“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.”
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.
Like Sultan, a typical carriage horse comes from Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The horse usually has worked for several years pulling an Amish buggy along rural roads—a perilous apprenticeship. Visiting Amish country with my family last summer, I was surprised to discover that though these roads are narrow, winding, and hilly, with sudden curves and rises that make it impossible to see if an oncoming vehicle is passing someone in your lane, the speed limit is a brisk 40 mph. The result is an ongoing slaughter of people and horses, with numbers of both species killed or maimed every year.
When a horse no longer serves the buggy owner’s purpose, it is often hauled down to the New Holland Sales Stables in New Holland, Pennsylvania. Twenty-five to 35 percent of the horses for sale at that massive weekly auction end up at slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, sometimes for as little as $50 apiece. The less unlucky horses get bought by New York horse-drawn-carriage owners for anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500. If the Amish-country horse cannot acclimate itself to city life, the owner will return to the auction to resell it and buy another.
In New York, the horse will make its home in one of the city’s four remaining stables, situated between the Thirties and the Fifties on Manhattan’s far West Side. All the stables are in old buildings, two to three stories high. Following concrete ramps from one level to the other, the horses live in stalls on the upper floors, while the carriages are housed downstairs, often with the harnesses. Sometimes the stalls have windows, sometimes they don’t. At night, many of the stalls are pitch-dark.
A lot of carriage owners have three horses. Two take the pair of each day’s now-nine-hour shifts, while a third horse is up on a farm in Pennsylvania or Wallkill, New York, enjoying the minimum five-week vacation that was mandated by law in 2010. For those in the city, the day shift begins when the horses are led out of their stalls down ramps around dawn and harnessed to the carriages, early enough for the carriage to be in Central Park at 10 a.m. (In the winter, there is usually only one shift, from around noon through the early evening.) After that, they make their way through the thickening rush-hour traffic from the far West Side to the park, where they wait along 59th Street for fares.
For the next nine hours, each horse pulls her carriage along the same single circuit that Sultan did, along 59th Street, into the park at Sixth Avenue, along a short loop of the park, then out again at Fifth Avenue. (There’s also a longer, 45-minute loop that ends on Central Park West.) At the end of the shift, it’s back through midtown traffic to the stables, at which point the second horse starts its nighttime shift. The next morning, the routine begins anew. This goes on for years—for fifteen, possibly even twenty years. Then it’s out to pasture on the carriage owner’s or some animal-advocacy group’s dime. After that, the likelihood is strong that the horse, old and tired, will be sold to a slaughterhouse, where she will be euthanized, chopped up, and packed into cans of dog food.
Like a fracturing marriage, a city in the process of being transformed manifests its changes incognito, in conflicts that seem on the surface to have nothing to do with the churning shifts that are driving them. In 1992 and then again in 1993, Mayor Dinkins vetoed an attempt by the City Council to relax the earlier restrictions so that the carriages could once again range throughout midtown Manhattan. In 1994, Mayor Giuliani allowed a version of the City Council’s legislation to pass—giving the horses more time in the park but no freedom outside of it. But in the mid-aughts, a series of mishaps—among them a carriage horse named Smoothie that bolted and died, and one named Juliet that collapsed on the street and died in its stable—brought the carriage horses back onto the public stage at the very moment when liberal worries about the general course of the city under Bloomberg were starting to rise. In 2007, Bill Thompson, then comptroller, announced the findings of an audit that cited numerous abuses in the industry, including horses standing in filthy water (the Times reported it as “waste”). That year, Queens councilman Tony Avella introduced a bill to abolish the carriages outright. Three years and several more unsuccessful legislative attempts to outlaw the carriages later, the carriage-horse industry and some of its opponents got together and hammered out a bill raising carriage fares and mandating larger stable stalls and the five-week vacation for horses. The new legislation also required that horses be between five and 26 years old, banned them from south of 34th Street, and prohibited them from working between 3 and 7 a.m. About 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the industrialization that had displaced the urban horse, these horses—living on as museum pieces from a time before industrialization—finally got their own workplace protections.
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.”