An Orthodox Jewish family was walking by as we came to a halt at Fifth Avenue, across the street from the Plaza. “Hey, do you want a ride?” asked Nurettin. But what did people rooted in the eighteenth century know from a New York institution rooted in the nineteenth? Nurettin lowered his voice seductively: “Come on. Come for a little ride,” sounding more bygone Times Square than refurbished Columbus Circle. The Orthodox family, round, rosy-cheeked, and gabardined, smiled sheepishly and hurried by.
As an industry, the carriage-horse business was a Victorian invention and today still bears the traces of that era’s strangely tangled ethics. By 1862, there were about 500 “hacks” in the city—“cabs” were two-wheelers; hacks had four wheels—and an almost equal number of “horsecars,” a kind of horse-drawn mass transit. Four years later, according to Clay McShane and Joel Tarr’s The Horse in the City, you could find 945 cabs in New York, and maybe twice that number by the end of the century. Sometimes they could be hailed on corners, and sometimes not; almost always they could be found in front of newsstands and hotels.
The business was constantly being regulated and reregulated, but abuse of the animals was common practice. The horses were the victims of the struggling, underpaid carriage drivers’ rage, as well as of the drive for profits. Children tossed firecrackers at them on the street, and one boy was observed applying honey to a lamppost in subzero weather, hoping to lure a horse whose tongue would freeze to the iron when the animal licked it.
Such heinous behavior had led to the creation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. The founder of the ASPCA was Henry Bergh, a socialite whose father had made his fortune in real estate (including, it’s been rumored, as a landlord to brothels). Many of Bergh’s wealthy associates owned horse-transit companies, but they welcomed the new organization for reasons that, in the manner of the era, almost seamlessly blended moral considerations with expedient shortcuts. On the one hand, the owners needed healthy, well-treated horses from which they could extract years of work—and the ASPCA ensured that standard was met. On the other hand, the insurance companies would not pay for lame horses if the policyholder shot them himself, so Bergh’s ASPCA operatives would obligingly shoot the animals instead. The anti-cruelty society quickly became the leading killer of horses in the city.
By the twenties, the horse-drawn carriage had been almost entirely replaced by the automobile, and carriage rides became a romantic luxury, even a collectible experience. The horses roamed freely throughout midtown Manhattan until 1989, when the City Council, driven by sudden concern for the animals (one of which had died of heat exhaustion the year before) and over a veto from Ed Koch, passed legislation limiting them to the area around and inside Central Park, established an eight-hour workday, and set strict temperature limits on the horses’ working conditions. On days below 18 degrees or above 89 degrees, the horses were prohibited from leaving their stables; they were also required to have fifteen-minute rest periods every two hours.
The ongoing legislative fight over the carriage horses seems to reflect some primal struggle between liberal reformers and conservative stalwarts for the soul of the city, but in fact the carriage-horse controversy has become a representative issue precisely because the line between liberal and conservative in New York is so blurred, even tortured. It’s hard to be progressive in New York without feeling guilty about the many privileges you enjoy simply by living here, while conservatives find it almost impossible to be truly conservative as soon as they set foot out of their apartments and office buildings and into their pleasure-palace city.
The carriage horses neatly reflect these contradictions. Thinking about what to do with the animals in the city is a symbolic way to think about what to do with humanity in the city. The fate of the horses has become joined to other concerns: about who the city belongs to, about what the proper roles of development and preservation are, about what qualifies as nostalgia and what as retrograde behavior—and about how the ways we’ve come to think about change have been distorted, or betrayed, by how the city is actually changing.
Of course, the politics of the carriage-horse issue could just as easily be reversed, with liberals concerned about the fate of struggling immigrant drivers and the disappearance of another piece of the pre-Bloomberg city and conservatives denouncing the expensive enforcement of the many regulations that surround the industry. (It’s a far cry from the time when parents could take their children—e.g., me and my brother—to a nice steak dinner at the old Cattleman Restaurant in Times Square, where in an alley behind the restaurant two white horses harnessed to a stagecoach waited while actors playing cowboys engaged in a desperate shootout with the kids.) And where does one put, in the political landscape, the carriage industry’s accusation that the animal-rights people are using the issue to hand the Hudson Yards stables to real-estate developers (who could surely find the money to buy them honestly)? The perfect blankness of the carriage horses makes them ideal screens onto which New Yorkers can project their anxieties about their rapidly changing city. No wonder both the liberal De Blasio and the conservative Joe Lhota were in favor of getting the horses off the streets, while both the Times and the Post vehemently oppose a ban. It makes no sense, and it explains everything.