With Detroit all over the news for its recent bankruptcy problems, there is still some good news coming from the city. In Issue 21, which is hitting subscriber’s mailboxes now, we featured the “Paris of America” and how the DIY ethos of the city’s residents has revitalized the cyclocross scene and made it unique.

by Vince Cousino Anila, photos by Rosh Sillars

Talk about Detroit, and you inevitably begin with a conversation about where it is now: the model of a city fallen victim to economic collapse. Once the model of productivity and modernity—arguably more than anywhere else in the world—these days, the “Paris of the Midwest” is as often as not the place that everywhere else is either trying to avoid becoming, or else looking at to figure out how to keep going when the bottom falls out and everything goes straight to Hell. Right or wrong, that’s the usual narrative.

But one thing this reputation fails to capture is that even in the absence of the most basic services, a do-it-yourself spirit rules here like nowhere else in the country. And unless you’re on the city council, everyone is pulling for everyone else to make it. Open a restaurant almost anywhere in the country, and you’re just more competition to the guy with the BBQ joint at the end of the block. Open a restaurant in Detroit, though, and the guy with the BBQ joint next door will introduce himself to you, roll up his sleeves, and help you build your bar. Literally.

Just like the origins of American cyclocross, Detroit is pure punk and grassroots to the core. And just like ’cross, the vibe in America’s first starkly post-industrial city is often heartwarmingly inclusive, once you look past all that heckling and beer-spilling. In fact, for all that they share, there may be no more perfect place in the country for ’cross than Detroit proper. And there’s no more perfectly characteristic symbol of the fighting spirit of both than Dorais Park.

The Detroit Mower Gang

Dorais Park is located on the oft-neglected east side, across the street from what is now the ghost of Chrysler’s Mound Road Plant where, for six years during college, I spent the occasional night sorting parts for the aluminum castings vendor that employed me. The Mound Road Plant closed in 2002, sealing the deal on the fairly drastic abandonment of this corner of the city.

That is, until a group of citizens calling themselves the Detroit Mower Gang set about cleaning up and maintaining the old park in the summer of 2010. Armed only with lawnmowers and the “refusal to allow bureaucracy and tightened city budgets to get in the way of children playing outside,” the Mower Gang is what happens when people refuse to let political ineptitude dictate the parameters of what’s possible.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who personifies that DIY ethic more than Mower Gang founder and local entrepreneur Tom Nardone.

A few years ago, as he was reading about the decline of civic work in Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the City of Detroit was announcing drastic cuts to the already hobbled General Services and Recreation Departments. A devotee of all things gas-powered, Tom decided to fire up his lawnmower for the people, and the Detroit Mower Gang was born.

Over the years, Nardone had been hearing whispers about a mythical concrete velodrome somewhere within the city that had been overtaken by vegetation and refuse. A drive all over town yielded nothing, but Tom finally found it asleep in Dorais Park, staring up at that satellite on Google Earth. The Mower Gang has been at Dorais Park ever since, mowing and removing piles of tires, empty spray paint cans, and, periodically, the abandoned car.

When asked about civic work in a time when the very notion seems to be on the decline, Nardone doesn’t hesitate: “My advice is that anything is better than nothing.”

To read the rest, pick up a copy of Issue 21 in print or digital.