in a city full of vacant lots, Fletcher Street in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood appears to fit right in. grass and weeds grow unchecked, save for a small section of dirt enclosed by a wood fence. across the street stands an old gray row house and a forsaken factory, relics of the industrial boom. at first glance, the block looks like any of the unoccupied leftovers that have come to characterize many parts of Philadelphia. but if you take a second look, you’ll come to find that Fletcher Street, the home of Philadelphia’s only remaining Urban Riding Club, is unlike any other block in the city.
after lunch downtown we headed to strawberry mansion in north Philadelphia. Harrell had requested a stop at the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club after reading about it on the internet. Fletcher Street is an inner-city program run by Ellis Ferrell. along with a number of experienced equestrians who live in the surrounding area, Ellis teaches the nuanced art of horsemanship to local children. kids learn how to groom, feed, and ride horses and they hold races in nearby Fairmount Park.
to step into the stable at Fletcher Street is to be transported. any notion of the city of Philadelphia fades. that said, Fletcher Street does not look like a typical stable. you don’t disappear into the wild west. there is a refrigerator full of Coke and bottled water in the corner. stable-hands sweep the stalls in Nikes and Phillies t-shirts, urban cowboys in the truest sense. in this way, the riding club is a kind of crossroads, a collision of cultures, of epochs. in a modern city, horseback riding seems a bizarre, irrelevant anachronism. but Ellis Ferrell believes that it can be the perfect medicine to his ailing contemporary community.
the idea is that just as Philadelphia fades behind the stable doors so to does the poverty and violence that have become synonymous with it. the stable is a safe-haven, a place where people can gather with a common purpose. Ellis believes that the principles of horsemanship translate to the streets and life at home. children learn invaluable lessons about responsibility that could very well keep them out of trouble. a brilliant social practitioner with a clear direction, Ellis Farrell is a rather remarkable character.
an important lesson the visit to Fletcher Street drove home for me: Philadelphia is unassuming – it does not expect much of you. consequently, you come to expect nothing of the city. it is easy to take each empty block at face value. look closer. this city is far more rich than i imagined. also, see the vacant space as locations of opportunity. how can we motivate the empty space, use it to bring the city together?