It's going to take a lot to clean up Detroit. Thirty lawn mowers is a pretty good start.
The rumbling legion of landscapers descends every other Wednesday night on two or three of the city's more than 200 abandoned parks and gets busy reclaiming the city, one acre at a time.
"We pick the parks that have playground equipment and have kids living nearby," explains Tom Nardone, founder and mower-in-chief of the all-volunteer Mower Gang. That way, he says, they know they're focusing their efforts where they're most needed -- and probably most appreciated.
Nardone's merry band of mowers (he describes their outings as a "party," and they swig beers to celebrate completed jobs) has left its trail quite literally all around Detroit since 2010. As the city has slid into bankruptcy and began systematically reducing many services in recent years, its parks have numbered among the victims.
Of the 300-plus public parks to be found around Detroit, only about 50 are currently being maintained. The rest are slowly becoming overgrown and littered with trash; tall grass and weeds swallowing up swing sets, benches and bike paths.
That is, until the Mower Gang -- which draws between 20 and 30 people to every clean-up -- shows up, yanks their cords and sets their mowers in motion.
So, cue up the plotline about the ragtag group of do-gooders whose simple efforts begin to help turn around an entire city, right? Uhh, no. "We’re not stemming the tide," Nardone told HLN. "I try not to think too much about that kind of thing."
"Any realistic person in the city knows things aren't good. I'm just trying to do what I can," he says.
At first, all the 43-year-old was trying to do was fill some time. He had become interested in the book "Bowling Alone," which "talked about how people in my generation aren’t joining civic organizations and that good work for the community isn’t being done anymore." It was around that time Detroit began shuttering its parks, and Nardone saw an opportunity to do some of that good work.
"I figured my schedule is a little wonky, a little weird. I have kids. I figured I can just do it when I can do it," says Nardone, who, when not mowing grass, runs PriveCo.com, a website that discreetly sells potentially embarrassing items, and is an acclaimed pumpkin-carver.
But back to the park-clearing. "It's low-hanging fruit all the way," he says. "What's the easiest, most effective thing I could possibly find -- and this is it." He started out solo, but eventually asked other people to join him.
"Instead of joining a biker gang I started a mower gang. It’s been a lot of fun," Nardone says.
Fun? Mowing acres upon acres of overgrown public spaces? Sounds a bit like the sales pitch Tom Sawyer gave to Huck Finn when it was time to whitewash that picket fence. But Tom and Huck didn't have the esprit de corps of the Mower Gang -- or their beers or their excuse to zoom around on 22-horsepower glorified go-carts until the sun goes down.
"People just want to hang around and ride on their mowers. It only appeals to a certain group of people, but it's the right kind of people who like this kind of work. It's especially fun when you’re with other people who feel the same way."
The gang usually tackles two, sometimes three, parks each time they gather, though the size of each park can vary widely. Some are just quarter-acre neighborhood parks, while others are up to 10 acres. "The size of multiple, multiple football fields," Nardone says. "Sometimes the grass is shoulder high."
Their efforts haven't gone unnoticed. The Mower Gang has been honored with the Detroit City Council's Spirit of Detroit award, and this Sunday, they'll be featured on Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" on CNN.
Which is all well and good and, of course, very much appreciated. But according to Nardone, the people who are probably most excited about the gang's efforts are those who benefit directly from them.
When a job is done, he say, "It's the kids who usually come out first to play. They're usually really grateful. People like us."
Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN