Detroit’s renegade landscape artists

Photography: Steve Neavling

Not every city has a renegade group of lawn mower enthusiasts who spend their evenings cleaning up playgrounds that have been all but forgotten, but Detroit does.

The self-described group of “rebel landscape artists” gets together a few times a month to cut grass, clear brush, and pick up trash in parks and playgrounds all over the city. But don’t get it twisted, this isn’t your average clean-up crew, this gang is packing some serious power.

Horsepower, that is. It began in 2010 with one guy, Tom Nardone. “They city announced they were gonna start closing parks, and I didn’t really understand what that meant, what does that mean?” he says. “Then I realized oh, they don’t put a gate or a wall up, they just stop mowing the grass.”

So he bought a riding lawn mower on Craigslist for $250 and went out and mowed one of the closed parks himself. Since then, it’s grown exponentially. On an average night, between 20-30 people show up – all volunteers – pulling trailers filled with high-powered riding mowers, leaf blowers, weed whackers, and any other tool you can imagine.

People like John Barrett, who started in 2011 with a push mower. “I read a story about it in the paper and thought that sounds really cool, I wanna do that,” he says. Now, he shows up with a trailer containing two mowers and his wife, who helps the crew pick up the trash often found among the overgrowth.

“There’s a lot of trash,” says another gang member Jim Coffman, who’s been coming out to events for two years. “When it looks bad, it gives people license to throw more trash.”

And mowing over it wasn’t doing any good. “All these guys come out, right? And they just get on the mowers and start mowin’ and they’ll run stuff over, and one Frito bag turns into a hundred pieces of Frito bag,” Nardone says.

So they devised a competition. Dubbed the Inventors Challenge Showdown, the group was challenged to come up with crazy contraptions to get rid of trash. “Will there be a ‘dirty diaper destroyer’ or a ‘Courvoisier Cognac Capturer’? You never know what these guys will make,” read the Facebook event invitation. The group uses the social media platform to coordinate all the meetups.

There ended up being four entries, including one rake-like apparatus that resembled a moustache, appropriately named “The Selleck”. Nardone says the winner, nicknamed “The Catfish” by its creator Charlie Spiess, was a work of “mechanical genius.”

“There’s always some kind of crazy competition,” says Spiess. At least once a month the group hang out after the last park of the evening is complete, often barbecuing, drinking beers, or in the case of the most recent gathering, eating a Durian fruit.

It’s this spirit of camaraderie that keeps the group growing, Coffman says, and in a way, the fact that they all are vigilantes when it comes to giving children places to play. “We don’t ask permission to do anything. If trees need trimmin’, we just trim ‘em. We go around the bureaucracy and go straight to the kids.”

Detroit Mower Gang

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The Detroit Mower Gang
The Detroit Mower Gang

We mow the abandoned parks and playgrounds of Detroit.

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