“Hey!” Nurettin shouted, at a cabdriver who had blown his horn just as he was steering his horse into a U-turn in the middle of 59th Street. Spooked, the animal whinnied and almost ran. But Nurettin, a fortyish bespectacled Turkish immigrant, gently manipulated the reins, calming his horse and leading us east along the park. “In the city, they drive crazy,” he explained.
Black as night, the horse had a bright-pink plume attached to the halter just above his head. The interior of the carriage was also upholstered in pink, though the hue was a bit lighter. The horse’s name was Sultan, Nurettin said, leaning back toward me without turning his head. The driver wore a dark-green ski suit with pads on the elbows and knees. On his head was a slightly battered black silk top hat.
It was early December, the temperature still in the mild forties, and here I was, taking what could prove to be one of the last horse-drawn-carriage rides in the city. Horses have walked the streets of New York since the seventeenth century—Broadway was actually carved by them—and for generations they’ve been cherished mascots of tradition, reminding us that for all the ways the city changes, it never completely burns away its layered soul of New Amsterdam hustle, Revolutionary-era imperiousness, and Gilded Age gentility.
Until, perhaps, now. Even before he was sworn in, but having completed a campaign in which the carriage horses became such a strangely heated subject that Christine Quinn seemed puzzled she had to keep reiterating her opposition to a ban, Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio vowed at a press conference to close down the carriage-horse industry in New York. And so the line of tourists I was leaving behind in my carriage—the Christmastime out-of-towners who had filed into those midtown hotels to be close to the Barneys windows and Rockefeller Center—would probably be among the last holiday visitors to enjoy that quintessential New York ride through the park.
But just how quintessential? You can’t hail a hansom cab to take you to work when you’re late or bring you and a date home after a promising dinner. All a horse-drawn carriage can do is give you a lap or two around a neatly prescribed course through southern Central Park, like an electric-track amusement-park ride through some weirdly staged postcard version of Holden Caulfield’s vision of Edith Wharton’s Manhattan. I grew up just outside New York and lived in the city itself for nearly 30 years, but I had never before gone for a carriage ride. I’d had plenty of scenic and/or romantic taxi rides through the park, in sunshine, snow, and glittering night, but the very idea of taking a carriage through Central Park was the equivalent of watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Times Square or taking the Circle Line. Like death, those were experiences that happened to other people but never to you. And yet, judging from the constant debate on the campaign trail and in the newspapers, over the past few years the carriage horses had accumulated an incredible symbolic importance to the city’s right-thinking residents, so much so that riding around that afternoon—tourists waving as we entered the park, snapping pictures of us with their phones—I slowly began to feel exposed, ashamed, like being caught in one of those dreams where you are back in your high-school classroom wearing pajamas but only down to the waist.
Once in the park, Sultan joined a lengthening line of carriages, all of which moved at a slow, uniform pace, as if they were following some automated signal. At several points, Nurettin turned his back to the horse in order to talk with me, and I leaned outside the carriage to get a look at the animal. Even without a driver, Sultan knew where to go, his nose to the ground. His head was down and bobbing mechanically, and I had a reflexive impulse to stretch out a protective hand, the same impulse I experience when my 3-year-old daughter is napping in some precarious place and about to bump her head against a wall.
His back still turned, Nurettin was talking. Sultan was fourteen or fifteen years old, he genially related. “He’s been with us three years.” “Us” meant the Chateau Stables on West 48th Street, though it does not employ Nurettin’s brother, who is also a driver. He explained that Sultan had been bought in Amish country, where Sultan spent years working a farm and pulling an Amish buggy. “Old racehorses aren’t as good as these horses,” Nurettin said. “Racehorses’ feet are too small. People look at them and get outraged. ‘That horse is just a baby,’ they say.”