Tom Nardone’s father was an Elk in Wakefield, Mass., and spent time, as Elks do, in the Elks Hall. His son assumed his dad went to the club mostly to have a place to drink with his buddies.
“I didn’t know the money they spent there went to children’s charities,” he said. “It never occurred to me.”
Years later, Nardone, 42, read “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert D. Putnam’s analysis of how the demands of modern life have fragmented groups like the Elks and other service clubs. He was struck by how “people of my generation aren’t joining anything,” at the same time he realized that Putnam was on to something: modern work schedules and economic realities make it hard to commit anything with regular meetings.
So Nardone started thinking how he could make public service and volunteer work fit into his schedule. The city of Detroit, faced with economic calamities, was neglecting to mow some city parks and playgrounds, “and I have a big van and always wanted a riding mower.” He started checking the classifieds. Two hundred dollars later, he had a little mower and was a one-man landscaping crew for a small playground near 8 Mile Road and Interstate 75.
Then he heard a story that the city had a velodrome, of all things, tucked away somewhere on the east side, built for a bicycle-racing event in the 1960s and abandoned sometime thereafter. Some research with Google Maps turned it up in Dorais Park near the corner of Hoover and Outer Drive. Nardone stopped by, and quickly realized it was too much for even the most dedicated lone mower.
“There were trees this big growing out of the pavement,” he said, indicating a trunk diameter as large as his arm. “But I thought that if I could get three or four people out for a day, we could get it cleared enough to ride.”
It took more people -- and more than a day. But, at the end of all the work, the Mower Gang was born, a loose confederation of people, mostly men, who -- as their T-shirts proclaim -- are “winning Detroit’s other turf war.”
Communicating via Facebook and email, gang members have not only reclaimed the Dorais velodrome, but started a community garden in its infield, as well as mowing other parks around the city. They don’t ask permission. They don’t ask for anything, although occasionally Nardone will post a Kickstarter (an online money-raising site for artists and entrepreneurs) for gas and T-shirt money.
Mainly they’re just there for the fun and the satisfaction of returning a grown-over, trash-strewn lot to the children who enjoy it.
“The funny thing is, there are people who like riding mowers. You can drink beer while you’re doing it, and riding mowers get a lot of work done,” said Nardone, who lives in Birmingham.
Fittingly, the conversation at a recent low-key Mower Gang event was more about fan belts and various mower attachments for their ragtag John Deeres than it was about the satisfaction of doing good.
"I first started coming out after I saw a video of the velodrome," said Mike Mansr, 30, of St. Clair Shores. "I saw some kids on their motorcycles running around the track, and I thought I'd like to do that, so I put some time into helping clean it up."
Although much good they do.
“We don’t deal with the city, except on occasion,” Nardone said. “We found an open storm drain -- like, Baby Jessica size -- and we let them know about it. Last year, we pulled 120 dumped tires out of a park. It would have cost $3 per piece to get rid of them. We called the city, and they made them disappear.”
But more cooperation than that is more than the Mower Gang wants.
“We call ourselves ‘renegade landscapers,’ and that’s what people like about it,” Nardone said. Their logo -- a grinning skull over crossed mower blades -- emphasizes the pirate aspect of their work. They purposely keep things informal and fun, dropping in, cutting the grass, clearing trash, and leaving within a few hours.
They concentrate whenever possible on facilities used by children. They’ve bought new swings for swing sets, restored a climbing structure and, in perhaps their most pirate-like action, cut a maze into an overgrown field. They’ve done a labyrinth, too.
“The velodrome was a success and a mistake, because there are people who use it, who can take care of it themselves,” Nardone said. "We want to be for kids." And to be sure, various cycling groups in Detroit have taken over caring for the track itself. But the acres of surrounding green space are still the Mower Gang’s, and they’re taking the park in a new direction, which includes re-landscaping via new plantings.
The Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit focused on the reforestation of the city, oversaw the planting of several hundred trees in fields below the track March 24. Nardone said he plans to repeat an experiment from last year, in which the gang planted melons in the infield, free for the taking by anyone who cared to climb in and pick one.
This year, they’d like to expand the garden, plant more crops and maybe even a few fruit trees. There may be another night mow on the calendar, one of the most popular events of last season.
And in the meantime, Nardone no longer feels guilty that he’s not in an Elks club.
“I have a limited amount of time,” he said. “But I can mow a playground.”
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.