Detroit volunteers fill a gap in city services

"Mower Gang" members (from left) Nathan Labadie, Andrew Haig, and Darton Case tackle Duweke Park.
"Mower Gang" members (from left) Nathan Labadie, Andrew Haig, and Darton Case tackle Duweke Park. (AP)
Posted: May 13, 2013

DETROIT - Detroit may be broke but it will soon have a first-rate motor pool, featuring 23 new ambulances and a fleet of 100 new police cars. Some city parks also are getting tender loving care. New fruit trees and shrubs have been planted, and mowing crews are beginning to make the rounds to keep the green spaces tidy.

One of the surprising things about Detroit's descent toward insolvency - so dire that a state-appointed emergency manager recently took over - is that public services haven't collapsed as completely as some might have expected.

But that's not because city departments are functioning as usual. They're not. Instead, volunteers are trying to pick up some services that local government can't provide.

Detroit's Department of D.I.Y. is either the most heartwarming or humiliating reflection of its distress, but the volunteers insist it shows their refusal to give up on the place where they live.

"When the system fails us, you have to become the system," said Mitch Logan, 48, a film producer who is part of a self-dubbed "Mower Gang" whose members mow neighborhood parks after finishing their own yards.

In addition to the landscaping, a church group is boarding up vacant houses in Brightmoor, one of the city's most distressed neighborhoods, to keep criminals out. And several neighborhoods are hiring security to patrol their streets, supplementing an understaffed police department.

As for the new cars, "It is unprecedented for us to help buy emergency vehicles or police cars," said Rip Rapson, chief executive of the Kresge Foundation, which joined with Detroit's automakers and other businesses to make the purchase. However, "this was the kind of expenditure they could not find in their budget."

Detroit's problems have been a national spectacle for several years, the result of the region's long economic slump and of past mismanagement that squandered city resources. By the time emergency manager Kevyn Orr took over city finances in March, local government was $327 million in the red and had gone through rounds of layoffs and cuts.

Bus service has been reduced or discontinued on about three dozen routes, leaving thousands of daily riders to find other ways around town. Libraries and recreation centers began closing extra days for employee furloughs and trash trucks were delayed because of breakdowns.

There are 2,600 police officers, down from 4,000 a decade ago.

The city's parks were in danger of becoming a particular eyesore. Until donors stepped in, the city planned to close almost half of them. Still, mowing on many is scheduled only every three weeks.

"It's a disgrace to the nation, a disgrace to the state," said Harriet Cammock, a writer who moved to the suburbs because of the deterioration.

Tom Nardone of suburban Birmingham, owner of an Internet novelty business, started the Mower Gang. Through word-of-mouth, his website and Facebook, the group has grown to more than 20 regulars who take care of eight or nine parks where the weeds were too high for children to play. He hopes to keep expanding.

Katherine McFate, chief executive of the Washington-based Center for Effective Government, said that she understands the need but that Detroit should be wary of letting donors go too far.

"The idea that we are now outfitting first responders through charitable contributions should be very concerning," she said. "There are certain functions that you want government to perform that should not be at the whim of individuals or charities."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|