Saving a Neighborhood
A threatened district in DeLand beams again with
a much-deserved face-lift.
2004 Southern Living. Reprinted with permission.
By CAROLANNE GRIFFITH ROBERTS
If seeing is believing, it’s probably best that Michael E.
Arth agreed to buy his first houses in DeLand sight unseen. Even
now, after he helped to transform a neighborhood on the fringe of
downtown, the developer shakes his head in amazement.
had lived in Hollywood, California, just under the sign, with actor
Keanu Reeves as my upstairs tenant,” he explains. “Then
I moved to Santa Barbara and met my wife. I’ve always had
a passion for urban design and was always trying to design a better
town. The Garden District presents me with a living laboratory of
how to rebuild an existing neighborhood as a trial run for building
a new town.”
Phoenix Court stands at the center of the DeLand
its bungalows happily housing people who want to live close to downtown.
living lab appeared to be more a living something-else when Michael
and his Bulgarian-born wife, Maya, arrived here from California
in late 2000. “He was so excited that he drove right to the
neighborhood even though I warned him to call me first,” recalls
Maggi Hall, a real estate broker and preservationist who initiated
the revitalization project. “I opened my door, and there stood
Michael and Maya. His face was as white as my shirt. I knew they’d
already seen it.”
fences and bright colors provide Garden District homes with
a promising future. Their drug-dealer drab is a mere memory
neighborhood in question—known around DeLand as Crack Town—strutted
its worst at night. Drug dealers inhabited the crumbling houses—and,
needless to say, they didn’t welcome urban planning visitors.
“When we looked at it the next morning in the searing light
of day, the vampires were back in their dens,” says Michael.
the drug lords had landed themselves in the heart of DeLand’s
treasured past. “One hundred years ago, this was an upper
middle-class neighborhood with fine, stately homes,” Michael
recounts. Then, with the urban flight pattern of the 1970s, the
neighborhood sank into despair and cocaine.
Plan in Place
After moving into one of the former crack houses, Michael managed
to buy 28 homes, but he had to fight off nightmares and threats
at night. At her husband’s bidding, Maya, pregnant with daughter
Sophie, retreated to Bulgaria temporarily.
Gena Swartz and developer Michael E. Arth share a moment of
happy triumph as yet another house moves toward restoration.
the drug community got the message and did relocate. Michael,
left with crumbling buildings and a sheaf of carefully drawn plans,
energetically began stabilizing and shoring up the neighborhood,
one building at a time. He put up white picket fences, painted houses
bright colors, and hid parking off the street to encourage walking.
With help from the city, he planted rows of palms where old
oak trees once stood.
though the work isn’t quite finished, the look and feel attracts
buyers and renters alike. On a sunny DeLand morning, a few of the
district’s citizens gather to talk about their own involvement.
is realtor Maggi Hall, whose daughter and son-in-law bought a house
in the Garden District. Maggi invested in a whole cluster of the
homes herself, which led friend Gena Swartz and her husband to do
the same. There are a total of 15 investors in the project.
One thing that fueled Maggi’s interest in the area was the
city’s plan to build a multimillion-dollar intermodal transportation
center in the troubled district. City leaders helped rescue Crack
Town, supporting efforts for change.
reports happily that one of the three houses she restored has indeed
sold. She’s entertaining ideas of moving into one herself,
adding, “This is downtown living, like Mayberry. That
was my inspiration.”
Maya and Michael E. Arth arrived in DeLand, their current
surroundings weren’t the likely place to raise a daughter—but
Sophie was born at home in the very neighborhood her father
helped restore to glowing health.
around the table nod. Jane Harris and Rick Hutchinson report getting
frequent calls to rent apartments in the buildings they’ve
restored. Rick, a home-improvement professional, agreed that the
risk of taking on seven houses and the apartment building far outweighed
playing the stock market.
Everyone jumps in with tales. Janet Bollum, owner of a local bookstore,
relates a horror story. “The house I bought had tunnels and
a guy living in the laundry room. I filled up three entire dumpsters
with things from that house.”
looks on with pleasure. He calls DeLand home base, not just a business
proposition. “I feel good now,” he says, “especially
when the flowers are blooming and the birds are chirping. I don’t
hear what I used to hear—very loud music from passing
cars, people screaming, and gun shots.” From guns to Garden
District, the neighborhood’s journey comes full circle with
only good things ahead.