Fletcher Street Cowboys
Telegraph, Feb 2007
In a shabby street in Philadelphia, an unlikely pony club gives the city’s youth an escape route from the ghetto. A remarkable photographic project by Martha Camarillo could be their only chance to save the stables from the bulldozer.
Photos by me
Also find the story here.
Every morning, 16-year-old Fernando rides his bicycle seven miles across Philadelphia from one ghetto to another. These neighborhoods crackle with gunfire after sunset, but Fernando barely notices the showreel of urban decay. Only when he arrives at Fletcher Street does he really wake up; the scene is so jolting and original, it never fails to catch his breath.
About 80 horses live here. Some wait in muddy pens on a patch of wasteland, others are being groomed in the street, waiting to be ridden out to the park, where the men race each other for minor bets, or through the city. Most of the horses live in regular houses that, behind their rundown suburban facades, have been converted into ramshackle stables.
As Fernando arrives, a white horse emerges from one home, walking out of the front door and down the steps to the street. “There he is!” beams Lee, a 38-year-old father of four, who owns two of the horses here, Jewboy and Willette. Eternally optimistic, Lee works for the City of Philadelphia by day, but spends as much time as he can at the stables, where he is considered something of a father figure. “Hey, Fernando, you wanna ride Jewboy? You feed that sucker and maybe he’ll let you!”
The sight of former racehorses, packhorses and ponies in a Philadelphia ghetto is surprising enough, but it was the kids who first caught the eye of the New York-based photographer Martha Camarillo, 37. “I was driving through Fairmount Park in January and there they were, riding in a posse with their Timberland boots and North Face jackets. They were all guys, no girls, which I found intriguing. And I’d never seen that combination before: black American youth and horses. It breaks the John Wayne myth.”
At first Camarillo, a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, struggled to persuade the riders to be photographed. Claiming that they had been burnt by the media in the past, they were suspicious of her advances – “some guys even thought I was FBI.” She managed to gain their trust over a period of two years; her book, Fletcher Street (Powerhouse Books), is the first time anyone has documented this unique street culture.
There have been stables here since the Second World War, when it was a wealthy, predominantly Jewish area, and Philadelphia’s horse tradition was going strong. But as the ghettos have grown, the stables have fallen away, which to Lee only enhances the importance of Fletcher Street.
“Most of these kids come from broken homes,” he says. “So we are like a second family. No one gets turned away. But you got to work – sweep the stalls, shovel some shit. And you can’t be coming around during school hours. We just trying to keep the kids here so they ain’t out on the corner in the crack war.”
Take 20-year-old Burger. His Uncle June first brought him here when he was eight, but as he hit his teens he drifted into trouble. He was in and out of prison for joyriding, assault and dealing marijuana. But now that he is back with his horses, his life has some structure – he works as a welder to provide for his two daughters, and takes the bus three miles every morning to the stables to feed his uncle’s horses. “I can count on the guys here,” he says. “If I got stress at home, I can come here and talk to my horses. They never let me down.”
Every teenager here has a similar story. Kyle, 18, gets into far fewer fights now that he spends his time at Fletcher Street. And Fernando, who has been coming here for four months, never misses a day. His father is in prison, his mother is battling with drugs. “Sometimes that kid won’t eat all day if we don’t feed him,” says Hop, 41, a plumber by trade. “Come Christmas, we was talking about what gifts we got, and Fernando never said nothing. So we whipped around and got him some clothes.”
Few know better than Hop how horses can rehabilitate a troubled youth – he spent his own teens doing time for involuntary manslaughter. “Some of my friends from growing up are dead now,” he says. “If I didn’t have my horses, I’d probably be dead with ’em” He recognises his importance as a father figure to some of these boys. Fletcher Street is almost entirely male – three generations, from grandfathers down. “These kids need a man to tell ’em that you don’t work while you here, you can’t come back,” Hop says.
He doesn’t mean strict employment. The stables are entirely supported in a loose co-operative fashion by horse owners such as Lee and Hop. Each horse costs about $300 a month to look after, and the horses themselves are not cheap – some of the ex-racehorses cost up to $4,000. Most were bought at auction at the local Amish farm, where they also buy their hay and feed.
But whenever Fletcher Street reaches out for financial support – to pay vets’ bills, for example – the City of Philadelphia balks. “We never had a grant in our life,” Hop says. “And the mayor used to ride horses right here on Fletcher Street.” Furthermore, the city has been aggressively closing down stables in recent years.
As recently as the 1980s there were as many as 500 cowboys in the city. Hop estimates that over the past decade six of the 10 stables in Philadelphia have been shut down. The latest was the Western Wranglers Riding Club, where many of the Fletcher Street horses once lived.
The city claimed “eminent domain” – a law equivalent to “compulsory purchase” in the UK – whereby the state can claim private property without requiring the owner’s consent. And in its stead, a series of townhouses were built as part of the city’s gentrification programme. A total of 146 horses were dispersed, sold or put down.
Camarillo plans to make a documentary about Fletcher Street; the stables’ survival rests largely on her shoulders. “We just hoping that she’s gonna make people realise what we got here,” Lee says. “Because what are you going to tell these kids? And some of these old-timers, they lived their whole lives with horses – you take their horses away, sometimes they just fade away and die. I’ve seen it happen. There’s a lot at stake here, man. We need to keep Fletcher Street alive.”
Fletcher Street by Martha Camarillo is published by Powerhouse Books