Bill de Blasio's Pledge to Abolish Horse-Drawn Carriages is Running Away From Him
Jesse Dittmar Carriage driver Christina Hansen, left, and carriage owner and driver Stephen Malone pose with Malone's horse Tyson, and another horse, Wee Red, at the Clinton Park stables.
The smell of the Clinton Park Stables arrives before the sight of them, a mixture of straw and manure and horse sweat. It rises from the pavement of 52nd Street, just east of the Hudson River, across from De Witt Clinton Park, from which the stables take their name. The smell makes you swivel your head around, searching for a phantom pony.
On a recent evening, though, the street is deserted. Most of New York's famed carriage horses are winding down their day, heading into stalls at four stables dotted across midtown. Inside Clinton Park, as the equine residents settle down to sleep, the humans are, as usual, preparing for war.
"Horses for centuries have been living in stalls, except when they're working," Christina Hansen says. She stands in the stable's narrow, no-frills office, which looks like a taxi dispatcher's workspace: a battered red bench, a time clock resting on a white ledge. Outside the door, a worker sprays down a white carriage and rolls it into place for the night. Another guides a placid draft horse up a long ramp to its second-floor stall.
Hansen is in her mid-thirties, in jeans, rimless glasses, and the jaunty feather-decorated top hat all carriage drivers wear. She's coming off a day's work and sounds a little weary.
"Our horses are helpful, fit, happy, bright-eyed, and a good weight," she says. "They're not showing any stable vices" — behavioral issues horses can develop when they're confined, isolated, or bored.
"You have to say that this works great," Hansen adds.
She's referring to the carriage industry as a whole: Besides her part-time work as a driver, she's a spokeswoman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York, the industry trade group fighting to keep the horses in Central Park.
Soon Hansen is joined by Stephen Malone, a fellow top-hatted driver and second-generation carriage owner. Hulking and taciturn, he punches at a cell phone that looks like a toy in his hands, glancing up occasionally to interject. "They're trying to steal these horses from our grasp," he says glumly.
Malone's Irish-immigrant father began driving a carriage in 1964. The younger Malone has been in the business for more than a quarter-century, and now owns several horses.
Most of his time in "the box" — carriagespeak for the driver's seat — has been quiet, but in the past year he has gotten sick of the stream of reporters trooping through the stables, filming the hack line at Central Park where drivers wait to pick up their fares, putting microphones in his face and asking how he feels. The other day, yet another TV station called to request more B-roll of the hack line.
"B-roll, B-roll," Malone groused recently to Hansen. "The only roll I wanna hear about anymore is a chicken roll."
Hansen heads to the second floor, where 78 of the city's 220 carriage horses spend their nights. It's as hushed as a library. "They're quiet because they're happy," she says, pausing at the stall occupied by a draft horse named Rosie. Nearly all of New York's carriage horses are draft breeds, prized for their size and relative placidity, and for the centuries they've spent working for humans, pulling plows and people. Rosie stares down her nose at Hansen and flicks her tail. As soon as the driver walks away, the horse starts stomping against the walls of her stall, making an unholy racket.
"She wants treats," Hansen explains. She hands Rosie a carrot and the horse quiets down at once, regally accepting it between her massive teeth. Hansen moves on to one of Malone's two horses: Tyson, a handsome, midnight-coated fellow with a white blaze down his face. He stands on his bed of straw, regarding his waterer, which hangs over the side of his stall.
"He's a TV star," Hansen says, stroking his neck. Tyson has appeared on Law & Order and, in an irony the carriage drivers bitterly relish, on 30 Rock alongside Alec Baldwin, one of the carriage horse industry's loudest opponents.
From this vantage point, the horses falling asleep on their straw, the carriage life looks tranquil. But for years, opponents have argued that it's time for it to end. They didn't have a sympathetic ear under former mayor Michael Bloomberg or then–New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "These horses work, like you, like me," Bloomberg told Metro New York in October. "There's a few hundred people that work in this industry who support their families based on it." The demise of the trade, he warned, would mean slaughter for the horses.
Bill de Blasio, however, was elected Bloomberg's successor in part because of the powerful support of an animal-rights group, NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean Safe and Livable Streets, headed by former Edison Properties CEO Stephen Nislick). Throughout his campaign, de Blasio promised an "immediate ban" on the industry.
"One year ago, almost no one believed it was possible," NYCLASS spokeswoman Allie Feldman wrote in a message to supporters the week after de Blasio was elected in November. "We were mocked. We were ridiculed. We were written off as crazy cat ladies. But you believed in NYCLASS's strategy to elect a humane mayor and City Council, and because of you, Tuesday was the moment that started a new era for NYC — and the entire animal protection movement."
But four months into de Blasio's term, there's still no sign of a ban. Recently, the mayor announced during an online press conference that he was putting it off until sometime later this year, explaining, "I think everyone came in and looked at all the other things we had to do and we had to prioritize."
In the meantime, a savvy and relentless public-relations campaign has produced a groundswell of support for the carriages and growing skepticism in the media around NYCLASS's plan to replace them with pricey vintage-replica cars powered by lithium-ion batteries. Newspaper editorials have advocated for the horses to stay: The New York Times, Post, and Daily News, papers that historically don't agree on much of anything, have come out in favor of the industry (the News has even begun a petition drive). A January Quinnipiac poll found that 64 percent of New Yorkers oppose banning carriages.
Hansen and Malone believe the tide of battle has turned in their favor.
Malone adjusts his top hat and turns to leave for the night. "We're not going to lose," he vows. "Period."