Turf war: Detroit Mower Gang competes in 12-hour playground cleanup

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Mower Gang refuses to let small budgets and bureaucracy stand in the way of great playgrounds.

Twenty-five volunteer lawnmowers left quarantine Saturday to compete for a championship belt awarded to the person who cuts the most grass during their 12-hour Motown Mowdown.

Tom Nardone, founder of the Detroit Mower Gang, shows off the championship belt given to the member who mows the most grass in their 12- hour Motown Mowdown which started at Hammerberg Playfield in Detroit on Saturday, May 16, 2020.

They kicked off at Hammerberg Playfield, an un-owned park on Detroit's west side, tackling the overgrown lawn, repairing swingsets for the Barton-McFarland neighborhood before splitting up to cleanup 10 other abandoned playgrounds in the city.

"No one owns this particular park, it just fell through the cracks," said Tom Nardone, 50, of Birmingham, who started the Detroit Mower Gang in 2009. "We just try to keep it alive. ... Without a group, you couldn't mow this park with a mower in a couple of days."

The air was filled with pollen as the group filled dozens of trash bags and only leaving behind perfectly trimmed fields. Participants said it was a fulfilling activity to do while social distancing.

Staddled into her Dixie Chopper, Hannah VanEckoute was ready to reclaim her title as the Mowdown champion. She and her husband, Gage, from Belleville, brought their two lawnmowers and weed whackers to their fourth year with the gang.

"The reaction from people when they see what we've done is always so special," said VanEckoute, 28. "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."

Bill Lucas picks up trash at Hammerberg Playfield in Detroit on Saturday, May 16.

A decade ago, Nardone bought a lawn tractor off Craigslist and took to a park on Interstate 75 and Eight Mile Road. He started a Facebook group to find others who could join the project and eventually, it turned into a mower gang, he said.

"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," said Nardone.

Charlie Spiess, of the Detroit Mower Gang, repairs a swing during their 2020 Motown Mowdown.

Last year, the founders formed a nonprofit called Enemies of Debris and also host trash fishing, where the same group pulls trash out of the Detroit River.

The group said there have been fewer lots scouted each year because the city is catching up to them.

"We hope they put us out of business," Nardone said laughing. "We could start a bowling league or something."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_