Detroit is two weeks away from filing for bankruptcy when Tom Nardone calls me from his car. He’s tooling around his hometown visiting abandoned parks—of more than 300 public parks in Detroit, about two-thirds have been disavowed by the city. Hundreds of overgrown lots mottle this onetime manufacturing hub, too tangled with weeds for children to play in. Today, Nardone visits one with a jungle gym that’s been recently doused with kerosene and set on fire. Instead of playing in parks, Detroit kids stay inside, or play on the streets. When they’re old enough, many leave.
“In Detroit, you see abandoned things all the time,” Nardone says. “It’s very common to see things in decay. That’s just what the city looks like.”
Nardone, 43 and a married father of three, has stuck around. As his city has decayed, his own career, or make that careers, have thrived. As a rare feel-good success story out of Detroit, Nardone is an anomaly, but his roundabout journey to entrepreneurial success—from Motor City engineer to Internet 1.0 startup founder to fluke-ish beneficiary of the Great Recession to unlikely urban philanthropist—is also a sort of microcosm of the last 20 years of American economic trends.
Today, he’s zipping around abandoned parks cutting grass with the Mower Gang, the initiative that cemented his status as a local hero. He started the Mower Gang in 2010, after he heard an NPR interview with Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, in which the political scientist bemoaned the decline of civic engagement in the U.S. Nardone had an epiphany: He’d always wanted a lawn tractor, so why not buy one now and use it to fix up the city’s abandoned parks?
Within months, he had attracted a small group of volunteers. The Mower Gang’s first major project was the Velodrome, an abandoned bicycle racing track; the event attracted press and camera crews, and more volunteers. Media accolades followed, as did the Detroit City Council’s Spirit of Detroit award. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, recently mowed with the gang, cameras in tow. Today, the gang mows every other Wednesday after work.
What line of work is Nardone in, might you ask? When he’s not mowing parks or carving pumpkins with power tools (he maintains a website, Extreme Pumpkins, devoted to the craft), this pillar of the community pays the bills via ShopInPrivate.com, or PriveCo, the website he founded in 1998 to focus on discreet distribution of potentially embarrassing items. When were still dismissing the Internet as a fleeting fad, he perceived in its anonymity the potential to revolutionize consumer habits. “On the Internet,” he says, “you could buy things that are too embarrassing to buy in person at a store, like bikini waxes, or oily hair shampoo, or artificial vaginas.”
He also, quite prophetically, pinpointed a commodity than many consumers would find increasingly precious as commerce moved online: privacy. PriveCo’s products are shipped in plain brown boxes simply labeled “PriveCo Inc.,” the same name that appears on your credit card statement. PriveCo maintains no mailing list, sends out no spam, and never sells your information. Buying a product from PriveCo won’t come back to haunt you.
PriveCo offers a host of items, but its main focus is sex toys. Virtually any sex toy you can imagine—and some you probably can’t—are for sale; Nardone and his associates test their products for quality and rank them accordingly. “Every vibrator’s going to claim it’s ‘whisper quiet’ and really powerful, no matter what,” he says. “And someone needs to set the record straight on that stuff. So we rank all our vibrators.”
Nardone takes obvious pride in his company’s commitment to quality. He mentioned a recent test of edible personal lubricants, for which “we just had to bite the bullet and try them all.” (“What you’re really going for is mild,” he explains. “Very little aftertaste. Strawberry’s definitely the best flavor.”) Brand recognition eclipses quality in most people’s minds, Nardone says, which leads to the dominance of certain mediocre products like the Fleshlight. “If there were a consumer report on sex toys, the Fleshlight would be like the Dyson vacuum,” he says. “It’s super expensive, it gets lots of press, but you have to wonder, does something else work as well?”
As it turns out, something does. “The Chanel St. James Pocket Pussy is definitely just as good,” he says. “We tested it.”