On-site with unCommon Construction

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Aaron Frumin (R) and Desmond, one of unCommon Construction’s apprentices. Photo courtesy of Gigsy.

A couple of months ago, we introduced you to Aaron Frumin and unCommon Construction(uCC), a New Orleans-based nonprofit teaching high school students hands-on construction skills. The students have to apply and interview to be accepted into the program, which trains them to be collaborative, hard working leaders who know how to problem solve. They earn class credit and are paid for all this hard work, as they should be – they construct an entire house in just four months. uCC is just over a year old, but has already taken off with grants, accolades, and expanded programming, and it’s been incredible to watch.

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De’Shaun giving the cordless circular saw a workout. Photo courtesy of unCommon Construction.

The bottom line is that construction-based trades are on the short list of jobs that provide stability and permanence nowadays – they can’t be outsourced and will always be in demand on a local level. uCC is working to destigmatize vocational education and to provide a career path for high demand, high wage jobs. And, should these apprentices decide they don’t want to go into construction trades down the road, no problem, they’ve learned a tremendous amount of transferable skills and they’ve proven themselves to be leaders who can easily point to their accomplishments.

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Apprentice Destinee in the forefront of this pic, making some dust. These apprentices build an entire house in a semester. I know. Photo courtesy of Gigsy.

The ToolMade Project worked with Craftsman to donate a bunch of tools to the crew (see the end of the blog post for the list), and Aaron checked in earlier this week with some updates on how they were working out:

“We’ve been putting the tools to good use over the last month or so, and they don’t look nearly as shiny as they did when they first arrived. The nail gun has been especially awesome for baseboards and other interior trim…no more tripping over those pesky air hoses! And, the gun even shoots through the tough, cementitious Hardi Trim we used on the exterior…something our pneumatic guns even have trouble doing!”

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This is what a job site should look like: BUSY. Photo courtesy of Gigsy

The apprentices also seemed pretty happy with the loot. Here are some of their reactions when asked about the donation:

-“[The Cordless Circular Saw] is super light – I like it a lot more for plywood ’cause it’s easier to control. or, for a quick cut so you don’t need to mess with all the cords.” – Destinee, 12th Grade, 5-1/2″ circular saw (part of a combo kit)

-“Dang! That’s strong.” Noel, 11th Grade, using the brad nailer

– “It’s tight that they all work together so easy – you can use the alternate batteries & they last a while so you don’t have to wait for them to charge…The nail gun’s definitely the best one ’cause you can just make all your cuts, and then – really fast – just go through and shoot everything in without it getting too complicated.” Tahj, 10th grade, using the brad nailer

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Idallis on the circular saw. Photo courtesy of unCommon Construction.

Another reason this program is unique is that while the students’ project is, er, rather ambitious (AN ENTIRE HOUSE), that project is only seen as the tool used to get to the real end goal: well trained, well equipped apprentices. They are the end product that uCC uses to measure its success.

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Noel, nailing it. Photo courtesy of unCommon Construction.

For more updates on unCommon Construction – and there a whole lot of them nowadays – check out their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Please note that GiveNOLA Day is coming up on May 3rd, so please consider supporting this amazing crew as part of that event. Or, if you’re so inspired that you can’t wait until May 3rd, you can always give your time or some green!

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Photo courtesy of Gigsy

Tools donated to uCC:
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Bricks, Beams, and the Pillars of a Post-Industrial Renaissance

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Brick + Beam Detroit is a collaboration between the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, Detroit Future City, and Preservation Detroit. Victoria Byrd Olivier, and Amy Elliott Bragg, and Emilie Evans are the founders (L-R). Yes, all women, which makes this writer giddy.

So, I’ve noticed a bit of a theme recently. The ToolMade Project (TMP) has partnered with numerous organizations and amazing humans working their tails off in Rust Belt cities, though perhaps that’s not much of a surprise. Both the need and the efforts in this region have been so great. But, the work taking place in these cities is not merely triage. Economists, urban planners, architectural historians and other nerds obsessed with the built environment are hailing these cities as hotbeds of innovation as younger generations—those not old enough to have experienced the elevator drop of decline—see only endless potential in the sturdy industrial bones of these cities. All of the stories TMP has covered center on grassroots efforts with local buy-in and hardworking community members, and these efforts have manifested in different ways. Here are just a few of the strategies from recent blog posts that are shaking the iron oxide off the gears of progress:

  • Buffalo’s University Heights Tool LibraryThere’s a definite need to buck the overspecialization of trades and to make tools and resources more affordable and accessible to communities with few resources.
  • Detroit’s Americorps Urban Safety Program: Vacant structures need to be secured, lawns need to be mowed, art needs to fill boarded-up windows, and streets need to be cleaned up to make areas safe and to foster optimism in struggling neighborhoods. There may not be money from the city or state, but there are people willing to give their time and energy.
  • South Bend’s Historic Preservation Commission: Having a vintage home and some tools is an incredible opportunity, but most people weren’t born knowing how to rehab a structure and require some know-how. Free or inexpensive hands-on workshops are invaluable and empower individuals and the community as a whole.

This month, the TMP has partnered with yet another organization in that region—a group from Detroit—that is creating the bedrock for massive change by fusing many of these strategies. But before you get to hear about the groundbreaking work they’re doing, I thought it might be useful to give a quick and dirty history lesson about what the Rust Belt is exactly, and how these cities—cities with rich histories, ideal geography, and extraordinary infrastructure—experienced such a rapid and devastating decline. So sit back and soak in a little context.

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I love me a useful map. Credit: BJennings, 2010

The Rust Belt refers to a region of the U.S. formerly known for its industrial jobs, specifically, steel and automobile manufacturing. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to credit this region with having played a crucial role in winning the second World War, with Pittsburgh alone having produced one-fifth of the Allied forces steel from 1940 to 1945. While boundaries vary depending on the source, in general, the belt stretches across parts of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Wisconsin—areas that thrived because of their readily available coal, labor, and inland waterways. This “industrial heartland of America” was booming until the 1970s, when a number of critical things changed. And they pretty much changed all at once. The steel factories that were the bread and butter for a huge percentage of people were shutting down due to a combination of increased automation, the transfer of manufacturing to the West, several devastating free trade agreements, and the general decline of the steel and coal industries.

As you’d imagine, this created an industrial and economic free fall that changed the realities of hundreds of thousands of people. Specifically, the U.S. worldwide market share of manufactured steel went from 20 percent in 1970 to 12 percent by 1990, and employment in the industry dropped from 400,000 to 140,000 over the same period. The term “Rust Belt” was coined in the 1980s and became synonymous with economic decline, population loss, and urban decay.

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Many old homes in Buffalo, NY are vacant and slated for demolition. Fortunately, the city’s Urban Homestead program allows residents to buy these homes for just $1 each, as long as they agree to renovate and occupy them. Programs like these are crucial, but they need additional support from groups who will help homeowners navigate the work.

Needless to say, these cities are still struggling. Populations plummeted when many were forced to move elsewhere for work, and those who remain and are doing what they can do deal with the economic realities and vacant property issues. So it’s a darned good thing that so many organizations are stepping up, like Brick + Beam Detroit.

As I mentioned earlier, Brick + Beam is taking what many pioneering organizations are doing and going a step further. They’re not only educating residents about rehab directly, they’re thinking bigger and creating an infrastructure for a massive community forum with potentially endless resources available to rehabbers. 24/7. This makes a whole lot of sense because, well, maybe you really want to fix your wood windows before winter but oops(!) you missed the one class a year that is offered. What do you do next? Can you do the work yourself, or is there a reasonably priced contractor out there who will actually do the work well? Also, what in god’s name is a glazier point? They’re making resources (and moral support) free and accessible to all.

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Workshop instructor Jim Turner demonstrates a paint-scraping technique at a hands-on window restoration workshop. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

Brick + Beam began by holding monthly (mostly free) events for people wanting to know how to fix up their homes. But these aren’t typical lecture-style meetings. These events include incredibly well attended open mic storytellings (rehab stories!), panel discussions with local contractors to field their questions, and even a “fixer-upper supper club” that was held at the site of an active rehab project. As a result of these events and partnerships with skilled professionals, a community web is beginning to catalyze and rehabbers are sharing their tips (and, likely, minor catastrophes) with others in the same boat.

Brick + Beam put together a "Fixer Upper Supper Club" as a show, tell, and eat event. More useful and more tasty and the old "trick them into attending a meeting with cheap pizza" approach. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

Brick + Beam put together a “Fixer Upper Supper Club” as a show, tell, and eat event. More useful and more tasty and the old “trick them into attending a meeting with cheap pizza” approach. It’s also a great way to foster community. Photo credit: Brick + Beam Detroit

But beyond these events, they’re also creating a website that will serve as a hub for people interested in property rehab. This will be accessible at all hours as a result, and contain a Q&A forum, a resource library, and a map that shows where the forum members’ properties are located and what they’re working on. These concentrated areas will be “hot spots” that will reveal which neighborhoods are seeing new, concentrated investment–information that can be used in a number of ways. They’re also working on a “Launch Box” that will be stocked with how-to guides, stories, resources, and other goodies for first time homeowners.

The “Launch Box” was something that especially made my ears perk up. It seemed a perfect opportunity for a partnership, so TMP partnered with Craftsman this month to give a handful of homeowners some essential tools they’ll need to fix up their “new” vintage homes, as well as a cheat sheet of tool essentials. These kits were hand delivered last week and we can’t wait to hear (and see) the follow-up!

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The Brick + Beam launch party in 2015 brought people together to share their home rehab stories. As you’d imagine, many of these stories are filled with successes and mishaps, and create a wonderful sense of “thank god we’re not the only ones!” Photo credit: Gertrud Høgh Rasmussen

Some Rust Belt Sources and Resources:

The Rise of the Shecanics

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Patrice Banks, founder of the Girls Auto Clinic, teaching car maintenance to a group of women in her home town of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Girls Auto Clinic.

Last year, I learned to change my own brake pads. I posted pics of the process and made one my profile picture because I felt like a HERO. I’m a generally handy person but working on cars intimidates me, in part because there are so many electrical components in newer cars, and, in part because it seems like it may be pretty easy to die if I don’t put things back together correctly. I know I’m not the only person out there blindly trusting in their mechanic, but it’s pretty obvious that women disproportionately shy away from maintaining their own vehicles. What may not be as obvious is that in this country, there are more female than male drivers and women are the #1 consumers of cars.

In 2013, 25.4% of jobs in the Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicles Equipment Manufacturing industry were held by women. However, women made up only 1.5% of automotive body and related repairers and 1.8% of automotive service technicians and mechanics. So why is the number so high? Because almost 57% of the industry's female workers are doing office and clerical work.

In 2013, 25.4% of jobs in the Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicles Equipment Manufacturing industry were held by women. However, women made up only 1.5% of automotive body and related repairers and 1.8% of automotive service technicians and mechanics. So where does the 25.4% stat come from? Check out that looooong green line. Almost 57% of the industry’s female workers are doing office and clerical work.

To find out why there was such a discrepancy, and to see who may be working to remedy this, I decided to Google around for programs training women to become mechanics, or, to at least teach basic maintenance skills. Unsurprisingly, only a handful of programs exist in the U.S. It’s always tougher to find women doing hands-on trades work, but the auto industry seems to be especially lacking in this respect.

The first woman my search turned up is Patrice Banks, a Philadelphian who is “working on disrupting the auto industry by catering to women.” How do you not click on that link? Patrice was working as a materials engineer for DuPont until she realized she knew nothing about cars despite spending a tremendous amount of money on them, couldn’t find other women who knew about cars, and couldn’t find a single female mechanic to work on her car. So, she decided to take classes, work for free at a garage on the weekends, and became a mechanic herself. And then she went even further and started the Girls Auto Clinic.

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The clinics have received a tremendous amount of press and women asking if there are clinics available in their cities. This is a clip pulled from CBS This Morning, but the clinics have also been featured on Fox News, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and numerous other outlets.

The Girls Auto Clinic “strives to be a visionary leader in the automotive industry by changing the way the industry views and markets to women while also changing the beliefs women have towards the industry through education and niche marketing.” Basically, the auto industry doesn’t reflect the needs, wants, and views of it’s #1 customer. Patrice also recognized that because women spend the most money on cars, they have real power to change the industry through education, and should be a part of the process from concept and design to maintenance and repair.

To help remedy this disconnect, Patrice teaches free classes for women each month, created an online forum for women to talk about cars, wrote the Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide, and even sells clothing merch for “Shecanics.” She is also working around the clock to open her own shop and expand the mission, so we’re sending her a bunch of Craftsman tools to help with that.

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In June, Patrice lead a free clinic for high school girls who drive. Fantastic. Shop classes have been cut from a majority of high schools across the country, but even when they did exist, only boys seemed to register.

The Girls Auto Clinic logo, language and images are hyper feminized, but because of this, classes reach a large and especially disempowered (in this arena) portion of women. Basically, Patrice takes the damsel in distress archetype and turns it on its head. I wear Doc Martens work boots when I’m in a shop. Patrice wears some serious heels when she’s teaching classes in a garage. It’s strange to see but also makes me think, “good lord, is there anything women can’t do, even in restrictive garb?”

Patrice’s classes appeal in a meaningful way to a whole lot of women who could never imagine themselves lifting up their car hood until now. While she is adamant that “all are welcome,” the mistreatment and underrepresentation of women in the auto industry is clearly what drives her passion for increased education and equality. This passion has not gone unnoticed. Girls Auto Clinic has garnered a ton of press and Patrice was even asked to do a Ted Talk about her work last year. Currently, less than 2% of mechanics are women. That is clearly going to change soon. Pictures from the Girls Auto Clinic November classes will be posted on ToolMade, so stay tuned!

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Patrice, still kicking ass in heels. Photo courtesy of Girls Auto Clinic.

Dream Camp for Handy Adults: Craftsman MAKEcation 2.0

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Villain in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Working in historic preservation and salvage/reuse means having a good grasp of material science and an eye for craftsmanship. One of the biggest hurdles of working in these fields is assuring people who own vintage buildings or who do a lot of building that they can easily repair, restore, and reuse older materials. In fact, these materials usually have several lives left in them. But as much as I hammer home this point (cymbal crash!), even I don’t get nearly enough time to play around with many of the tools out there that can help make restoration and reuse projects even easier, not to mention the time to stoke the coals of my creative side.

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This became a room full of excited adults, lathes, and rather a lot of wood shavings a couple of hours after this was taken. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Enter MAKEcation. This is essentially two days of nonstop building, learning and playing, and when you’re invited as a special guest, it’s rude to say no, right? I was asked to come and teach a workshop last year at the inaugural MAKEcation, and I remember thinking, “Is this a real thing? We just get to build stuff all weekend and in the evenings, we learn about whiskey and grilling and take a boat ride after a private concert?” It’s a thing. When I was asked back, rest assured I immediately rearranged my five jobs to make it work. MAKEcation is like camp for curious and creative adults with some of the best makers in the country. At a really nice hotel.

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Making coat hooks with master craftsman Rob North. Photo Courtesy of Craftsman.

The purpose of the event, which lasts 2-1/2 days, is to reward loyal Craftsman Club members for their support and to show active DIY bloggers what Craftsman tools can do. An added bonus of coming two years in a row was seeing many of the ideas that came out of last year manifest through new tool designs and adjustments. Participants were shown all of the upgrades and allowed to try them out. Honestly, I fell in love with several tools I didn’t even know I wanted. My kingdom for more workspace in Chicago because…lathe. Sigh.

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LATHE!!! I cannot express how satisfying it is to use the 12″ x 16″ midi lathe. I’d never used this tool before and it was super smooth. It was essentially like meditation that left you with a piece of functional art. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

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I only had time to make two handles, but this bottle and pizza cutter are going to be buried with me.

Day 1.

Arrive in Brooklyn early to explore solo for a few hours.

  • Walk Williamsburg
  • Buy a Rocky Balboa onesie for my niece
  • Have incredible pizza and a lager in the courtyard of Fornino’s
  • Return to hotel for cocktails by the saltwater pool (as one does)
  • Head to Brooklyn Brewery for a private tour and more New York style pizza and beer (Chicagoans have no threshold for pizza consumption)
  • Get the only decent night’s sleep on this trip
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Master craftsmen, loyal Craftsman Club members, handy people who write about makers and tools for a living, and a few folks from the Craftsman marketing team who schemed this whole wonderful thing up and worked their tails off for the greater good. Thanks, thanks, thanks. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 2

  • 7am breakfast in the hotel
  • Head over to Villain, a maker space in Brooklyn that includes all the tools and stations we need, as well as a gigantic bar (for AFTER we used the nail guns and miter saws)
  • Make our own belts and leather cuffs under the expert tutelage of Will Lisak from ETWAS
  • Make a coat rack by repurposing hammers with DIY Guru Rob North 
  • Take apart and rebuild carburetors with Max Herman and Sean Brayton from the Oilers Club
  • Get an incredibly detailed mixology lesson from the lovely Lacy Hawkins, an award winning bartender from the Clover Club
  • Return to the hotel for dinner on the rooftop, delicious drinks, and a private concert by country star Eric Paslay, who did my favorite cover of Wicked Game, ever
  • Eventually…five minutes of sleep
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Justin DiPego doing some stellar leatherwork. I got to know Justin at last year’s MAKEcation and highly recommend checking out his DIY videos.

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Mixologist Lacy Hawkins and her assistant teach us everything we ever wanted to know about making the perfect Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 3

  • Up early for breakfast in the hotel (ow, but yum, but ow)
  • Head over to World Maker Faire for the morning with blurry eyes that soon widen from creative overdrive
  • Take the shuttle on back to Villain to make pizza cutter and bottle opener handles using a lathe taught by Rob Johnstone and Dan Cary from Woodworker’s Journal (I want one, I want one, I want one. Please. Please. Please.)
  • Make a toolbox with a drawer and a bottle opener with the incredibly talented and kind Karl Champley to lug around some of our spoils when we get home.
  • Oh, then we went to go see a private motorcycle stunt show by ILLConduct. Just for us. Because, why not?
  • Then another dinner by the pool and Coney Island Magician and Performer Adam Realman, who swallows swords and cigarettes and shoves spikes into his face and resembles Tom Waits.
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The C3 19.2V Brad Nailer was my other favorite tool on this trip. After messing around with a manual staple gun at home earlier this month, this tool made me realize all those kicked up staples and curse words were completely unnecessary. Peace shall now reign in the Bruni studio. Thanks to the venerable Karl Champley, host on the DIY Network, HGTV, and recent winner of Ellen’s Design Challenge for this toolbox workshop. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

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We expected to be taken back to the hotel to clean ourselves up before dinner, but instead were taken down a side street for a private show by the motorcycle stunt riders at ILLConduct. This is a great capture, but I highly recommend looking at the videos on the media page of their website to understand how incredible these guys are. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

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This is Adam Realman. He eats cigarette, bends wrenches, swallows swords, and he let me pull a giant nail out of his nose and called me lovely. No regrets. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 4

  • Thank the Gods that your flight is late enough that you don’t need to leave the hotel until 11:30am, intend to explore in the morning but instead sleep until 10am, watch HBO in a fog for another hour, pack frantically, and unceremoniously run out the door to meet your driver.
  • Smile as you collapse into your window seat, sleep until drooling.

So, this was a dream trip. Assuming this happens a third year, sign up to be a member of the Craftsman Club if you haven’t already (it’s free), and enter to win as many times as you’re able. Remember: camp for adults with great food and liquor and a nice hotel and bizarre and ridiculously entertaining side trips and performances. Oh, and they ship everything you make back to you and every single thing on the trip is paid for. Yes. I’ll see you next year.

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Nerd sidebar: Hanging out with Vincent Lai of the Brooklyn-based Fixers Collective, a group that helped me and a friend launch Community Glue Workshop several years ago (which we’re proud to note is the first repair clinic in the state of Illinois). I read that his crew had a booth at the World Maker Faire and we finally got to hug in earnest (and then he gave me a free iFixit tool kit!).

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I can’t wait to give this to my niece. Thanks, Brooklyn street vendor.

Keepin’ it Clean in Detroit: The Americorps Urban Safety Project’s Global Youth Service Day

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Many hands make lighter work while boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties in this Southwest Detroit school zone.

In case you didn’t catch the first story about the masterfully collaborative and successful AmeriCorps Urban Safety Project (AMUS), this organization recruits and activates neighborhood volunteers to tackle blight and safety issues on their block. Volunteers organize themselves into neighborhood groups that become watchdogs for their neighborhood, working with a number of different partners and sponsors, and these volunteers also work to put on large-scale neighborhood clean-ups. In April, AMUS had their Global Youth Safety Day, so before the event I connected them with Craftsman, who donated hedge clippers (action bypass loppers), mechanics tools, a wheelbarrow, a weed wacker (volt line trimmers), a hand vac, drill and impact drivers and a few other helpful things to have on site.

This “Safe Pathways” board up event targeted the Southwest Detroit neighborhood surrounding Neinas Elementary School. Citizen volunteers of all ages joined Neinas students in boarding up 10 open and vacant houses and cleaning the surrounding properties of blight and debris to make their neighborhood safer. The Detroit Police Force, dozens of pizzas, and a boatload of tools were there to help this crew get through a long day of (the best kind of) dirty work.

For more about this organization and the staggering amount of work they do to keep their city safe and engaged, visit www.amusdetroit.org. All photos courtesy of AMUS Detroit.