The Real-Life Concrete Cowboys of Philadelphia

Philadelphia is a city rich in history, culture, and ethnic diversity. But one of its best-kept secrets is the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a horse stable for young urban riders and home to a thriving black cowboy community that has existed here for more than a century. The club's mission is to promote horse riding in the city center, provide equine therapy, and foster academic excellence in the city's Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. Against all odds, and despite constant gentrification, Philadelphia's black cowboys have made a home for themselves, their precious horses and the preservation of their way of life for over 100 years. Malik Divers, the self-described “concrete cowboy” of southwest Philadelphia, has been part of the city's tradition of black riding culture for decades.

He has two horses, Sonny and Shadow, who have struggled to find a suitable home where they can hang their reins. Earlier this summer, Divers thought he might have to give up his horses after he was blocked for the second time from using empty land and City property. Instead, Divers has entered into a first-of-its-kind agreement with representatives of Bartram's Garden and City that will allow their horses to move to a small parcel on Bartram's Mile where stables will be set up along the Schuylkill River. The cobbled streets of Philadelphia are reminiscent of horse and buggy carriages that were once the main means of transport. Nowadays, paying for a ride on horseback and buggy is a novelty that is often exploited by tourists and romantic comedy enthusiasts.

But there is still a community of horsemen on the streets of Philadelphia. The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is a horse stable for young urban riders and home to a thriving black cowboy community that has existed here for more than a century. The new Netflix film Concrete Cowboy presents cowboys and horses in a different environment than the traditional Hollywood western. The film follows 15-year-old Cole, played by Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin, who is sent to live with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philadelphia after being expelled from his high school in Detroit. Harp is an urban cowboy, a member of a collective of riders who have built stables in a warehouse in the city and graze their horses on vacant land between terraced houses and apartment buildings in Philadelphia. Two of Divers' “Concrete Cowboy” trainee riders trot over Sonny and Shadow across a vacant lot in southwest Philadelphia.

The stables featured in Concrete Cowboy face the threat of gentrification, reflecting the current reality of the real community. The Fletcher Street Stables, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club and the Philadelphia Urban Cowboy Movement all have a rich history and legacy, which is expected to continue in the coming years thanks in part to community support and the success of Concrete Cowboy. Jamil Prattis, who has kept horses on Fletcher Street for 15 years, wasn't the only member of the community to show up at Concrete Cowboy, as Ivannah Mercedes (Cole's love interest) and countless riders grew up in similar communities. The teenager considers his father's black cowboy community a safe haven, which is true for many real-life Philly youth. In addition to the Ferrell club, there are other community riding clubs in the city, including a southwest Philadelphia club called Concrete Cowboys. The script for Concrete Cowboy explained what Elba had seen years before, and he knew it had to be his next film.

The novel was recently adapted into a new film titled Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba and Stranger Things star Caleb McLaughlin. The other campaign, launched by the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy (partly with the producers of Concrete Cowboy), aims to raise funds for a facility in downtown Philadelphia on a fairly large scale. The change is disconcerting for Divers, who coined the term “Concrete Cowboy” for his riding program more than a decade ago. Although the popular image of the Hollywood Westerns cowboy is a white man, most cowboys in the real-life Wild West were people of color. Concrete Cowboy writer-director Ricky Staub spent two years visiting the stables and meeting cyclists in the Fletcher Street community before writing the script, and chose some real-life cyclists in the film. To support the new Concrete Cowboys stables at Bartram's Garden, visit their crowdfunding page HERE. Without solid financial assistance, they will not survive much longer.

Concrete Cowboy has given and will continue to give well-deserved recognition to these groups. Philadelphia is surrounded by historical significance and cultural landmarks. It is called “the city of brotherly love and brotherly affection”. The city also has empty covered patches of old industrial sites waiting to be reused. This makes it an ideal place for urban cowboys like Malik Divers to keep their horses safe while preserving their way of life.

Jack Brown
Jack Brown

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