Horse Riders, a City Street and a History Now Captured on Film
On a summer morning in 2019, Ricky Staub was asked to walk over the plank on Fletcher Street.
Fletcher Street – part of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in north Philadelphia – had been home to municipal horse stables and a center for black riders for decades, and Dust had started spending time there after befriending a local rider.
In this way, Dust struggled to push a wheelbarrow up an angled wooden beam while a group of regulars watched it wobble. Staub really wanted to prove himself. He had shown up in clean, light-colored sneakers (“like an idiot”) for a day of dirty stable work and couldn’t afford another rookie flub. In addition, the wooden board swayed on a colossal heap of horse manure.
“I’ll literally be thigh deep if I fall,” said Dust.
Fortunately for him (and his sneakers), dust kept his balance. And when he had successfully completed his task and threw the contents of the wheelbarrow, which was also filled with manure, onto the growing pile, the audience broke out into applause.
This daring maneuver is one of several first-hand experiences recreated by 37-year-old Staub in Concrete Cowboy, his first feature now streamed on Netflix. In this coming-of-age story, a Detroit teenager (Caleb McLaughlin) is sent to Philadelphia to live with his estranged father (Idris Elba, also producer) who leads a modern cowboy life on Fletcher Street where small stables sit modestly between row houses.
The film that Staub and Dan Walser adapted from G. Neri’s youth novel “Ghetto Cowboy” may follow a well-known Hollywood arc, but contains extraordinary, sometimes surreal details that stem from Staub and Walser’s experience with urban riders in Philadelphia for about two years.
Imagine, for example, the campfire scene at the beginning of the film, in which drivers gather around a fire at night and share stories in the light of the flames gushing from the belly of a metal barrel. It’s a tableau with cowboy hats that comes straight from a classic western. It’s also something you might see off-screen today.
“In the summer, any night you want, go to the stables on Fletcher Street, and there are at least three men sitting outside by a tin can fire just relaxing,” said Ivannah-Mercedes, a driver who grew up in the city Caring for horses on Fletcher Street in 2010s. Mercedes, who plays a fictional cowgirl in “Concrete Cowboy”, is one of the few drivers – some are still active there, others now work in various stables around town – who participated in the film on both sides of the camera.
The riders pointed out many details in the film that were in line with their own experiences, including that riding has proven to be an indispensable form of healthy recreation in an environment where gun violence and other dangers are difficult to avoid.
Young people “need alternatives,” said Michael Upshur, 46, who started riding as a child on Fletcher Street in the early 1980s. “If they just see people on the street corner, they’ll be interested.”
Upshur said he has mounted more than a dozen horses on Fletcher Street over the years. Like other drivers there, he views the stables as more than a passion or a pastime.
“Being with these horses taught me to be patient,” he said. “I thought a lot more before I acted.”
Upshur described the methodical washing of horses with a hose and watched them playfully chew on the water jet. Over the decades he has ridden many times in Fairmount Park, about a 10 minute drive from the stable.
“There’s something about you and this park,” said Upshur. “You can hear the sticks crack as your horse walks on those little branches. You see the little squirrels walking around and the horse jumps a bit – it calms you down. “
Erin Brown, 37, remembers learning as a young rider that “your horse is a reflection of the kind of person you are”. Brown, who learned to ride a horse on Fletcher Street in the early 1990s and later ran a barn there, said caring for horses gave her a sense of responsibility as she grew up. She said that during her late teens she was “on the wrong track” for a period of time, but that the stables grounded her. She is now a professional riding instructor.
“I honestly don’t know where I would be today – and so many others can say the same thing – if it weren’t for the horses,” Brown said.
Several Philadelphia riders have teamed up with Staub and other members of the film’s creative team to create the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and preserving the history of Black Riding in Philadelphia. (Brown is the organization’s executive director; Upshur and Mercedes are on the advisory board.)
Fletcher Street drivers have long been concerned about the future of the stables as gentrification and new developments emerge. Each stall in the cluster on Fletcher Street is privately owned and managed individually. There have been conditions issues over the years that conflicted with the city and the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And the large, grassy field across from the stables – a set piece from the film that served as an open space for riders – is now being developed. The goal of the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy is to create permanent stables where riders from Fletcher Street and other parts of the city can provide sustainable homes for their horses.
Brown, Upshur, and Mercedes each emphasized that Philadelphia’s urban riding history should be preserved and that the sense of empowerment and responsibility that horses provide to riders is an invaluable – and irreplaceable – asset in the community. The Hollywood actors felt that in “Concrete Cowboy”.
Lorraine Toussaint, who plays one of the fictional riders, said she was impressed with “the discipline that goes into caring for, caring for and loving these extraordinary animals”.
“I fell in love with horses so much,” she added, “that after this movie I actually bought a horse farm.”
Elba himself felt the rush and the sharpness that the real drivers had described.
“Those were really proud moments for me,” he said. “It felt very powerful jumping on a horse – you feel big. You are on this majestic beauty of an animal. “
So determined was Elba to shed light on the Philadelphia equestrian community that he signed up to produce Concrete Cowboy when it was still a script looking for funding, and took on the challenge against actual local riders to play. He even contributed a song to the film’s soundtrack.
Elba did all of this in spite of an unchanging, rather uncomfortable truth: he is allergic to horses.