As next year’s mayoral race shudders to life, candidates should face the following question at a future debate: What is your stance on Central Park’s horse carriages?
It may seem silly to focus on horses right now. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has made the horses, and their 200 human workers, into a bizarre litmus test of whether the next mayor can govern based on science, priorities and pro-small-business instinct — or whether he or she will cave to a special interest backed by transactional donors.
Central Park’s horse carriages and drivers have returned after a six-month COVID-19 hiatus. Two weeks ago, drivers started bringing back 15 carriages for a park tour, out of the normal 68.
Drivers are returning, because the holiday season, when more locals do take a ride, is the best chance of earning income.
It’s an expensive bet. It costs about $1,100 a month to keep two horses and a carriage at an out-of-town farm, but $2,600 to $3,000 to keep them in Manhattan.
“People still have birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, bored children,” says Christina Hansen, a driver. Right now, customers are “almost exclusively locals and tri-state people,” a reverse of the normal 80 to 85 percent tourist trade. “Everyone is happy to see us. . . . I’ve given a lot of rides to families with very small children.”
For stir-crazy New Yorkers, especially parents, there’s not much to do, and this dearth of options will last through New Year’s. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the Nutcracker, the Philharmonic’s Messiah, the Rockettes — all canceled. If you want your kids to get a taste of Manhattan Christmas, there will be a Rockefeller Center tree and skating rink and store windows, but not much else — except a traditional carriage ride, a socially distance-able outdoor activity.
It’s part of what makes Gotham unique and attractive to still-missing office workers and tourists, when so much of Midtown, like the historic Roosevelt Hotel, is disappearing. You would think City Hall would cheer this small business’ willingness to take a risk and make Manhattan more pleasant this grim season.
But, no. Since his first campaign, de Blasio has nurtured a vendetta against the carriage trade. To fulfill a campaign promise to a top donor, de Blasio vowed to ban the carriages on “day one.” Then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito quashed this bid.
But Hizzoner has waged a war of attrition, pushing his Department of Transportation to move carriage stands from Central Park South into the park, where fewer would-be customers see them.
Last year, current Speaker Corey Johnson passed a “heat-index” bill, based on no veterinary science, that would keep horses from working on summer days with temperatures in the low 80s (the city has long mandated that horses stay inside when it is 90 or above).
The animal-rights fanatics aren’t satisfied — and still want the industry banned. It would be strange for this fringe issue to define our next mayor. But in a close race with little difference among candidates on issues such as policing or taxes, it could matter.
“I don’t think there is anyone who is currently in the race who is avowedly anti-carriage,” says Hansen. The industry hopes to be on the offensive. In a switch from the Teamsters, the Transport Workers Union now represents the drivers. The TWU represents drivers across the tourist industry, including for Big Bus tours, and the carriage drivers think the TWU can help combat long-term scourges such as fraudulent on-street ticket sales.
And the TWU, with its representation of subway and bus workers, is a more powerful local force. That will help, as the horse-carriage trade tries to get a saner mayor and council to roll back the new regulations and to wrest back some street space, particularly Grand Army Plaza outside southeast Central Park.
With New Yorkers having spent the whole summer dining outdoors as cars and trucks speed by, Hansen points out, the issue isn’t whether it’s cruel to subject horses to traffic — but why the Big Apple is so bad at distributing street space among different users.
As New Yorkers pick out their next leader amid a historic crisis, voters should remember: Any candidate who won’t support this small business is a continuation of de Blasio — and will care as little about the fortunes of other businesses and workers. Say neigh.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.Twitter: @NicoleGelinas
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