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.
The deadline for our Let's Play Video Contest is fast approaching! Create a one-minute video by Friday, March 8 showing us why your community needs a playground, and you could win one of five $15,000 equipment grants from Let’s Play, a community partnership led by Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
Watch this video to learn more:
A panel of internal play experts will determine the top 10 finalists based on video content, quality, creativity, and demonstrated need. The finalist videos will then be put to a public vote to determine the five winners.
For more information and to get started, visit Our Dream Playground now.
Does your playground need a spruce-up? Follow the lead of these three inspiring communities, who have used Let's Play Spruce Grants to clean, paint, and green their playspaces:
Julian, Calif.: On June 17, 2011, 20 seventh and eighth graders volunteered during their summer vacation to help re-paint black top games at the elementary school’s "Peaceful Playground." The idea for the project originated during the previous school year when these middle-school students volunteered one lunch hour per week to mentor elementary-school students during recess, helping them to peacefully resolve conflicts while developing positive relationships with the younger students.This school year, the 7th graders will be offering a similar mentorship experience on the newly spruced-up playground.
Houston, Tex.: On August 20, 2011, a diverse, 14-person Spruce Team gathered for four hours to plant new heat-loving plants, rake out the engineered wood fiber, and pick up trash and debris around the playground. In spite of the oppressive heat, the atmosphere was one of good cheer and thoughtful collaboration between the school community and local businesses. Thanks to the hard work of these volunteers, over 450 children came back to find their school playground looking as good as it did when it was first built four years ago.
Providence, R.I.: After Hurricane Irene, a neighborhood team organized a 24-hour "heal-a-thon" for Brown Street Park. They used social media (Twitter and Facebook) and their website to get the word out. Over 45 volunteers respond to this plea throughout the 24-36 hour period. They piled up debris, moved dead tree limbs out of the way, cleaned up the plant beds, weeded, picked up trash, cleaned graffiti, and installed new garden signs. Children were encouraged to help! And help they did! Today the beloved community park is looking better than ever.