Mighty Mowers

February 28, 2015, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Tom Nardone snaps a selfie before tackling one of Detroit’s overgrown playgrounds.We live in a complicated world. Politics, economics, climate change — sometimes it feels like we’re facing insurmountable problems and no amount of effort or resources will help. In times like these, we seek stories of courage and leadership to remind us that anyone can be a hero if they’re willing to step up to the plate, or, in the case of Tom Nardone, the mower deck. 

Nardone and his ragtag band of lawnmower vigilantes, better known as the Detroit Mower Gang, have taken it up on themselves to tackle a simple yet urgent problem in their area: overgrown parks and playgrounds. As Detroit has struggled with financial woes — including filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history — its departments and agencies have suffered from a lack of funding and personnel. Tasks that usually fall to park and recreation employees go untended as limited resources are diverted to the city’s most pressing needs. This problem began well before Detroit’s formal bankruptcy filing in 2013. As Nardone recalls, “Around 2010, the city of Detroit announced it would close about 75 parks. At the time I wondered, what does that mean? Turns out it means they took the trash barrels away and stopped mowing the grass.”

And like that, dozens of parks and playgrounds became weed-infested eyesores with grass so high as to obscure any children who might attempt to play. It was here that Nardone saw his opportunity. “I always wanted a lawn tractor, so I decided to buy one and go mow some of these parks,” he says. Five years later, Nardone’s one-man operation has blossomed into a full-fledged volunteer movement. “Turns out there are a lot of people out there who like to mow grass and fiddle with lawn tractors — getting them to come out on a Wednesday night, mow and drink beer wasn’t that hard!”

By day, Nardone is the entrepreneur at the helm of BulletSafe, a medium-sized manufacturer of bullet-proof vests and ballistic plates. He’s also a big fan of volunteerism — “It’s my favorite hobby,” he says. Having settled on mowing Detroit’s abandoned parks and playgrounds as his philanthropic activity of choice — with the tacit support of the Detroit Recreation Department — Nardone decided to tackle Dorais Park as one of his first projects. “I found some of the parks were really big,” he says. “[Dorais] had an abandoned velodrome in it. I thought, ‘That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’ It was virtually unknown — I felt like I found the Statue of Liberty in ‘Planet of the Apes!’ But I could see the project was too big to do alone.”

Nardone created a Facebook page and put out feelers for anyone who might be interested in joining his endeavor. “I called it the ‘Mower Gang,’ and started inviting people I thought would be interested in the velodrome — bikers, RC car racing folks…Some people showed up to work — hardly any — some spectators came by, and the Detroit Free Press made this super-cool video about it. They put it on their website, news spread and pretty soon people started to show up [for other projects].”

To date, some 100 people, at one time or another, have joined Nardone’s “Hell’s Angels of mowing,” and about 25 to 30 of them show up on a regular basis. “Of those, usually 10 to 12 lawn tractors will show up,” Nardone says. “We can mow a lot — maybe 3 acres an hour — but sometimes the grass is chest-high. It’s lots of fun too — when you start, the parks look really rough, but at the end they look so different. There’s a real sense of accomplishment.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.