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Ellis Ferrell sat inside one of six stables built by his son in a sweet spot of North Philadelphia on a sunny fall afternoon.
Namesake horse El Dog neighed beside him. Bees buzzed in and out of hay bales while chickens pecked and clucked. On a pasture across from the urban animal farm, nestled between blocks of rowhomes, half a dozen horses roamed.
Ferrell founded the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in 2004. For the past two decades, the 81-year-old equestrian has poured his heart and soul into the community project.
“I love Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club because I’m dealing with kids,” Ferrell said. “And horses and kids are my passion. Once they learn how to ride, they’re here every day.”
Though it’s been the subject of everything from Parisian art exhibits to a Hollywood movie, the club’s future in Strawberry Mansion is uncertain.
Thirteen-year-old Nahye Hyman was drawn to the group because he loves animals. In his three years volunteering there, he said, he learned how to take care of the horses and made many friends.
“We’re all good people here,” Hyman told Billy Penn. “Every horse is well fed and well cleaned.”
The pasture-like lots across from the Fletcher Street stables are slated to be turned into affordable housing for seniors.
Used daily for grazing and pony rides, the affected property never belonged to the club. But it’s crucial to maintaining the activity of the horses, Ferrell and other club administrators said.
City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office is actively looking for alternatives, according to spokesperson Joe Grace.
Chain-link fencing recently went up across the pasture, marking the start of Philadelphia Housing Authority’s transformation of the grassland into a new development called Susquehanna Housing. It appears to be the end of a years-long back and forth between the club and PHA, the Philadelphia Land Bank, and Clarke’s office, in whose district the property falls.
The land use tussle was referenced briefly at the end of “Concrete Cowboys,” the Idris Elba movie that filmed at Fletcher Street last summer.
The riding club, which is incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, launched a GoFundMe campaign this summer to stay afloat. So far it’s raised just over a tenth of its $100k goal.
Meanwhile, Ferrell said he uses his own funds to maintain the nonprofit, with help from son Darrin, 55, and grandson Milan, 23.
“I’m known worldwide,” Ferrell said. “I’ve had them from everywhere. Australia, Germany, France, the U.K., Korea, Japan. All of them have been here and did videos of me and they’ve gone back to their countries and won awards. I never got one dime.”
A real-life legend who ‘knows how to keep people out of trouble’
The adoption of Fletcher Street riders as international muse started within a year of the club’s founding.
A young rider landed on a 2005 cover of Life magazine. In 2006, after following Ferrell and his disciples around for two years, photographer Martha Camarillo published a book called “Fletcher Street.” (It’s hard to find the sleek, two-pound tome for less than $100 today.)
In 2008, the club was featured on NPR’s “This American Life.” Novelist Greg Neri’s “Ghetto Cowboys” was published in 2011. British band Rudimental filmed their award-nominated “Feel the Love” music video with some club riders in 2012.
In 2017, the same year the Philadelphia Land Bank formally acquired the grazing plot marked for development, Fletcher Street riders were profiled by The Atlantic, and highlighted in an art exhibit at Philadelphia’s Barnes museum.
The legend continues to grow. Idris Elba turned heads during the summer of 2019 when he was filming “Concrete Cowboy” in Strawberry Mansion.
Based on Neri’s novel, the movie is slated for Netflix release in early 2021. It was primarily shot around the Fletcher Street stables, with plenty of poetic license. Elba’s character wears cowboy hats, for example, while real-life Ferrell opts for baseball caps. But many scenes feature Elba sitting on a couch under a tarp awning, just like the one Ferrell sits at with club members almost every day.
When the drama debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, reviews were hit or miss.
The movie’s highest points, critics said, came when the club’s actual riders appeared on screen, bringing authenticity to the plot of a troubled teen dropped on his horseback-riding father’s Philadelphia doorstep.
Jamil Prattis was one of those authentic riders. Prattis had a significant role in the film and wrote most of his part, he told Billy Penn.
“I just knew it all. And with the young boul Caleb,” he said, referencing Caleb McLaughlin, the actor who played Elba’s son, “I was just teaching him stuff.”
Prattis, 31, said he began riding with Ferrell about two decades ago. He’s been there through the myriad changes and transitions at the club, which has a mission to teach any child to ride — particularly Black children in the North Philly neighborhood around the stables. Prattis credits Ferrell’s work with his own positive life trajectory.
“I don’t know what I’d do if he’d be gone,” Prattis said of Ferrell. “I’m on board with him, everything that he’s doing. He knows how to keep people out of trouble.”
From breaking bulls to balancing an animal farm
Ferrell was born in Tallahassee, Florida, and had the riding bug from the start. Six-year-old Ellis and his friends would break bulls, helping tame rodeo beasts since they didn’t have horses, he said.
He came to live with family in Philadelphia when he was 14, and the city was still full of horses when he arrived in Strawberry Mansion, he said. Horses drew the carriages for the milkman. Horses pulled buggies to transport materials.
After serving in the army and working as a truck driver, Ferrell bought his first pony in 1970, using money his children rounded up. After that, it was history.
“I just started buying horses,” he said, his southern drawl persisting despite seven decades up north. “Just for the heck of it.”
Ferrell led some of Philly’s existing riding clubs, like the Boulevard Stablemates in the 1970s and Brewerytown Riding Club in the 1980s.
In 2004, he established the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Its 23 horses were housed in Brewerytown alongside at least 150 other steeds, but Ferrell’s riders learned on the green space now slated for development at Fletcher Street, where public stables have existed for more than a century.
The club became a safe haven for neighborhood children, who fell in love with horseback riding and with the dynamic father figure running the show.
“To me, it’s a therapy,” Ferrell said. “You can come around the horses, and you forget everything. Your mind is just totally relaxed.”
The club had a tough time finding a permanent home from the start.
A few months after its founding, the city seized the Brewerytown stables through eminent domain. Ferrell and his crew moved their animals to some makeshift corrals built on what’s now the open Fletcher Street lot.
There they stayed until 2008, when a highly publicized seizure and destruction of the club’s corrals and office almost decimated the entire operation. Apparently spurred by an anonymous tip, the SPCA performed a raid on the 100-year-old stables, the club’s own corrals and its ancillary petting zoo, which were all bulldozed by the city.
Prattis, who was a teenager at the time, called the incident “devastating” and disputed claims of mistreatment. “They were just taking the horses from us,” he said. “And they were saying the horses was skinny and they wasn’t.”
Ferrell said his animals were returned to him, and he scrambled to find them a new home, moving them from New Jersey to Pennypack Park to Germantown.
At the end of 2014, he thought he’d found a solution. Thanks to the generosity of the former landowner, Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club secured the deed to three dilapidated lots at 2607-11 W. Fletcher St. City records show it cost them $100.
Ferrell and his helpers spent the next four years clearing the land and building new corrals. The horses and offices finally moved onto the property right after “Concrete Cowboy” wrapped. But the pastures across the way are now about to disappear.
After Land Bank sale, club’s location now in limbo
Used for horse grazing and riding for more than a century, the open lots at 2610-16 W. Fletcher St. were transferred to the Philadelphia Land Bank from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in April 2017, per city records. The Philadelphia Housing Authority then applied to acquire the properties, with the $1 sale becoming effective this September.
Strawberry Mansion Civic Association officer Judith Robinson, a lifelong neighborhood resident who works in real estate, called the inter-agency transfer “foolishness” and said she was disappointed in the result.
“It should have been done on some land anywhere else,” Robinson said of the forthcoming development.
According to PHA documents, the 55-and-older Susquehanna Housing complex will be part of HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, and will also include a community center. Robinson said she had nothing against the project, but the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is special enough to take precedence.
“What’s the chances that you’ll be able to go and get your child a horse ride in an urban setting, after school,” Robinson said. “We love them.”
Ferrell, affectionately referred to as “El Dog,” has many fans. One volunteer, a 29-year-old nurse named Hannah Gaudite, came to him about five years ago. She helped turn the riding club’s informal manure sharing into a composting initiative and has spearheaded other programming initiatives.
The stable hosted a community day and Halloween event in October, and orchestrated several rideouts to get out the vote ahead of the presidential election, including one that highlighted Black artworks in the city.
“He rescues the horses,” Gaudite said, “and then, the kids. Any kid that wanders up and wants to learn about horses, they go through the same process… It’s a safe place to be.”
She’s also helping the club navigate its current search for a new home.
Spokesperson Grace said Council President Clarke “cares very much about the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.” Negotiations remain ongoing, Grace confirmed, and no new site has been chosen.