For a decade now, Detroit Mower Gang has maintained the city’s abandoned, overgrown parks and playgrounds so kids can have a safe place to play.
DETROIT, MI — They mow Detroit’s abandoned parks, repair its playgrounds, and have a blast doing it. As far as gangs go, the Detroit Mower Gang is made up of some of the most jolly and giving people you’ll ever meet — and they’re banded by a mission to make parks safe for Detroit’s kids.
Mower Gang founder Tom Nardone, from Birmingham, Michigan, told The ‘Gander that when Detroit was nearing bankruptcy in 2010 and announced they could only care for 72 of the city’s 300 parks, he recognized an opportunity to make a tangible contribution.
“They said that they were gonna close the parks, but they never said what that meant,” Nardone said. “Like what, how do you close the park? If you don’t have any money, you’re not going to build a wall around them. Essentially, it just meant they were just going to stop mowing them and leave them be. They picked up all the trash cans and they left. So I thought to myself, man, I could mow a park. I could buy a lawn tractor on Craigslist.”
So that’s just what he did. But after successfully mowing a handful of smaller parks on his own, Nardone set his sights on Detroit’s Riverside Park, which was bigger than he could handle. It was time to recruit reinforcements.
“I knew it would need more people than just me,” Nardone said, “so I started to form a gang. It’s like a biker gang, but it’s a mower gang. And I just made a group on Facebook … and all these people came out of the woodwork eventually and showed up to help. It’s been great. So that’s 10 years.”
The newly formed gang first tackled Riverside, remulching and mowing, then repairing and repainting a big whale-shaped cement play structure that was broken and covered in rusty metal shards.
“Then we moved onto this place that had an abandoned velodrome in it, which is like a bicycle racing track,” Nardone said. “And we restored that whole thing, that took an entire summer. So we found these great projects and we took them on and I’m very proud of them.”
Take a look at some highlights from over the years:
A Decade of Showing up for Detroit’s Kids
When The ‘Gander caught up with Nardone and the rest of the gang, they were mowing the playground and surrounding area at Berry Elementary School and repairing an unusably crooked basketball hoop. As Tom talked, a dozen or so gang members did their thing on a sunny June evening — mowing tall grasses, weed whacking, and making sparks fly while setting the hoop straight and welding it in place.
Nardone’s son, Michael, 15 years old and going for his Eagle Scout badge, is a regular volunteer with the gang. That evening, his project was restenciling court lines and markings on the blacktop between the basketball hoops, transforming the space even further.
When Nardone started the Detroit Mower Gang back in 2010, his three children — all Mower Gang members — were just little kids. He said having them at home made him feel for the kids in Detroit whose playgrounds were allowed to go without maintenance.
“Kids can’t mow their own playground,” Nardone said. “Kids can’t pay someone to mow their own playground. Kids can only show up, look at the place, and see if they can play or not. They can’t go to another park. If they live on this street, this is the park. That’s the only park in their entire world. If no one mows it, they’re S.O.L. So I felt like this was the thing to do.”
That being said, Nardone was cognizant of the fact that he was entering communities that hadn’t asked for his help. But taking the opportunity to connect with locals and the kids whose parks they were cleaning up helped solidify the gang’s place in those communities, and they’ve been returning to some of the same spots now for years.
“I was nervous when we started about coming into neighborhoods I knew nothing about and maybe being seen as an interloper,” Nardone said. “But to be honest with you, people love us. … Some of them, I think, think we’re getting paid, but once they figure out we’re volunteers and just here for fun, they’re like, ‘Oh, nice, thanks. Come on back.’
“So I think it’s really nice. I’ll be happy when we’ve finished this little basketball court thing we’re doing today, because this neighborhood we stop in and mow and we’ve met the neighbors, a few of them, but I think we’ve never really made a permanent change here. We’ve just cut the grass. So I’m happy to fix the basketball net. I’m very excited about it.”
As for the community within the Mower Gang itself, there’s more than mowing that brings them together.
The Gang Chows Down
“Sometimes we do eat weird foods,” Nardone said. “We got on Bizarre Foods once, because we were making pigs heads and stuff, so that was really fun.”
Last time the Mower Gang met up, they indulged in some pigs’ feet. And sometime in the near future, depending on the reliability of international shipping, the gang will sample some surströmming — Swedish fermented pickled herring hailed as the world’s stinkiest food.
“I try to make it fun,” Nardone said. “My role in the Mower Gang is to make it worthwhile to show up.”
In fact, their adventuresome post-mow cookouts have attracted the attention of equally adventuresome celebrity chefs Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, both of whom visited the gang on their respective shows Bizarre Foods and Parts Unknown.
“We had to cook something when Zimmern was here,” said Kalsow, a longtime member of the gang. “I cooked salmon with dill from my garden. Someone brought a pig’s head. Someone cooked racoon. All kinds of weird stuff we cooked, and we ate it and he graded it. It’s on video somewhere. The racoon was actually really good — it was wrapped in bacon like, forever.”
“Tom’s a pro,” Kalsow said. “He knows what’s up.”
But don’t let all that scare you off if you’re interested in linking up with the Detroit Mower Gang. At the mowing session attended by The ‘Gander, all the gang sampled was free beer and ice cream.
What Does It Take to Become a Member?
The Mower Gang gets together every other Wednesday evening, and Nardone said there are no requirements to join up.
“Just show up. We post all the events on Facebook,” he said. “You don’t need any tools. If you have them, you can bring them. But honestly, if you just have your hands, we’ll lend you something. And if you don’t have anything, there’s always trash and stuff to be picked up, but we have extra tools we can lend you.
“The Mower Gang is happy to meet you if you want to show up and help out. Anybody at all is welcome.”
Find out when and where the Detroit Mower Gang will be meeting up next on their Facebook page.