On the changing Schuylkill riverfront, real-world ‘Concrete Cowboys’ find a new home

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Concrete Cowboys founder Malik Divers and his horse Sunny. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Concrete Cowboys founder Malik Divers and his horse Sunny. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sun-faded photos hanging on the walls of Malik Divers’ horse stables reflect the nomadic history of his riding club, the Concrete Cowboys.

Kids on horseback leap across Philadelphia. They prance past rowhouses and across weedy green fields.

The Southwest Philly horseback riding club — no relation to the upcoming Idris Elba film with the same name — has always been a club on the move, dodging displacement even as it remained a stabilizing force in the neighborhood.

But in the next 12 months, that will change as the Concrete Cowboys move to a permanent home on the edge of Bartram’s Garden, along a new Schuylkill River trail. As reported by Hidden City Philadelphia, the stables will be a first for Bartram.

Divers — who frequently can be found wearing a cowboy hat and driving his pickup truck around Bartram’s —  learned how to ride as a kid in North Philly. He started the program two decades ago when he saw a need to share his passion with kids in Southwest Philly. With his two chestnut-colored horses, Sunny and Shadow, he teaches kids how to ride and care for the gentle animals. 

Lyrik Nelson, 5, plays at the Concrete Cowboys stable near Bartram’s Garden. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I kept the kids busy, gave them something to do, keep them off the street,” Divers said. “You had a lot of street kids running around with nothing to do, and hungry too. So I put them on horses and let them ride, and they’d go out and sell rides to people in the street.”

Divers is a humble, soft-spoken guy. But Amber Gray, Divers’ disciple, says the horse whisperer changed her life.

“Since I’ve been riding, I’ve gained an enormous amount of patience, strength, and it just overall improves work ethic,” said Gray, 27, who has worked with Divers for the last several years. “To see the kids also, their faces just light up and they’re excited about it.”

Amber Gray has been riding horses with the Concrete Cowboys for several years. Gray also designed their t-shirt. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Divers’ students learn how to properly saddle horses and understand their temperament. During the warmer months, students come to the program two to three times per week.

Riding horses and learning how to take care of the large, loyal animals teaches kids patience, Gray says.

“I’ve seen kids who have anger issues … hotheads, and working with the horses, it’s taught them a lot as far as work ethic,” Gray said. “Because there’s so much to do, there’s so much physical work to be done. It really helps the kids.”

Divers first settled on Bartrams’ edge about four years ago, on an unused stretch of old industrial land near the Schuylkill River. Justin DiBerardinis, Bartram’s director of programming, remembers his surprise when he first noticed Divers’ horses grazing on the garden’s edge. But quickly, he realized the value of the Concrete Cowboys for the neighborhood — and for Bartram’s too. On any given day, you might see someone prancing through the floral 45-acres on horseback.

But even after finding a home on the garden’s edge, Divers’ displacement problems were far from over. 

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation owns the area that surrounds Bartrams’, which is the oldest botanical garden in the nation and operated by a nonprofit. The land — owned by PIDC since 2011 — qualifies for tax breaks under the Trump administration’s Opportunity Zone program.

“This riverfront is changing,” DiBerardinis said. “There are parcels of land that no one wanted a few years ago where we are beginning to see development. The situation on the ground is changing. That means spaces that people have been operating on aren’t going to be available to them anymore.”

But Bartram’s Garden didn’t want that to happen to Divers. So, this summer, the city’s Parks Department and the Southwest Philly nonprofit struck a deal to move the Concrete Cowboys’ stable over to the north side of the garden. Trees and thick weeds canopy the cowboys’ new home.

Malik Divers stands at the spot where his new stable will be built at Bartram’s Garden. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The land sits close to the Schuylkill River Swing Bridge, an old railroad connection now being remade into a pedestrian crossing that will link Bartram’s Garden to the Schuylkill River Trail. That bridge will open next year.

Divers says he can now focus on ways to expand the program to serve more Southwest Philly kids. 

“I felt happy,” he said about seeing his future home. “I felt relief that I didn’t have to get rid of the horses that have been with me for so long. I felt pretty at ease.”

Bartram’s Garden Director of Programs and Partnerships Justin DiBerardinis talks with Malik Divers at the current Concrete Cowboys stable. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In the meantime, Bartram’s Garden and Concrete Cowboys have launched a GoFundMe to pay for the construction of a stable at the new spot. He also hopes to purchase a small Shetland pony for some of the little ones, like Lyrik, Amber Gray’s five-year-old step-daughter.

“I love riding horses,” Lyrik said. “It be so much fun.”

They’ve raised over $12,000 of their $20,000 goal so far and extended the campaign until the end of November.

Gray said this future iteration of Concrete Cowboys will be crucial to the ever-changing landscape of the Southwest community.

“I think it’s very important that we, as a community, know that it’s here and are able to use it,” Gray said. “Community centers are shut down, libraries are not open or maybe don’t have as many books as they used to, so I think it’s very important that we are visible and can invite people into the park to see this.” 

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