Urban Riding Spotlight September 2020: PURA | Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy

Q&A with Erin Brown, Executive Director of Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy

State Line Tack® is proud to bring you the inside scoop on riding programs that are working hard to bring access to horses to kids in urban areas. This month’s spotlight is on Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy.

What is Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy?

Founded in January 2019 as an outgrowth and extension of the original Fletcher Street Stable, PURA is a non-profit 501c3 that continues the legacy of the Urban Black Cowboy by continuing to provide hands-on equine experience to Philadelphia’s youth.

The History of the Urban Black Cowboy:

The Urban Black Cowboy has lived in Philadelphia neighborhoods for well over a hundred years. From the early 1900s through the late 1950s, horse drawn wagons delivered ice, milk and produce to city residents. Laundry services, mail carriers, newspaper routes and even Tastykake were operated via these wagons, or riders on horseback. Horses were no stranger to Philadelphia streets, though eventually modern vehicles replaced horsepower on those delivery routes. However, the Urban Black Cowboy remained.

At one time, there were over twenty old abandoned city buildings and lots that were converted into backyard, makeshift stables – it was in these barns that the Urban Black Cowboy kept their horses. Though citizens may not see horses conducting business any longer, the presence of the horse and the Urban Black Cowboy were still very relevant. Stables throughout the city would join up for festive parades or trail rides around the city, with hundreds of men, women, and children participating. If you were sitting on your porch on a summer evening, or walking through Fairmount or Cobbs Creek Parks, you were guaranteed to catch a glimpse of the Urban Black Cowboys.

Each of these citywide backyard stables served the same purpose – sharing the love for horses. They served as home away from home, and family away from family. They were a safe haven for youth from surrounding urban neighborhoods who wandered into the barn and became part of the family – the next generation of the Urban Black Cowboy. Here they learned responsibility, work ethic, and horsemanship.

With gentrification expanding like wildfire throughout the city, the stables of the Urban Black Cowboy became almost nonexistent. Upland Stable, 9th & Tioga Street, Aliston Street, Uber Street, and The Hole in the Wall were all demolished, one by one.

In 2003, 32nd Street Stable and The White House were two of the last stables sacrificed to the wrath of progress. These sites were developed into the Brewery Town condominiums, lofts, and other upscale establishments. The cowboy occupants of these stables had to either sell their mounts or find another stable outside city limits. A great number were fortunate enough to secure a stall at the Fletcher Street Stable.

Fletcher Street Stable – A Legacy:

Fletcher Street Stable was one of the first urban stables, and now is one of the last remaining homes for the Urban Black Cowboy. Like the other, now closed, stables, Fletcher Street holds the same values of family, friends, responsibility, and horsemanship. Over the years, hundreds of urban youth found their way into the barn and learned to responsibly care for horses, as well as how to ride. Some went on to compete locally, and others in larger events. But all of them found their way into an environment that gave them an outlet from rough areas in the city, that kept them safe and out of trouble while creating the next generation of horseman.

Developers have plans for senior housing in 2020 which ultimately would wipe out this historical equestrian landmark. Fletcher Street Stable will be no more.

Urban Black Cowboy in the Media:

Fletcher Street Stable is no stranger to notoriety in the media, with the following pieces based on or about it:

  • “Ghetto Cowboy,” award winning book by author Greg Neri
  • “Fletcher Street,” a picture book by author Martha Camarillo
  • “Urban Riders,” a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal
  • “Horses in North Philly,” a mini documentary by television series This American Life
  • “Don’t Fence Me In,” a documentary by Anne Sophie Lindstrom
  • “Who’s Fletcher Street,” an art show by renown photographic artist, Mohamed Bourouissa at the Barnes Foundation Museum
  • Several television commercials – Google’s Pixel 2, the Philadelphia 76’ers and Nike

Concrete Cowboy – Hollywood & Into the Future:

In August 2019 Hollywood came knocking at Fletcher Street Stable to film “Concrete Cowboy.” Based on the legendary Fletcher Street Stable and the Fletcher Street Cowboys, plus members of the Strawberry Mansion community, the film has a full celerity cast, starring Idris Elba, Method Man, Caleb McLaughlin, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome and Byron Bowers.

Produced and directed by Ricky Staub, Dan Walser, and Lee Daniels. Staub and Walser, owners of the Neighborhood Film Company, visited Fletcher Street frequently, and listened to endless stories of the Urban Black Cowboy, plus the many other stables that are no more. They made friends, became a part of the Stable family, and realized the importance of Fletcher Street within the community it serves.

The time spent at Fletcher Street inspired a collaboration between Staub and Walser, plus Locations Manager Staci Hagenbaugh, Developer and CEO of Spak Group Ryan Spak, the late Eric Miller from Fletcher Street, and a team of associates from the law firm Cozen, O’Connor. Their collective vision is not only to find a new home for the Fletcher Street Stable, but also to continue to preserve the history of the Philadelphia Urban Black Cowboy.

First Steps to a New Beginning:

Initiating this vision, the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy (PURA) was founded in January 2019. A non-profit 501c3, PURA is an outgrowth and extension of the original Fletcher Street Stable, founded to continue the legacy of the Urban Black Cowboy by providing hands-on equine experience for city youth. PURA’s mission is to preserve and educate the public about the rich history and work ethic culture with a museum as a part of its new home. The new stable will also provide a host of programs: riding lessons, after-school programs and tutoring, 4-H, horsemanship classes, therapeutic programs for youth and adults, a program for veterans, and a program for formerly incarcerated individuals.

The Face of PURA – Executive Director Erin Brown:

Erin Brown is a Philadelphia native who grew up in and benefitted from the Fletcher Street Stable program. She has been riding for nearly 30 years and has shown across the mid-Atlantic in hunt seat and stock seat classes. She managed Strawberry Mansion Equestrian Center/Fletcher Street Stables for 10 years, and prior to that she was the Assistant Barn Manager for Chamounix Equestrian Center/Work to Ride. There, she was also the lead instructor and ran the Work to Ride program. Additionally, she works for the Philadelphia Police Department’s Mounted Patrol unit as a police civilian and caretaker of the mounted horses.

We had the opportunity to sit down with her and chat about Fletcher Street, PURA, the program attendees, and the power of the horse. Read on to learn about PURA’s goals, what drives Erin and the program, and what PURA needs to reach out to the next generation of Urban Black Cowboys.

Q. What niche does PURA fill, and what does the program solve?

A. “There are many programs bringing horsemanship to kids – such as Work to Ride – but what makes PURA really stand out is that we do not care about financial means. Other programs ask what the family income is, if they are receiving assistance – but PURA just wants to bring the horse to the kids that need them. We are accessible – come here, meet friends, love horses, do work – and it keeps them out of gang violence and bad decisions. Some kids do stray and get into trouble, but the first place they come back to is the stable. It may not be able to change all the kids, but if it reaches one, that’s a difference in their life.”

Q. What attracted you, and continues to attract you, to PURA?

A. “I grew up in the Fletcher Street Stables. I started there when I was 6 years old. Kids were the pride and joy of the neighborhood, and we learned horsemanship, responsibility and how to ride for free. As I got older, I wanted to give back and provide the same opportunities that I had to other children. I see myself in every kid that walks through that door! I love pairing them with their mounts and seeing them flourish in the program – they even do their homework in the stables.

It’s a different time than when I grew up, but these kids have the same challenges, plus some new ones. A pandemic, racial issues, gender issues, gang violence – these kids are dealing with so much. Horses are the outlet and the voice for these kids – they give them unconditional love and acceptance, and give the kids hope that they can find that love and acceptance in people, too.

Horses do change lives and save lives. I wouldn’t be who or what I am today without Fletcher Street. I wouldn’t have made it. And I’m happy to pass that along to the next group of kids.”

Q. Can you tell us about a specific person that has thrived in the program? How did it help or change them?

A. “There’s two that come to mind. They’re grown up now and remain good friends. One was in the foster system and bounced around a lot, the other had a rough upbringing with lots of siblings and a mother that did her best. In high school they got into girls, and drugs, and other things that inner city kids do. They both went to jail for a few days on a minor juvenile thing, but it opened their eyes. Us adults at Fletcher Street, we sat them down and explained to them that, yes, that’s part of being young, but they needed to get their heads on straight. One is in the Navy, married with a family. The other works for the State, married with a family. They were TOUGH – hard-headed and head-strong as teens – but they had the foundation of the program from a young age and the community picked them up and dusted them off when they messed up.”

Q. Do you have a particular moment or memory that stands out from your childhood?

A. “I was a teenager, and I was competing hunter/jumpers in the mid-Atlantic. Everyone had fancy rigs, and pricey horses, and the best clothes. And here I am, with my uncle, in the spray-painted stock trailer. I would pray that when we got to the show, he wouldn’t be able to find close parking, because I was embarrassed by our rig, even though the horse inside the trailer was every bit as good.

Once we unloaded, I still drew attention, because I stuck out with my dark skin. People would ask where I was from – I would tell them Fairmount Park, because it was fancier than the ghetto that I lived in 10 minutes from there. I had no ring at home, so I schooled my horse on the local football field, where we’d build jumps out of whatever we could find – benches, fallen trees, trash cans.

My uncle quickly realized I was embarrassed. He told me to never be ashamed because my horse and I were just as competitive. That it didn’t matter where you came from, where you started, or what you had – it matters where you are going, and what you put into getting there. That made a huge difference to me, and I can offer that opportunity and that support to these kids.”

Q. What is the biggest challenge PURA is facing currently?

A. “PURA was established in January 2019 as an extension of Fletcher Street because Fletcher is being torn down due to gentrification. We are looking for a new location, and think we have one – but we are waiting on the city’s mayor for approval. We want to bring back exactly what was done at Fletcher Street for my generation and generations prior – structure, rules, and guidance, combined with the power of the horse. Gun violence is at an all-time high in Philadelphia, so relocating to an area that is accessible for the kids to get to, but is safe and removed from crime, is our priority.

Awareness is another issue – we just need people to know what we do, and how good it is for the kids. Awareness of who we are, and what we bring, so that the community and kids know we are here for them, that volunteers know we are here, and that potential sponsors know we are here as well.

We are really looking forward to our new beginning and are so thankful for the support of the Concrete Cowboy producers, crew, and actors.”

Q. What else do you think people should know about PURA?

A. “PURA is like any other riding program, but with hip hop attitude! Not only are we working to preserve the legend of the Urban Black Cowboy, but we want to reach children and change their lives so that the circle continues – those kids grow up and help the next generation, like I did.”

Concrete to Show Jumping – Fundraising, H/J Style:

For many hunter/jumper riders, Missy Clark needs no introduction. Together with her husband, John Brennan, they operate North Run. A leader in the showjumping and equitation ranks for years, Missy’s riders have won dozens of national championships in the equitation ring, and her program has produced numerous riders that have gone on to win at Grand Prix and represent their countries in Nations Cup competitions.

North Run has partnered with PURA to form Concrete to Show Jumping, which will raise funds for PURA. Trainers and students alike will actively participate in fundraising and sponsorship efforts from the farm’s bases in Warren, Vermont and Wellington, Florida.

The Ongoing PURA Story

Be sure to stay tuned to Facebook, Instagram and www.thepura.org for updates on PURA and their next steps on their way to serving Philadelphia’s youth.

  • Published:
  • Updated: 10/6/2020: 11:52:34 AM ET
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