By Rick Schwertfeger, Captain,
Frontier Partisans Southern Command, Austin, Texas
There were 51,000 horses in Philadelphia in 1900.
It takes some imagination to call back the reality that horses were essential to the fabric of 19th century American cities. For in the days before internal combustion engines were connected to the axles of newfangled horseless carriages, horses pulled delivery wagons, passenger coaches, buggies of well-off individuals, and were ridden by messengers, police, and private citizens on their daily rounds.
Old photos certify that reality. And the horses were housed, fed, and cared for in stables throughout the cities. Those locations mostly have been lost from memory, though not completely. Your author once dragged his wife on a pilgrimage to the corner in downtown Bakersfield, California, where chronicler of the Californios Arnold Rojas ran a stable after his vaquero days ended. As suspected, it’s now occupied by a nondescript office building.
Demographic history intersects with this narrative. For in the East and Midwest, the Great Migration of the early 20th Century saw African-Americans migrating north from Southern agricultural work to industrial jobs in cities like Philadelphia. Some worked driving horse-drawn carriages and delivery wagons. Some also brought their own horses. And African-American riding clubs, and their stables, spread throughout the city. As the 20th century unfolded, one by one those stables disappeared, mostly sold to developers. But one survived: Fletcher Street Stables.
And it’s at the Fletcher Street Stables that 15-year-old Cole unwillingly finds himself one summer. After too many fights, Cole’s mother, at the end of her rope with him, drives Cole from their Detroit home to Philadelphia to stay with his estranged, ex-con father Harp – a Fletcher Street “Cowboy,” in the fictional movie Concrete Cowboy, one based on true events. (It debuted on Netflix on April 2).
As the sullen, disconnected, Cole gets exposed to the run-down stables and the Cowboys, he wonders, “What’s wrong with these people?” For these folks, who love and care for the horses, ride in the shabby empty lot across the street, and sit around a fire boasting, bullshitting, laughing, and enjoying their community of horsemen and women, comprise an exotic urban Black niche culture, one initially beyond Cole’s ability to understand.
In a predictable but well-done story, Cole hooks up with a friend from his Philadelphia younger years. “Smush” is a drug dealer who once was an award-winning Fletcher Street Cowboy. Smush is dealing in pursuit of his dream to save up enough money to buy a ranch out West where he’ll have horses and live the cowboy life for real. Cole is torn between the confident, driven Smush and his dangerous life, and the equestrian life of the Cowboys. So it’s days working as a stable boy, and nights riding shotgun with Smush on his rounds. But he’s getting into the Cowboys, especially when he calms and even rides the dangerous horse Boo. For, as horses will, Boo perceives that Cole is no threat. A Cowboy tells Cole, “Well, I guess Boo’s your horse.”
The Cole-Harp relationship is explored deftly. Harp tells Cole that he was just like Smush — and getting shot will be Smush’s end. While acknowledging his past, Harp explains that he feels like he was “born with a boot on my neck.” But he loved the infant Cole. The scene where he plays a John Coltrane record and tells Cole that he named him after his musical hero is touching.
But trouble’s bubbling up. Smush invades a big drug lord’s territory, with predictably fatal results. And developers and their City lackeys have their eyes on the run-down Stables, not owned by the Cowboys. Trumped up charges of malnourished horses are made; and the City acts to take the horses away “for examination.” To the Irish city official running the round up — a stereotype if you’ll ever see one — one of the Cowboys says, “My horse eats better than you do, Chubby.”
But the horses are trailered away to a Philadelphia Police Stable. I’ll avoid spoiling the ending, especially since I enjoyed Concrete Cowboy and recommend it. Suffice it to say that some horses are recovered, and the Cowboys succeed in honoring Smush with an informal ceremony at his grave. “He’s one of us.”
Actor Idris Elba both produced Concrete Cowboy and plays Harp. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of a vital Black urban culture within North Philadelphia, an area saddled with a bad reputation for sure. The Fletcher Street Cowboys are engaged, genuine characters. Director Ricky Staub and the actors present viewers with complex individuals pursuing positive lives within an American urban neighborhood that’s not especially conducive to accomplishing that. Further reading reveals that the real Fletcher Street Cowboys — like Jamil Prattis and Ivannah Mercedes, who act their roles in the movie – are quite intent on creating a positive situation for young Blacks.
“[The kids] always had the stables to come to after school instead of being on the street and getting in trouble,” says Ellis Ferrell Jr., founder of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. “It taught them to have respect and responsibility: for the horses, their elders and themselves.”
One Cowboy stated in an interview that the Cowboys are the reason he doesn’t have a felony on his head.
Ellis Ferrell Jr. succeeded in keeping the Club going with the gift from a benefactor of three lots for new stables, now open. But another threat looms already: The vacant lot where the Cowboys ride was acquired by the City, and ground has been broken for a senior housing complex. Where the Cowboys will ride into their future is up in the air.
© Rick Schwertfeger email@example.com April 2021