Southwest Philadelphia is dotted with vacant, overgrown patches of former industrial sites waiting to be reused. Yet, for years Sonny and Shadow, two 20-year-old horses who can still muster a healthy trot, have struggled with their owner to find a suitable home where they can hang their reins. The horses belong to Malik Divers, the self-styled “Concrete Cowboy” of Southwest Philly who is part of the city’s decades-long tradition of black horse-riding culture. Finding a home for Sonny and Shadow has become more difficult in recent years. Earlier this summer, Divers thought he might have to give up his horses after he was blocked for a second time from using vacant, City-owned land. Instead, Divers has entered into a first-of-its-kind agreement with Bartram’s Garden and City representatives that will allow his horses to move to a small parcel on Bartram’s Mile where stables will be set up along the Schuylkill River.
“Moving forward, we’re looking to provide some space for Malik and his program on the northern stretch of the Bartram Mile and have riding available at the garden,” explained Maitreyi Roy, executive director of Bartram’s Garden. “It’s just a beautiful portion of the trail, it has these wonderful views of the river, and having horses really gets people excited about exploring the trail further.”
While the stables have yet to be established–money will be sought through a crowdfunding campaign–the land-use deal negotiated by City officials and leadership of Bartram’s Garden will end years of uncertainty for Divers, his horses, and the young people he trains.
Out of the Shadows, Philly’s Black Cowboys Take Center Stage
Philadelphia’s African American cowboy culture is a tradition that has been passed down for more than a century. City ordinances prohibit residents from owning more than 12 pets. Chickens are illegal, but horses are permitted under the City’s somewhat antiquated charter that was written when Philadelphia was more rural. Black horse riders have largely kept their community private, in part to keep gawkers away and avoid critics who don’t care to understand why anyone but carriage companies would keep horses in an urban environment.
In the last decade Philly’s black cowboys have caught the eye of a number of documentary photographers and the urban equestrians are beginning to enjoy the spotlight. The Fletcher Street Riding Club was the subject of a photography exhibition by artist Mohamed Borouissa at the Barnes Foundation in 2017. British actor Idris Elba was recently photographed on horseback at the Fletcher Street stables while filming a new movie. Based on Ghetto Cowboy, a young adult novel by G. Neri, the film project was renamed Concrete Cowboy, possibly for marketability reasons. The change is puzzling to Divers, who coined the term “Concrete Cowboy” for his horse-riding program more than a decade ago.
Divers, 59, is a lifelong Philadelphian who happens to be the somewhat estranged grandfather of rising hip hop star Tierra Whack. Divers still recalls when, as a young boy sitting on the step outside of his North Philly home in the late 1960s, he first saw African American men riding horses. After watching the cowboys trot down the street on their steeds, Divers, hypnotized, got up and followed them all the way to their stables near 4th Street and Girard Avenue. After that, he went to the stables every chance he had first to watch and eventually getting hands-on experience working with the animals.
Divers started riding horses on the hills by the Delaware River adjacent to Old City before the area was leveled for Penn’s Landing during urban renewal. Years later, Divers began keeping his own horses at the old Cobbs Creek Stables, built in the 1930s as a WPA project and open for public use. After the stables were shut down and turned into an education center, Divers rented a tiny, fence-lined concrete lot in Southwest Philly surrounded by row houses. It had room for stables that kept the horses warm in the winter, a little yard where they could exercise, and easy access to Lindbergh Boulevard so the young riders Divers was training could quickly get to nearby trails and parks.
Divers’ pupils often struggle for words to describe the feeling of getting up on a horse for the first time. It changes their perspective on their lives, their communities, and themselves. “It gave me a chance to not spend so much time in the streets and to do something productive with my time, as opposed to doing something negative,” said Sylvester Williams III, 21, one of Divers’ riders. Others describe a calming, therapeutic effect, new feelings of self respect, and the excitement of forging a deep bond with an animal.
A Miracle in the Making
In 2014, after 10 years on his Southwest Philly lot, Divers’ landlord was kicking him out. I first met him while working for Metro Philly when he reached out to the media to discuss his dream of moving his horses a few blocks away to a neglected block of Elmwood Avenue near 58th Street. Diver, his riders, and a few other volunteers had cleared the overgrown, trash-filled land, hoping they would be allowed to acquire it and build stables there. City property records showed that the lot in question belonged to the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA). Last sold in 1958 for $1, in 2014 the land was now valued at $521,700. Without cash anywhere near that amount, Divers could only hope for a miracle.
By 2018, the lot’s value had dropped to $106,000. It “is currently unavailable as we examine potential future uses consistent with its zoning for industrial use,” a PRA spokeswoman said recently in an email. The parcel is now completely overgrown with weeds again and surrounded by piles of illegally dumped garbage.
In 2015, I wrote a short article for Metro Philly about Divers’ situation. The story went viral online among horse lovers. Email and donations began pouring in from across the country. Horse farms in the South sent Divers supplies to help him with his animals. He eventually connected with staff at nearby Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanic garden in North America. Today, the 45-acre arboretum, built on the land of 18th-century botanist and explorer John Bartram, is still devoted to preserving the historic site’s diverse flora. The organization has also expanded into developing more community programming and it wanted to support Divers’ efforts to mentor young men in the community and foster the traditions of black cowboys. With the help of Bartram’s Gardens’ staff, Divers found a small piece of fenced-off land across 56th Street on the of the former factory site of U.S. Gypsum. There he built new stables and settled his horses into their new home.
The industrial site fronts the Schuylkill River and backs up against old Reading Railroad tracks, which now belong to CSX. On the other side of the tracks, the Wat Khmer Paelai Cambodian Buddhist community recently finished the decade-long construction of their new temple and monastery. Divers thought that on these few hundred square feet he had finally found a permanent home. It wasn’t much, just a house key-shaped piece of land with a small corral at the end, wooden stables, some lawn chairs, a trailer, and other necessary supplies. Yet, it was everything he had been hoping to find for years.
In 2018 I wrote a follow-up story for Metro Philly about this “happy end.” Except it wasn’t. After the article was published, Divers said the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) learned of his presence on the land, which, since 2011, has belonged to the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PAID), a public authority managed by PIDC.
“Mr. Divers set up his stables on the site without our authorization,” a PIDC spokeswoman explained. “We first learned of Mr. Divers trespassing last fall. Since then we’ve allowed him to remain on the site while he works with a few other parties to locate an alternative site.”
For decades, the land was where the U.S. Gypsum company manufactured sheetrock, drywall, and other products. It was sold off in 1991, and the plant was razed in 2007. Ownership of the parcel bounced between banks and real estate developers for a few years before PAID acquired it, according to City property records. The entire 917,219-square-foot lot at 3000 S. 56th Street is currently valued at $5,125,400.
This all led to a tense year of uncertainty for Divers, fearing he would lose his stables, his program, and possibly his horses.
Back in the Saddle
This summer the cowboy’s prayers for a miracle were answered. Officials from Bartram’s Garden and the Department of Parks & Recreation have negotiated a deal to help Divers establish a new home for his horses on the north side of the garden near 49th Street and the Schuylkill River. Roy credited cooperation and hard work between staff at Bartam’s Garden and the City with getting this deal across the finish line. “It wouldn’t have come together if everybody didn’t work together. The City’s been incredibly helpful. PIDC has been very supportive,” said Roy.
Divers and his protégé, Amber Gray, took me to the land where they soon plan to be saddling up young riders. It’s a few blocks from the U.S. Gypsum site, on the other side of Bartram’s Garden, and down another block piled with illegally dumped garbage in an undeveloped, grassy oasis off of Bartram’s Mile. This will be the new, permanent home for the Concrete Cowboys.
“It’s needed,” Gray, herself an avid rider, said of the Concrete Cowboys program, citing the scarcity of other free outdoor activities for local youth in the area and the expenses of most summer activities. “It keeps them off the street. It helps them with behavioral issues, it teaches you patience, responsibility, work ethic. It’s a different experience. Some people never get out of the neighborhood.”
Divers looked over the site optimistically and discussed his vision with Gray–where the hay chute will go, where the horses will get saddled, where manure will get picked up. The new location should give his program more visibility, especially after the new Schuylkill River swing bridge opens and adds more trail traffic. Divers has no plans of slowing down the program anytime soon and said he is hoping to recruit more volunteers and students.
“I want to run it as long as I’m able. I want new people to come in and help and we all can do it together,” he said. “It keeps kids off the street, it gives them the responsibility of being busy and having something to do. I’m looking at my life now, and I’ve been pretty busy with these horses. I don’t have time for the streets at all.”
To support the Concrete Cowboys’ new stables at Bartram’s Garden visit their crowdfunding page HERE.