The Detroit Mower Gang is made up of a couple dozen of do-gooders who refuse to let parkland go to waste. They are service workers, entrepreneurs, and professionals in all industries who come together every other Wednesday to mow down deserted parks so kids in those neighborhoods can have a place to play. Michael Nardone is the group’s founder who took it upon himself back in 2010 to mow a local park with his riding lawn mower just because it needed done. Others showed up with mowers, weed-wackers and the desire to improve their community…and the Detroit Mower Gang was born.
The problem of abandoned parks in Detroit is a product of extreme socio-economic flux. The city grew quickly in the 1950’s when auto factory workers flooded the local economy, buying up cheap houses. Because auto factories are now closed, the houses of motor city’s former workers are largely deserted or have been burnt to the ground, sad consequences of Detroit’s former boom. The neighborhoods, largely abandoned, now look like ghost towns and the playgrounds and public spaces are unkept, unsightly and unused, but people still live there and kids still need a place to play.
In its heyday, Detroit boasted a population of 2.3 million but now has less than eight-hundred-thousand residents. That drain of people in a city whose infrastructure was designed to accommodate urban sprawl means the city does not collect enough taxes from its remaining residents to afford to maintain unnecessary infrastructure. Landscaping and maintenance of one-hundred-twenty parks falls on that list. Nardone says usually all that is required to renovate a park is a little mowing, fresh swings, and minor repairs to old equipment. Afterwards, the parks become alive again. Some become community gardens, restored racetracks, fields of dreams or just a place where forgotten laughter is once again heard. Nardone says, “Swing sets are fun. We mow the grass under the swings first. We are a loud bunch and residents are curious. Kids are watching from the window and they come right out and start swinging. Then we get to interact with the kids a little and they are so thankful.”
Nardone says that anyone is welcome to join the gang and that most members own a riding mower, enjoy using, fixing their own equipment, mowing grass and giving back to the community. The comradery amongst the gang that has formed over the years has become one of the key reasons new member join. They are friends who host barbeques and beer hangouts in conjunction with their charity work. The Mowtown Mowdown is a 24-hour marathon landscaping event held at twelve overgrown Detroit parks. The winner receives a heavy-weight style belt made specifically for the event. The gang has gained notoriety over the past five years and has over seven thousand Facebook followers. They are sponsored by Craftmsan and have been featured in local and national platforms like Anthony Bourdain’s, Parts Unknown and on Anthony Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods.
Nardone says that replicating a community group like this in any city with their own unique challenges is easy. He says, “Do what works. Just start it. Don’t’ think too much.” “Most importantly,” he says, “don’t discount the ability of power equipment to get the job done.” He goes onto say that for the Detroit Mower Gang, what has made them successful and effective is their equipment. Power tools, like the ones donated by local and national sponsors, most recently Craftsman Tools has made the work they do impactful and fun. Nardone says that whatever you specialize in, don’t take it for granted that another person or organization could really benefit from you donating your time, equipment and expertise. “Whatever you are most effective at, find that and do it. The reward is well worth it.”