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Detroit dire, but private groups, citizens keep the Motor City running

  • Detroit Bus Company 1.jpg

    Private upstart, the Detroit Bus Company has proposed to the city, operating routes for the public along Woodward Avenue and to and from the airport where public transit options are limited. (The Detroit Bus Co.)

  • Detroit Bus Company 2.jpg

    The Detroit Bus Company currently has six vehicles in their fleet, ranging from re-purposed school buses to former Greyhound coach liners. (The Detroit Bus Co.)

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    Detroit resident Tom Nardone started the Mower Gang volunteer group after hearing news about Detroit shutting down over 70 parks in the city. (Detroit Mower Gang)

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    The volunteer group gathers twice a month to maintain and landscape nearly 15 city parks in Detroit. (Detroit Mower Gang)

Detroit's fiscal condition has become so dire that private citizens are stepping up to provide basic services, and some experts say the volunteers and entrepreneurs are the Motor City's best hope.

Nearly $2.5 billion in debt after decades of mismanagement, the city is now being run by an independent emergency manager in a last-ditch effort to avoid bankruptcy. Just last month that city stopped payment on unsecured debt in an attempt to “conserve cash” for the police and fire departments and other city services. But the city's collision course with insolvency has created business opportunities for some and spurred a sense of civic pride for others.

Tom Nardone is the leader of "The Mower Gang," a growing group of volunteers who cut the grass at city parks. The business consultant and former analyst with Ford Motor Co. mounted his riding lawnmower and went to work when the cash-strapped city was on the brink of shutting down parks because there was no room in the budget for upkeep.

“I was looking for some sort of volunteer work when the city announced that they were closing 72 parks,” Nardone, 48, told  “I wondered at the time what exactly that meant and found out that when the park is closed, it basically means that they stop with the upkeep. They are basically abandoned.”

“When we get there [to a park], people are happy to see us, especially the kids. This isn’t a problem solver, but it’s a solution that helps.”

- Tom Nardone, leader of Detroit's "Mower Gang"

Working alone, Nardone started out just mowing under swing sets. But an army of inspired volunteers has joined the Mower Gang, allowing it to take on bigger and bigger projects, including a bicycle track that had been shut down and neglected since the 1980s. The Mower Gang, which has received equipment donations from Husqvarna, now maintains 15 city parks, helping to reclaim recreation space for kids and grownups alike.

“When we get there [to a park], people are happy to see us, especially the kids,” Nardone said. “This isn’t a problem solver, but it’s a solution that helps.”

When Andy Didorosi read in the newspaper that budget cuts had made a casualty out of a long planned light-rail project, the lifelong Motor City resident wasn't sad. He was angry.

“I was pissed. I said, ‘I’ll make the corridor,’” Didorosi, 26, told "I was an asset liquidator at the time and had recently bought some buses anyway. I’ve always been a gearhead.”

He started the Detroit Bus Company. The initial goal was to provide reliable routes in the city, mainly along the main artery of Woodward Avenue, where the light rail had been proposed. He also thought it made sense to establish a route to and from Detroit airport, something the city had provided, but poorly, according to Didorosi.

“The only option is one bus that doesn’t run very often and stops on every corner,” said Didorosi, who hopes to get city approval for an express airport route next month. “It takes three hours to make a 45 minute commute. The city has missed out on holding conventions and we could possibly lose out on hosting the X Games because a lack of transportation.”

The Detroit Bus Company currently runs charter services as well as scenic tours with six buses -- ranging from school buses to coach liners -- and provides free rides for kids to after-school programs and summer jobs.

“Transportation is a public problem,” Didorosi said.” I don’t necessarily think that the system should be privatized, but I don’t see a better option than providing the services. Hopefully, everything will work itself out and the city will be back on track.”

Ted O'Neil, spokesman for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said it remains to be seen if volunteers and entrepreneurs can save Detroit, but they've already shown that what his organization refers to as "civil society" can succeed where government fails.

"The Center has defined civil society as a network of private institutions, community associations, schools and religious organizations, families, friends and co-workers, and all their voluntary, from-the-heart interactions that generally steps in when political society fails," O'Neil said. "Without it, failing cities like Detroit would be in even more trouble."

City officials declined to comment on the growing number of citizens chipping in where the municipal workforce comes up short. But it’s not just the Mower Gang and the Detroit Bus Company who are keeping the city running, with either entrepreneurial or voluntary efforts.

Threat Management Center, a private security services firm founded in 1993, has seen business boom in recent years as police cutbacks drive residents and businesses to seek new ways of achieving security. Founder Dale Brown established the Violence Intervention Protective Emergency Response System (VIPERS), a civilian volunteer organization that has worked with police to reduce crime in troubled areas. Participants train at an academy run by Brown and now patrol some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, working with an increasingly lean police force to keep a lid on crime.

Volunteers from the Rosedale Park Baptist Church board up and secure abandoned homes in the city's Brightmoor section, helping ensure that vacant buildings don't become drug shooting galleries or places for criminals to congregate. And more privatization could be on the way. The City Council has heard several proposals in recent months to privatize garbage collection and the water department.

But saving a city with billions in debt, a crumbling infrastructure and crushing poverty may be too much for even the most civic-minded volunteers or entrepreneurs, said one expert. 

"Detroit is in desperate, desperate shape," said Peter Eisinger, professor emeritus of urban policy at New York's New School. "Detroit is a vast territory and 40 percent of it is empty. I don't see any of these efforts having any positive effects. It's a desperate, band-aid effort to make the city a little more livable for the people who stayed there."’s Michael Roppolo and Michael Cipriano contributed to this story.



Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych

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