Stroll down the sidewalk in Strawberry Mansion right now and you might think you were back in middle school. For the past few days, the streets have been full of gaggles of women — in this case, mostly middle-aged — whispering excitedly about their latest crush.
Why are residents of this North Philadelphia neighborhood wearing their heart-eyes-emoji on their sleeves? Blame Golden Globe winner and People’s “sexiest man alive” Idris Elba, who’s currently filming a movie in their community.
This summer continues to be a banner one for celeb sightings in Philadelphia, with more stars here at once than any time in recent memory.
The Queer Eye crew has been in Old City for the past couple months, prepping to film Season 5 of their heartwarming makeover show. Jason Segel is here too, with André 3000 in tow, shooting a brand new TV series in neighborhoods like Washington Square and Fishtown.
And as of last week, production has officially begun on the movie Concrete Cowboys. Centered around the historic Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, which has been around for more than a century, the gig has brought 6-foot-2 stunner Elba to the city. He reportedly plays the protagonist’s father in the story, which is based on a Gregory Neri novel called Ghetto Cowboy.
North Philly neighbors can’t get enough. Some of them caught a glimpse of the British actor last week. They’re smitten, they tell Billy Penn — and also proud Elba is repping a pillar of their community on an international stage.
“The history that we have is very rich and it’s something that needs to be shared,” said Brewerytown resident Rana Walker. “I think all too often it is minimized and diminished. For them to bring this production here is monumental.”
Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
The only thing that gives away the constant presence of horses in North Philadelphia are the occasional droppings left behind on the sidewalk.
Otherwise, the farm animals are tucked away neatly behind an unassuming brick wall — the kind you see all the time in city neighborhoods. Despite their urban camouflage, these usually-rural creatures have deep roots in Strawberry Mansion, which is adjacent to Fairmount Park.
Stables have been established at 26th and Fletcher as long as Strawberry Mansion Civic Association director Judith Robinson can remember.
She was thrilled when she heard the cowboys she’s seen cruising the neighborhood all her life had made it to the big screen. “Wait a minute,” she exclaimed upon hearing about it, “that’s my hood!”
And let’s just get this out of the way: She’s pumped the performer is so hot.
“Mr. Idris Elba, oh my gosh, we all love him,” gushed Robinson, 62. “He just got married recently and we’re happy for the sister that claimed him — but we love him.”
Robinson has plenty of company in her obsession.
Brewerytown resident Rana Walker, 52, was lucky enough to meet the man himself. She said she’s not usually one to get starstruck — she’s got her own reality TV cameo under her belt — but this 20-time leading man is another story.
“He said, ‘Hello, young lady’ and he smiled, and I was like ‘OMG, my day has been made,’” Walker said. “I just like the way he carries himself. He’s respectful. His swag is unbelievable.”
Elba’s physical attributes aside, Robinson emphasized the importance of the stables. She said they’re a historic asset — one deserving of major motion picture status.
“The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club has been here for maybe 50 or 60 years, or more,” Robinson said. “We really have something special here, to have these urban cowboys in the heart of an urban community. It’s just unheard of.”‘
The stable managers give back consistently to the community, she said. They bring the horses around to block parties, allowing their neighbors to have some fun with new equine friends. And kids at the elementary school across the street often stop by for free riding lessons.
“The children love it,” said Robinson, whose grandson learned to ride at Fletcher Street. “And we appreciate having this open space, because if you just look out your door you can imagine being somewhere far, far away.”
Stephon Tolbert has kept horses at the Fletcher Street outpost as long as he’s lived in the neighborhood, almost 30 years now. Last week, when the Concrete Cowboys crew came out to film, he thinks he made it into the background of a shot washing his car.
Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
On set, Elba seemed considerate, he said. At one point, the celeb even strolled over to him and asked for a few pointers on making horseback riding look natural, Tolbert said.
No matter which actor is on set, he’s just happy to have the stables showcased.
“It’s an intricate part of this neighborhood,” Tolbert said. “It’s just a break from everything that’s going on.”