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Clomping Toward Oblivion

But the results of reform were, typically, paradoxical: The carriage-horse owners soon realized that their concessions on humane treatment were being used to prove their inhumanity, and the animal-rights advocates grew afraid that the industry’s concessions would undermine their own moral arguments. A new organization dedicated to the abolition of the carriages, nyclass, was led by Stephen Nislick, a former real-estate developer (which made him a ready-made villain in a struggle that pitted a pastiche nostalgic vision of “old New York” against the city’s High Line future). And in the mayoral race, Alice in Wonderland craziness ensued, as industry supporter Christine Quinn, proud owner of two rescue dogs, was vilified by the animal-rights people, while De Blasio, who had never shown any interest in the issue as city councilman or public advocate, put horses near the center of his campaign and won the support of celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Calvin Klein, among many others—a remarkable outpouring, even in a city where progressive crusades attain a celebrity gravity. Meanwhile, the city’s nearly 200 carriage horses continued to pull gauzy-eyed tourists along those few blocks of Central Park.

Cornelius Byrne is sitting in his cramped office, old riding jackets hanging on one wall, his gray metal desk strewn with papers. The owner of Central Park Carriages stables on West 37th Street, he’s a big, pink-faced Irishman, wearing a plaid driver’s cap, a thermal vest over a flannel shirt, and jeans. Right now there is something crumbling about his bulk. A large black brace is on his left leg. One night after work, Byrne and his brother were going to their car parked in the vacant lot across the street when they saw someone break one of the windows of the car and start to crawl inside. Byrne approached the thief with his hands up and was struck with a tire iron in the leg, snapping his Achilles. “He just hit it, like that,” Byrne says with an air of wonder.

Then he takes up what clearly has become an obsessive subject: Stephen Nislick. “ ‘Random people,’ ” mutters Byrne. “That’s what Stephen Nislick called us. Random people. As if we were the type of helpless people who couldn’t defend ourselves.” He looks like he is about to spit in disgust and contempt. The smell of oats, horses, and manure wafts into the little office just as an enormous pipe winding along the bottom of the wall across from me briefly bursts into deafening sound.

When talking to the well-educated, often Jewish liberals who make up the animal-rights movement in New York, and to the Irish-American hard cases like ­Byrne—28 years driving a carriage so that he could afford to raise his daughters in Caldwell, New Jersey, and send them to Montclair Kimberley Academy—you can feel that you are in a Sidney Lumet film. The old ethnic templates still grind away, even as newer groups enter the fray. In front of Chateau Stables, which are all locked up to visitors, Junior, a young Mexican stableboy, slides away from me along the brick façade of the building as I approach. “I have to be careful,” he says, clearly concerned about speaking to a journalist.

Later that day, I walk, unannounced, into Clinton Park Stables on 52nd Street and knock on an office door. Through the window I can see Conor McHugh, with a half-wreath of white hair, look up at me from his desk. “Could you give us a few minutes?” asks McHugh. Above his desk is a large poster of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous speech, with the caption I HAVE A DREAM.

McHugh is courtly, frank, and desperate as he gives me a tour through the stables; standing in the dark on the first floor, as I wait for him to switch on the lights, I suddenly feel, on the back of my neck, the equine beings housed in the two floors above me. “You know what they say about a good woman,” he says in his pleasant brogue. “Mares are the best horses to have. The rest are geldings.” No stallions? I cluelessly ask him. His eyes gleam. “Oh, you could never have a stallion here,” he says. “Never.” Of course. Stallions are too hard to control.

“The animal-rights people have changed their tack,” McHugh says. “They no longer claim we abuse our animals. Now they say that the city is simply no place for a horse and that times have changed.” What that means, though McHugh won’t admit it to himself, is that salvation of the industry by reform is out of the question. Now that we’ve been led, by Peter Singer and others, to broaden the definition of what it means to be civilized to include a belief in animals as thinking, feeling, soulful beings, mere reform would be seen as capitulation to cruelty.

And so the carriage horses will go, if not now, then six weeks or six months from now, both the result of and the response to permutations in city life that no one can keep track of, or get ahead of, or even patiently explain. McHugh tries to sound optimistic when I suggest to him that the disappearance of the carriage horses is all but certain, pending only a City Council vote. “I dearly hope that is not the case,” he says, his blue eyes almost beseeching. “We bring such joy into people’s lives.”