Volunteer Mower Crews Compete to Beautify Detroit

Locals take matters into their own hands via lawn mowers to maintain the city’s public parks and playgrounds.

Jun 3, 2020

On a sunny Saturday in May, 25 volunteers descended upon Detroit Michigan’s abandoned, weed-filled Hammerberg Playfield. Their mission: to make the space safe and accessible for children and families once again, after years without any gardening or maintenance work.

“No one owns this particular park, it just fell through the cracks, Tom Nardone, 50, of Birmingham (a suburb of Detroit), who started the Detroit Mower Gang group of volunteers in 2009 told The Detroit News. “We just try to keep it alive. ... Without a group, you couldn't mow this park with a mower in a couple of days.”

After repairing broken swing sets and taming the overgrown lawn, the highly motivated volunteers split up to tackle another 10 public playgrounds and gardens in the area. But besides fulfilling their civic duty to ensure their city stays beautiful, what was driving these volunteers to tackle such a unique and challenging project?

The answer is friendly competition. Whoever cuts the most grass during the 12-hour Motown Mowdown wins the honor of being crowned the Mowdown Champion.

This event is strictly (BYM) bring your own mower and gas whether it is a riding tractor mower, gas-powered push-mower or even an old-fashioned hand one. The participants compete to win prizes but the most important factor for the volunteers is the feeling that they’ve done something good for their community.

“The reaction from people when they see what we've done is always so special,” Hannah Van Eckoute, the reigning Mowdown Champion, told Detroit News. “Sometimes the grass is so tall kids can't even get into it, and then the smile on their faces as we leave is such a great accomplishment.”

Nardone is the mastermind behind the Motown Mowdown competition and organized clean-ups. Due to budget cuts during the last decade, many municipal parks and playgrounds no longer get the maintenance they deserve. Nardone, a riding lawnmower enthusiast, decided to take matters into his own hands and give green public spaces some much needed TLC according to Play and Playground Encyclopedia.

“When the city was getting close to filing for bankruptcy, there were more than 300 parks in Detroit, and the city said it could only care for like 72,” he said.

In 2009, Nardone found a riding lawn mower on Craigslist and immediately began mowing a park at the intersection Interstate 75 and Eight-Mile Road. He then turned to Facebook, launching a group to find other Detroit locals who’d like to join him in his efforts. 

One thing led to another, and Nardone’s lawn mowing volunteer group was born. With his crew of like-minded weed whackers, Nardone has turned his clean up initiative into much more than an occasional event.

Describing their vibe as “one part cleanup effort and one part biker rally” on their website, the mowers consider park beautification sessions to be social events, where chatting about lawnmowers with other enthusiasts is part of the fun. During the spring and summer, the crew usually meets twice a month.

Much to Nardone’s delight, his group’s efforts have also inspired the city of Detroit to tackle more beautification projects. Each year, he said, it’s harder for his group to find abandoned playgrounds and parks to maintain, since the city has significantly stepped up their efforts.

“We hope they put us out of business, “Nardone told Detroit News. We could start a bowling league or something.”

In the meantime, members of Nardone’s mowing gang crew have become local celebrities, appearing in Detroit’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and earning sponsorships from the likes of Sears Craftsman tools and other gardening suppliers. 

But the most amazing thing about Nardone’s project is how people have been inspired to come together to make their neighborhoods better. People donate supplies, like mowers, gloves and rakes, and volunteers devote hours of their time to make things better for their fellow citizens, and their efforts mean a better city for all. 

More than a makeover for public spaces, Detroit’s volunteer mower crews show the awesome power of community. We’re sure that the children reaping the benefits of the volunteer efforts now will keep up the practice as adults, maintaining a sense of civic responsibility for generations to come. 

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LAUREN MARCUS, CONTRIBUTOR
Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.