June 03, 2013

How lawn-mowing outlaws are saving childhood in Detroit

Not all problems are hard to solve. In Detroit, one of the most formidable barriers to play is overgrown grass.

Enter Tom Nardone (pictured right), a do-gooder but no goodie-goodie. Founder and Gang Leader of the Detroit Mower Gang, Tom and his motley crew of “renegade landscapers” are taking action. Rather than wring their hands, they realized that they have the tools they need—namely, mowers, trimmers, lawn tractors, and muscles—to transform Detroit’s deteriorating parks.

After all, no one wants to visit a playground if they have to wade through grass to get to the swings. An abandoned playground becomes vulnerable to vandalism and crime, launching a vicious cycle that can change the entire character of a neighborhood.

Tom, a father of three, started the Mower Gang in 2010, shortly after Mayor Dave Bing proposed closing 77 city parks, leaving thousands of kids without a place to play. At the time, Tom was coaching one of his son’s soccer teams, but he wanted to give more back to the community. “I have to do something that fits me,” he thought.

He started out small. He bought a used lawn tractor for $250 and, he says, “I would go out to parks and I would mow under the swing sets. I mean, this [was] not rocket science… I would just go out there and spend an afternoon, I wouldn’t schedule it… I’d just have two hours free from work, throw the thing in the back of the truck, go, come back, and go back to work. It was good.”

When he found an overgrown velodrome (a bicycle racing track, pictured below at left) at Dorais Playground, he wanted to restore it, but he knew he needed help. He created a Facebook page and started inviting people to show up. “I thought to myself if one person, if one guy shows up to this thing, it would be great,” says Tom. Aside from his brother and coworker, “one guy showed up. Guess what his name was? His name was Guy! I wanted one guy, I got a Guy.”

  

From its humble beginnings, the Mower Gang has steadily grown—and its work doesn’t stop at mowing. The gang meets every other week at a different park, usually attracting about 20 volunteers. In 2011, they held a “road rally,” which included a scavenger hunt to collect information about 90 of Detroit’s parks and determine areas of need. Realizing that many playgrounds in Detroit had swing sets, but no swings, the Mower Gang began a project on Kickstarter to replace 40 of the city’s 200+ missing swings. They aimed to raise a modest $800 and ended up with $3,020. The Gang also received a Let’s Play Maintenance grant from KaBOOM! to help purchase new playground surfacing.

This past Memorial Day weekend, 70 weed-whacking, grass-hacking volunteers gathered to tackle 12 parks in 24 hours as part of the first annual Mowtown Mowdown. “People love a good deed and nobody spends the night in a Detroit park. We were just crazy enough to do both,” Tom says.

Even though Tom has attracted major media attention for his work, including two appearances on the Conan show, he remains humble about his work. He might just be a guy with a lawn mower, he says, but “something is greater than nothing.”

And that something can mean quite a lot for a child. "The park is one of the bright moments in childhood," Mower Gang member Andy Didorosi says. "You learn there, you play there, that’s your jam. And if your park is dangerous, overgrown or unusable, well ..."

Tom says, “What I get out of it is every time we do the swing sets, every time we do the play places, there’s always kids that come out. It never fails that you see the result right away.”


Photos via the Detroit Mower Gang's Facebook page.

impact stories, detroit, community building, lets play