decades
of neglect, the structures still were vestiges of the Victorian
and Edwardian eras. They still could be restored to a stately, picturesque
Michael wisely sent Maya off to live with her parents in Bulgaria
while he got rid of the prostitutes, drug dealers and winos who
infested his properties. Along the way, he collected more than a
few threats and a lot of scares. But he never actually was harmed.
had to pretend to myself on a number of occasions that it really
wasn't as dangerous as it probably was," he said. "The
police and everybody else told me to get a gun. If I had a gun,
it probably would have made it seem more dangerous."
one point, he did pay cash to get some dealers to leave. But, despite
a few broken windows from disgruntled dealers and a stolen van and
missing cash courtesy of a drugged-out employee from the neighborhood,
Arth pressed on with his plans. He hired painters, carpenters and
plumbers. Every time he started to get discouraged, something, like
the discovery of the postcard, would show up and keep him going.
As the neighborhood improvements became obvious to anybody driving
by, bank financing for the project got easier.
rejoined him. Seven weeks ago, the couple moved into what had been
a crack house, where about 50 customers used to come and go each
night for either drugs or sex. The night the Arths moved in, the
couple's first child, Sophia Evelyn, was born in the house.
birth was yet another of those signs, like the postcard, that Arth
believes are telling him to keep on with the work. He envisions
putting in a fountain, complete with artificial rocks and waterfall,
by a trendy restaurant in the heart of the district. He plans an
art museum for a former grocery store that had been condemned by
the city and was about to be torn down before Arth bought it.
really has all been a leap of faith," he said. "Faith
is a good word for it. It's like there is some power directing all
that's beyond me."