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“It’s like a mafia”—Riding club relocation takes disc golfers by surprise

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On October 11, 2021, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a worker in an excavator arrived at the Sedgley Woods disc golf course and began clearing a road along the boundary with the Strawberry Green driving range next door. 

“On the first day of the destruction I happened to be on my lunch break in my car at Sedgley Woods, watching it and saying, ‘What in the world is going on here?’” The disc golfer (who requested anonymity to speak with Grid) had been playing at Sedgley Woods since the early 1990s. They worked nearby and would often take lunch breaks at the course. 

With no advance signage or any apparent safety measures such as fencing, the clearing work took the lunching disc golfer — along with everyone else playing on the crowded disc golf course that day — by surprise. “A lot of people had the day off, they were playing with their families, and this guy is literally snapping trees that have to be between 40 to 80 feet.”

Hole 27 at Sedgley Woods Disc Golf Course with fence pole additions for future construction. Photo courtesy of Matthew R. Halley.

The Friends of Sedgley Woods, the organization that manages the disc golf course, posted a message to their Facebook Page the next day asking disc golfers not to approach the contractors or contact Parks & Recreation. The Friends of Sedgley Woods has not responded to multiple attempts by Grid to seek comment. 

The Sedgley Woods disc golf course dates back to the late 1970s, when the Fairmount Park Commission allowed the fledgling Philadelphia Frisbee Club to set up in East Fairmount Park, near the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. At the time it was the second disc golf course in the country, according to Matthew Halley, a disc golfer who wrote about the construction project on his personal blog

The construction continued into November, resulting in a dirt road cutting through the course to the meadow as well as fencing around the meadow. 

“This [meadow] is a piece of property that was a dump in the 1970s, literally a dump where they put the fill from the I-676 corridor,” Halley says. “At the time, remember that there was a fancy mansion there, the Cliffs.” In 1986 the Cliffs burned, with fire trucks unable to reach the blaze due to the soft ground. Today only a graffiti-festooned shell remains of the historic house. “Basically the Sedgely Woods friends group started taking care of it, planting shrubs, putting native plants into the meadow, planting trees around the meadow to make a buffer.” 

“I started playing in the early ’80s,” says John DiSciascio, a past president of the Friends of Sedgley Woods. “Everything was terrible back there. Somehow we weathered the storm, and we like to think we had something to do with making that comeback. We weren’t the only ones, but we were part of it, blood, sweat, and tears.”

The course evolved into one of the most popular in the country, hosting 22,285 rounds of disc golf in 2021. The course originally consisted of 18 holes but after about 30 years expanded to include nine more holes wrapping around a four-acre meadow and the ruins of the Cliffs house, which dates back to the mid-1700s.  

A restored meadow, “one of the rarest and most precious wildlife habitats in the city,” under threat

In 2006 the Fairmount Park Commission used a $34,900 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to improve the bird habitat in and around the meadow. To date, 139 species of birds have been documented at the site. 

A more extensive explanation for the project arrived on November 22 of last year, when the Friends group posted a map of the construction project to their Facebook page, along with a letter explaining that the work was intended to prepare the meadow to be the new home of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, and that although the project would be disruptive, the Friends would welcome the Riding Club. 

The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, famous as Black cowboys featured on This American Life and whose story inspired the 2020 movie “Concrete Cowboy,” are being displaced from their current site by new senior apartments built by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, forcing them to look for a new home.

Both of the Friends’ Facebook posts on the topic limited comments, and, according to the disc golfer who spoke with Grid about witnessing the groundbreaking, page administrators deleted other posts dealing with the construction project. This led them to create the Guardians of Sedgley Facebook page to advocate for the course. 

They, along with Halley and other sources Grid has spoken with, have said that when asked why the Friends group didn’t object to the construction project, board members of the group expressed fear that City Council President Darrell Clarke’s office could retaliate by taking the entire disc golf course. 

“Everything was verbal, it’s like a mafia,” Halley says. “Because of the mafia tactics, everyone got super scared. No one wants to be the one who gets blamed for being the one who lost Sedgley.” 

Clarke’s office declined to comment on the concerns about retaliation, with spokesperson Joe Grace saying they would not respond to anonymous allegations. 

City Council President Darrell Clarke.

All the disc golfers Grid spoke with for this piece are unanimous in their sympathy for the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Grid

“We have an attitude of, if it’s good for the cowboys, let’s welcome them,” says DiSciascio. “It’s unfortunate the way things went down, but we hope it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Halley questions the choice of the meadow for the riding club, pointing out the abundance of mowed grass spaces in Fairmount Park. “I think most folks (including myself) agree that Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club needs a home, and it’s great to see the City investing in the urban cowboy culture,” Halley wrote in his blog post. “But, of all the places to install a new horse facility, why choose a site that requires destroying a restored meadow, one of the rarest and most precious wildlife habitats in the city? Doing so would undo decades of hard work by local conservationists.”

According to a Parks & Recreation spokesperson, “the site was selected based on its proximity to the community served by the Fletcher Street stables.” They said that, “in 2021, the Cliffs Meadow was identified as a potential site for the Fletcher Street Stables, which was displaced from its longtime home in Strawberry Mansion.”

Grace, spokesperson for City Council President Darrell Clarke, says, “The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club approached the Council President’s Office about this potential site for relocating the horses from the Riding Club, once their original site was used for the construction of multiple units of new, affordable housing for senior citizens in North Philadelphia – an important development that is complete and open for residents. The Urban Riding Club had originally used a portion of this site in Fairmount Park years ago, and they brought it to our office’s attention.”

Grid obtained notes from a September 20, 2020 meeting involving riding club leadership, staff from Councilmember Clarke’s office, a lawyer from the Public Interest Law Center and leadership of the Philadelphia Land Bank. At the meeting, the attendees discussed preparations to move the riding club to a site owned by the City along railroad tracks north of Diamond Street. At the meeting Ellis Ferrell, president of the riding club, said that Councilmember Clarke had recently suggested the land behind the disc golf course as an alternative. Ferrell, who recalled riding there in the past, said that he thought the park location would be better than the Diamond Street parcel, with less car traffic and a more pleasant atmosphere for the children who ride with the club. There was no mention in the meeting notes of the restored meadow habitat or a need to cut a road through the disc golf course. 

Grace referred to the site as “unused,” saying, “The individuals using a portion of this public land for disc golf activities will still be able to engage in their activities. Now, however, this public site overall will be shared.”

It is unclear what the final product of the construction will be, or how much of the site will be occupied by a stables building versus grazing space for the horses. It is also unclear when the project will be completed. Since the fall, work has stalled, leaving weeds to sprout in the cleared earth of the access road. 

According to a Parks and Recreation spokesperson, the project is still in its design phase and was unable to provide more information on what kind of structure would be built or when it would be finished. 

Grid asked Parks & Recreation whether there were any plans to replace the meadow acreage that will be lost to the stables. The Parks & Recreation spokesperson responded that the department has created 13 acres of meadow habitat elsewhere, and that horses coexist with meadow bird species at other sites in the city. 

“We’re fans of the cowboys, and we will probably have a great relationship with them,” DiSciascio says. “We felt a little slighted that we were treated like we didn’t belong there. After all the hard work we put in there, we didn’t feel welcomed to the table to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, what do you think?’”

3 Comments

  1. Might be good to note this is a place where local families and kids come all the time. Kids groups are out there learning the game and enjoying nature and local wildlife. The parking lot and course are packed out in fall, spring, and summer. You have to wait at each tee. It is one of the oldest courses in the US and is nationally known. YouTube has plenty of videos of famous, professional disc golfers coming to visit this historic course. It is the site of the annual Philly Open. The location of the path to the meadow completely cuts off one of the most iconic holes (the final hole, 27) on the course. Now, everyone will have to double back and walk the length of the outback 9 to get back to the entrance. This is the only course in the whole city for a sport which has been the fastest growing sport in the world since the onset of Covid-19. It was at best shortsighted and at worst tactless to just roll in and wreck the place with no notice. They really didn’t know? Look at the picture. The basket is right there. They carved right across the fairway. Would they do this to a country club? Make it right.

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