Almost since the 1857 beginnings of Central Park, New York’s horse-drawn carriages have guided tourists and others through the park and downtown streets of the city.
But now, the city’s 220 horse-drawn hansom cabs could be headed in the same direction as the Knickerbocker telephone exchange and B. Altman’s department store.
New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, insists that carriages that typically carry passengers through the hills and valleys of the park and along streets as far south as 34th Street have got to go. They are inhumane and outdated, he says.
“We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City,” de Blasio said during a Dec. 30 press conference at a middle school. “They’re not humane. They’re not appropriate to the year 2014. It’s over. So just watch us do it now.”
The mayor wants to replace the horses and carriages with electric cars that have a vintage appearance, a move that de Blasio says will be good for the environment and help the drivers stay employed.
The proposal has been a hot topic around the Big Apple since de Blasio’smost emphatic insistence that he would get rid of the horse-drawn carriages. This is not the first time someone or a group has spoken out against them, but de Blasio is the highest-ranking New Yorker to take on the tourist attraction.
The debate pits de Blasio and supporters of a group called New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets, or NYCLASS against the carriage drivers and others who want the carriages to stay. The City Council would have to approve de Blasio’s proposal.
The drivers say the mayor and NYCLASS are way off base and that removing the horses and carriages would be like stripping the city of part of its personality. The rides, which cost about $165 for 45 minutes or $50 for 20 minutes, are on many tourists’ bucket lists, they said. Many people get engaged in the carriages, and celebrities from athletes to Dr. Phil have made it a point to take a ride when in New York, they said.
Horses and carriages upholstered in felt and leather began clip-clopping through Central Park in 1858,according to the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City.
Images of people riding in the decorated carriages have appeared in movies and on greeting cards. On a typical day in New York, drivers gather on Central Park South across from the Plaza Hotel, feeding and grooming their horses and waiting for customers.
Many of the drivers do the work because they grew up with horses, says Stephen Malone, a driver and a spokesman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City.
Malone’s father began tending horses after coming to the United States fromIreland. Malone has been driving the carriages since 1987.
“The majority of the owners and drivers have been doing this their entire adult lives, so now we have children and mortgages and things like that,” Malone says. “We’re talking about people’s lives here.”
“Nobody here is cruising to the Bahamas every weekend,” says Malone, 44. ” We’re a blue-collar industry who works very hard, provides a service to Manhattan and makes it something special.”
Driver Peter Wilson grew up with horses in St. Lucia and also loves his work. He doesn’t know what he will do to support his wife and three children if the mayor’s plan makes it through the council. He scoffed at the mayor’s electric car proposal.
“I think it’s crazy,” says Wilson, 41, of Brooklyn, adding that he thinks it will worsen the city’s notorious traffic problems. “They’ve got enough cabs going through the city.”
Over the years, the public’s love affair with the horses has been occasionally soured by word of a horse dying in the heat or running amok after becoming frightened in city traffic. In 2007, a City Council member introduced a bill to ban the horses.
The debate heated during de Blasio’s campaign, during which he promised to rid the city of the carriages.
“We enthusiastically applaud Mayor de Blasio and his efforts to get these abused animals off the streets,” says NYCLASS executive director Allie Feldman. “It’s the year 2014, and horses have no place on Manhattan’s streets.”
In response to the inhumane claims, the drivers say they treat the horses well and must follow the regulations of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Department of Health, the Police Department and park rangers. They also must have certificates from the Department of Health, which requires biannual checkups, and licenses from the Department of Consumer Affairs, Malone says.
“We have 144 pages of regulations and a number of different agencies that oversee us,” Malone says.
Tourists, in the meantime, say they don’t know the details of the debate, but know that the attraction is on their list of NYC things to do.
“In my country, (horses) are very popular,” said tourist Juan Manuel, 51, of Buenos Aires, who was visiting NYC with his family. “The horses are nice.”