by Suzanne Bush
The ancient stables on Fletcher Street in Philadelphia sit quietly on a sweltering July afternoon. Across the street, in a vacant field, stock trailers stand baking in the sun. In the distance Philadelphia's most recent addition to its skyline, the Comcast Center, dominates a horizon that includes little else from this angle besides scrubby trees, electric wires and a jumble of angled rooftops. Although the distance that separates the Comcast Center and Philadelphia's glittering skyscrapers from Fletcher Street is little more than a couple of miles, in many ways, they are separated by a chasm of missed opportunity and epic misunderstanding.
The people who care for the 30 horses at Fletcher Street, and the grown men who reflect on the lives they might have had if it were not for the stables and the men who taught them to ride, can be forgiven for feeling defensive. "In March the city came in. They had reports of mistreated animals. Licenses & Inspections (L&I), SPCA, police, and the media came in. We had made a request to the police department to find out where these complaints were coming from," says James Royal, of the Fletcher Street Riding Club. They never found out the source or the specific nature of the complaints. He said that two ponies were seized that day, while the cameras rolled. A day later, after veterinarians determined that the ponies were in good shape, they were returned—without any of the media fanfare.
Reporters painted the stable as a hell-hole for horses. The people closest to the horses—people who have spent their lives around horses—disagree.
Lee Cannady, a Philadelphia police officer and a lifelong patron of the stables, points out that the stables are a whole lot more than what they seem. "We have a business license. We keep our horses looking good. We may not have the best facility, but we give them the best food money can buy and we love them."
The Fletcher Street Stable is not like a stable you might find in Philadelphia's suburbs. But that does not mean that the horses are mistreated. In fact, the horses—many purchased at the New Holland auctions—are healthy and get regular veterinary care. Hop White, who owns the facility, says that a veterinarian comes every month to check the horses, and Coggins tests are done annually on every horse. White, too is a veteran rider at this stable.
The area around Fletcher Street has been home to dozens of makeshift stables for a hundred years. Several months before the March raid on the stable, a horse was found dead in a pile of manure at one of the other stables. But in the aftermath of that horrific incident, all the stables were portrayed as similarly mis-managed and uniformly condemned as being dangerous for the horses. Several of the stables were bulldozed but this core of the community held on.
While less optimistic souls might have given up, Royal, Cannady and White refuse to do so. To them, and to Ellis Ferrell who is president of the Fletcher Street Riding Club, there are too many kids whose futures are tethered to the lessons they learn with and from the horses.
If there's a common thread here, in fact, it is hope. For all these men—some grandfathers now—began riding here as children. They recognize how important it is to give children something to do, along with the discipline they may not always get at home. The elders carry on a tradition of teaching the 30 or 40 kids how to ride, how to take care of the horses, and how to be accountable.
Cannady recalls his own youth, and how easily he could have become a statistic instead of a police officer. "You learn to be responsible, to share. I know. I was one of those kids. Those guys at the stable told me I had to do something better with my life. The demand for respect was there," he says. "These guys would whup your behind if you got out of line." He says he taught his four kids to ride there, giving them rides even before they could walk. "I used to put the diaper bag on my shoulder and carry my son while I rode," he says.
White, who is 43, has been riding at the Fletcher Street stable since he was six years old. "Horses helped my life," he says. "I could have been a gang-banger or a drug seller. My time was put in here instead of where I grew up." He offers his own life as a contrast to those of some of the kids he knew from his old neighborhood. "A couple are dead, plenty are in jail doing life." He says that his parents weren't together, but his father, who lived near the stable, brought him around to learn to ride. His 12-year-old son rides there now, along with his nephews.
The men all talk about discipline and accountability. They're not abstract concepts. They are incorporated into rules that are strictly enforced. "Once a kid comes around here, it's hard for them to detach themselves," White explains. "They look at this as another part of the world. You don't have anyone cursing, doing drugs, shouting. There's no tolerance of violence around here." And there's no tolerance for slacking off at school, either. "The kids must bring their report cards. If they get bad grades, they can't ride until they bring their grades up." Beyond grades, there's another component. Kids can't ride unless they help out.
Ferrell, a grandfather who has been working with kids at the stable since 1970, introduces the horses, and talks about each one's history: the one with the crooked mouth, the pony who is spoiled, the horse that came from New Holland as a yearling with only one eye. He nuzzles each of them, asking what kind of trouble they've gotten into today. He's alternately distressed, angered and puzzled by what he sees as the City's inability to recognize the value of the program.
White says that this part of Fletcher Street is an oasis of peace. "There's not one murder, not one drug dealer, not one knifing or other crime here," he says. "A couple of blocks away, that's not the case." He says that kids gravitate to the horses, and fit seamlessly into the fabric of the stable as long as they obey the rules. "When they see us riding around the neighborhood, they follow us. We encourage them to come around and see what it's like."
Despite what seems like an uphill battle against odds that grow steeper almost daily, there is evidence that Fletcher Street stable is gaining momentum. In 2006, photographer Martha Camarillo published a book called Fletcher Street. She and producer Cassandra Del Viscio were so moved by the Fletcher Street stable and all that it has meant to generations of Philadelphians, that they're developing a documentary celebrating what has been accomplished and challenging the larger community to support the efforts of the men who oversee the stable.
"As you can imagine they are under close scrutiny. From my point of view there's a lot of juxtapositions here. There's this whole element of this older group of guys who are trying to hold on to a tradition," Del Viscio says. The stress and the work are exhausting, though. "The want is there in the community to have a good place for these horses. They're down to five or 10 guys who are left trying to keep things together. One of these guys is a narcotics officer. One of the guys served in Vietnam. These men are trying very hard. They're exhausted. They've come very close to giving up. They love their horses, and try to pass everything down to the kids."
Del Viscio and Camarillo have become advocates as well as partners in the effort to preserve Fletcher Street stable. They've helped the group organize and apply for non-profit status. They've also helped by setting up a website for them, www.fletcherstreeturbanridingclub.com. All this effort, they hope, will lead to a brighter future for this extraordinary group of unsung heroes.
According to Royal, the raid and the negative stories in March have led to some positive results. He says that strangers are calling, asking how they can help. Once the group achieves its non-profit status, they're hoping to be able to raise enough money to develop an actual equestrian center on the vacant lot across from the stable.
"We've been getting help. We want to build a stable there now. We want to build anywhere from 75-100 stalls and build a mini-equestrian center there," he says. They want to hire instructors who can teach the kids how to ride, and have enough space to reach more kids.
The history, the horses and the generations of people who have come and gone along this stretch of Fletcher Street combine to make a compelling story. But neither the stable, nor the people who love it and who have invested their lives and hopes in it, fit neatly into any preconceived notion of what a riding stable should look like. They demand a perspective that is not defined by convention. The true story here is one that is short on glamour but long on courage, love, commitment and…yes…hope.