Mowing Around Motown - Improvement Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Angela Anderson-Cobb.

Tuning into NPR one day, Tom Nardone was listening to an episode on a book, Bowling Alone.

“This gentleman was talking about how people these days are not joining fraternal organizations like the Elks Clubs and Knights of Columbus,” Nardone, the president of Priveco Inc., tells BTR.

Nardone’s initial perception of fraternal clubs was that they were just meant for hanging out, gambling, and drinking. He would learn later that their members provided volunteer efforts and community resources to surrounding localities – something that neighborhoods were now missing out on because of the decline of such organizations.

Feeling motivated to personally provide for the Southeast Michigan region he hails from, Nardone remembered hearing news about how Detroit was no longer going to maintain city parks, effectively “closing” them. Reflecting on his own skills, Nardone realized he could do something about this neglect: steer around a lawn tractor and mow away the unkempt grass.

During his spare time, Nardone began traveling around the city to chop down the frowzy vegetation throughout different parks, but as these spaces are large and Detroit is vast, such tasks began to overwhelm his lone mission. He created a group on Facebook to see who else was keen to mow parks and playgrounds.

“It turns out that other people are interested, that people like to ride lawn tractors and drink beer, so there you have it! Our gang was formed.”

Typically, the Detroit Mower Gang will get together every other Wednesday evening after work. Anywhere from 20-30 people usually show up, 10 of whom often bring a lawn tractor.

“The grass will be really long, sometimes between knee and waist high. We’re out there struggling, the machines struggle and everybody has a good time while there’s plenty of work to be done,” says Nardone.

After finishing up one, two, or three parks, Gang members wind down by drinking beer and chatting before they head home – which is usually somewhere in the suburbs, where people have more land and ability to own lawn equipment. He explains that while we all hear stories of blight and bankruptcy around the urban setting of Detroit, the metro area, Southeast Michigan, is actually quite affluent.

Of course city locals are welcome to come participate.

“We have some tools to loan to them but the core group of the mower gang is usually people that like engines – gear-head types,” Nardone tells BTR.

Excited neighborhood children usually come out to play while the gang is at work. Nardone, who is a father himself, tells BTR that these young ones are really what motivate the Gang.

“The reason we do this is because kids can’t defend themselves. Detroit is a rough place, and it’s not a good place to grow up,” says Nardone, who enjoys the opportunity of clearing public land so they can play outside.

The Gang does receive recognition for their efforts; the city granted them the Spirit of Detroit Award, and Nardone commends Husqvarna for providing equipment like lawn tractors, chainsaws, and weed whips.

“We’re not a 501(c)3 or anything of that nature, just a bunch of people,” says Nardone, “so we don’t accept donations or anything of that nature. It comes from the goodness of our hearts.”

Now that it’s winter, obviously these volunteers can’t mow through the ice and snow, but nevertheless, they find ways to provide appropriate seasonal services.

“Since the guys like engines… us at the Mower Gang who have snow blowers have formed this emergency list,” which comes to the rescue in instances when Detroiters need to be dug out to go to the hospital or attend other emergency services.

That’s useful up until springtime, when all the snow melts, the time of year when the Detroit Mower Gang gets going with mowing again.

“Right before the summer starts, when the grass is starting to grow fiercely, we do something called the Motown Mowdown, which is a 12-hour straight mowing event,” he tells BTR.

It sounds like lots of labor in the Motor City for Tom Nardone and the Detroit Mower Gang year round, no matter what weeds may tangle, grass may grow, snow may impede, or city officials may neglect.