Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Carriage Trade

Riding in a horse drawn carriage through Central Park on a snowy winter's day is a unique urban experience.  I wouldn't personally know since I've never shelled out the fifty bucks not including tip for a twenty minute buggy ride, but it sure looks swell. If the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio gets his way, that iconic 150 year New York institution will soon go the way of Gage & Tollner, Penn Station and the automat.

One of de Blasio's campaign promises, along with other "progressive" issues such as universal pre-K, and the growing problem of income equality in the Big Apple, was to ban the the horse carriages. Citing cruelty to animals, the mayor said:
We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City... They're not humane; they're not appropriate to the year 2014; it's over.
While de Blasio's other big ticket issues are on the back burner, the mayor is going full steam ahead with his plan to put hundreds of New Yorkers, both human and equine, out of work. Not to worry says the mayor, the future of the horses is secure as provisions for all of them have been assured on farms designed to take care of former work horses. As for the humans, the mayor has told them there will be jobs waiting for them as drivers of the new electric powered "vintage style" automobiles that are planned to replace the carriages. That is of course if they can come up with the $150,000 medallion fee.

Two groups, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Annimals (ASPCA) and a group called New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), are staunchly in favor of the ban. The director of the New York branch of another another animal advocacy group, Friends of Animals had this to say about the condition of the horses:
They are shackled into their carriages, pulling through streets of a chaotic unnatural environment and go back to their cells... They need the ability to graze and roam freely. They never get that in New York. They live a life of total confinement, day after day.
Some of that may be correct, however there are strict rules in place governing the treatment of the animals. The horses get every other day off, they are not permitted to work in temperatures below 18F or above 90F, and they each get five weeks vacation in the country every year. From all the accounts I've read, each carriage horse resides in a well maintained stall whose size is mandated by the city to be no less than 64 square feet, about the size of a great many New York City apartments and hotel rooms.

Many New Yorkers of the species Homo sapiens in fact would be more than happy to live under those conditions.

It's true the streets of New York City may have been a chaotic, unnatural environment for the horses' distant wild relatives. Not so for the horses of today which are the result of domestication and breeding that has gone on some say for over 6000 years. The carriage horses are draft horses, bred specifically to pull heavy loads. Draft horses have been doing this kind of work in the county and city alike for millennia; it is in their nature to pull things just as it is the nature of a thoroughbred to run, a retriever to retrieve, and a sheep dog to herd. One can say these animals are just as much the creation of human beings and as such are just as unnatural as cars, streets and traffic jams.

The big difference of course is that animals are living beings. Just as we created them, we have the responsibility to care for their welfare. With a few rare exceptions, the people in New York's carriage industry have proven to do just that. The most sensible piece I've read about the horses themselves was written a couple years ago and was published on a web site devoted to sustainability issues called, (what else?) Tree You can read that piece written by Jaymi Heimbuch here. In a nutshell, she writes that the horses of New York City live and work in no worse conditions than the humans.

Not surprisingly, the people working in the industry are less than thrilled with the prospect of losing their livelihoods. Most of them consider themselves horse people, not gearheads. Driving a car through the busy New York streets while being expected to give tours at the same time, is not the same thing as doing it while at the reins of a carriage. Clearly it's not a slam dunk by any means that the horse people will make a successful transition to the cars, even if they wanted to.

The New York City horse carriages provide a valuable service not only to tourists who can afford to ride in them, but also to the countless men, women and children, New Yorkers and visitors alike, who get the chance to see, hear, to of course smell, and on occasion interact with the animals. My own experience of observing the horse drawn carriages while walking through Calvert Vaux and Fredrick Law Olmsted's beautiful Central Park, smack dab in the middle of the magnificent concrete jungle of Manhattan is this: an overwhelming feeling that all is right with the world. They just happen to be one of those lovely things that make New York, well, New York.

Incidentally, the cars that Mayor de Blasio and others have proposed to replace the carriages look similar to the car used in the 1968 movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. If you're old like me and can remember the film, that car could fly. If the mayor's new cars could also fly, even I would pay the fifty bucks for a short ride. Grounded however, I can't imagine many people would find the experience appealing for that price.

One might assume the new mayor of the largest, most important city in this country would have more pressing matters at hand than 250 or so well cared for animals. A cynic might even suggest that beyond an overwhelming concern for the horses' well being, the mayor might have an ulterior motive. Well it turns out he does.

It just so happens that one of the major contributors to the mayor's election campaign was a fellow by the name of Steven Nislick. Nislick founded NYCLASS, one of the the organizations mentioned above. For years he has been a major critic of the carriage companies and the stables that house the animals. He also gave a significant amount of money to a group focused on defeating de Blasio's primary opponent, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who was opposed to the ban. Nislick also happens to be a very successful real estate developer. While he denies it, it has been widely speculated that Nislick has set his sights on the land where several horse stables currently sit upon, valuable Manhattan real estate on the West Side. With the carriages and stables gone, one would assume that the land they occupy would become available, and someone (hmmm someone like Nislick perhaps?) could get in on the action. Adding fuel to the fire, an anti-carriage leaflet in 2008 distributed by Nislick stated:
Currently, the stables consist of 64,000 square feet of valuable real estate on lots that could accommodate up to 150,000 square feet of development. These lots could be sold for new development.
Again it's only speculation that Steve Nislick and Mayor de Blasio's motivations are not entirely pure. But it would seem if they were truly concerned about animal welfare, especially the fate of domesticated horses, there would be bigger fish to fry. Why for example doesn't the mayor go after the horse racing industry? One of the most storied race tracks in America sits within de Blasio's jurisdiction. It's called Aqueduct Racetrack and it has been a fixture in South Ozone Park in Queens since 1894. The racing industry has a dreadful record when it comes to animal welfare. Where the carriage industry often takes in animals that would otherwise be rejected, breeders of race horses annually produce thousands more animals than can adequately be taken care of after their racing days are over. Given that the life expectancy of a horse is about fifteen years longer than the average racing career, most race horses face uncertain fates after retirement, many of them are shipped off to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. In some cases, those are the lucky ones.

As far as I know, de Blasio has not uttered a word about the humaneness, or lack thereof, of horse racing. The jobs and revenue that the horse carriages bring into the city are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the vast potential of the racetrack and it's adjacent "racino." If you believe that Mayor de Blasio will make an impassioned demand to make Aqueduct and its casino go away for the sake of the horses' quality of life, then I have a nice bridge spanning the East River you may be interested in buying.

The mayor's prompt action regarding the ban has drawn ridicule in many circles from the New York Times to Rush Limbaugh. Already a favorite target of Limbaugh's, the horse issue has given the bellicose right-wing commentator/entertainer plenty of fodder for his diatribes against the mayor and his progressive agenda. At best, if the mayor is indeed sincere (and I have every reason to believe he is) in his concern for the animals' well being, putting this particular issue at the forefront of his administration in City Hall makes him appear frivolous and out of touch, given all the serious issues he must deal with. At worst, given his relationship with Nislick, even the suspicion of impropriety which certainly exists now, makes the new mayor appear to be a demagogue and a hypocrite, playing on the emotions of a small but vociferous group of well intentioned people, (the carriage opponents), as a springboard for his political ambitions. His actions as far as this issue is concerned will do little to promote his ambitious plans of helping the less fortunate people of New York, and perhaps will even go a long way to destroy them.

On the first day of this year, addressing the state of economic inequality in NYC in his inaugural address to his new constituents, newly sworn in Mayor de Blasio had this to say:
So let me be clear. When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it. And we will do it. I will honor the faith and trust you have placed in me. And we will give life to the hope of so many in our city. We will succeed as One City.
By attempting to destroy an industry, its infrastructure, the other businesses that support it, and the working class jobs that go along with them, Mayor Bill de Blasio is perhaps unwittingly taking his city yet another step closer toward his stated goal of "One City".

One City that is, made up entirely of millionaires.

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