New York City's horse-drawn carriage crisis

I won’t crack a joke about how the crusade against horse-drawn carriages by Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, is a pile of manure… because half the headline writers in America already did that.  Let’s just say it’s mighty peculiar.  Mighty peculiar.

Were you under the impression that horses were one of the greatest threats New York City faced – a crisis so severe that incoming mayor had to address it during his first days in office?  It’s not as if his predecessor was noted for his reluctance to use the power of his office to crack down on his pet peeves.  And yet, somehow Mayor Bloomberg never got around to outlawing the horse and buggy.

The same thought occurred to Nick Gillespie at the Daily Beast:

Upon taking office, de Blasio has made it his absolute highest priority ???to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City.??? Seemingly paraphrasing Richard Crenna???s Col. Trautman inthe first Rambo movie, he flatly told a pre-inauguration press conference, ???It???s over.??? A hundred-plus years of tradition and a hundred-plus jobs (for humans) gone, just like that, because de Blasio believes that horse-drawn carriages ???are not humane.??? In their place will be ???electric, vintage-replica tourist-friendly vehicles that provide jobs for current drivers.???

And New Yorkers thought that the days of bizarre, Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria-style edicts had finally ended when three-term Mayor Mike Bloomberg finally left City Hall. Among many other things, Bloomberg even banned food donations to homeless shelters because bureaucrats couldn???t verify the gifts??? salt content. What is it that perpetually outdated columnist Cindy Adams likes to say? “Only in New York, kids, only in New York.”

Gillespie refers to some grousing from Andrew Rosenthal at the New York Timeswhich heartily endorsed de Blasio.  Rosenthal insists the new mayor has all sorts of unspecified “good qualities” but dings him for a “problem prioritizing,” which is something the Times really should have brought up with voters before the election, because if an executive has big trouble distinguishing priorities, most of his other alleged virtues are moot.  This particular failure to prioritize has Rosenthal scratching his head:

What makes him think this subject is important enough to occupy his first days in office? More important, what makes him think this is a good idea at all? He???s fulfilling a campaign promise that always seemed tailored to pander to better off, more cloistered New Yorkers.

If I???m sounding grumpy about this, it???s because I am. I grew up in this city and as a boy I marveled at the cage in the Central Park Zoo that held a small, hooved creature and was labeled ???Horse.??? That sign encapsulated, for me, how little New Yorkers knew about life outside of an urban setting. Why not label the tall brown and green object nearby ???Tree????

People who spend time with horses know it???s not inhumane to make them draw carriages. Obviously, people can, and have, treated animals inhumanely, but the carriage industry has responded well to complaints about the conditions in which its animals live.

He goes on to note that his paper has given a thumbs-up to the carriage industry for years, observes that many livelihoods would be ruined by the proposed abolition of this popular tourist trade… and then offhandedly remarks upon a more sinister motivation for de Blasio’s proposal:

Let???s not forget that tourists love the carriages and that locals make a living off them. And it???s worth noting that one of the big driving forces hiding behind the anti-cruelty front of the anti-carriage campaign are real estate developers. Is it possible they want to turn the stables in prime Manhattan locations into far more lucrative condos?

Wow, that is an interesting question!  A loud and proud socialist abusing his authority to reward campaign donors?  Too bad Rosenthal doesn’t work for some kind of large media organization with the resources to investigate that possibility more thoroughly.

Maybe they could just spend a few minutes with Google and employ a bit of old-fashioned journalistic skepticism, as Robert Stacy McCain at the American Spectator did.  It turns out this particular money trail isn’t very difficult to follow:

Defenders of the carriage industry point to a real-estate executive who is one of de Blasio’s major campaign donors as the driving force behind the effort to abolish the carriages.

“It’s got everything a scandal could ever want,” says Eva Hughes, vice-president of the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City. Hughes spent 16 years driving carriages, her husband still drives a carriage, and she says they are fighting a “David and Goliath” battle against the mayor and his big-money backers.

The bad guy in this drama, according to the carriage drivers, is  Steve Nislick, chief executive officer of a New Jersey-based real-estate development company, Edison Properties. The company “employs legions of lobbyists to influence city decisions on real estate and zoning in its favor,” journalist Michael Gross reported in 2009, pointing out that two of Edison’s businesses “have multiple locations in the same Far West Midtown neighborhood as the stables where the Central Park horses are housed.” An anti-carriage pamphlet Nislick circulated in 2008 made this interesting observation: ???Currently, the stables consist of 64,000 square feet of valuable real estate on lots that could accomodate up to 150,000 square feet of development. These lots could be sold for new development.???

Gross asked the obvious question: “What are the odds that good neighbor Nislick, the out-of-state real estate developer, simply covets those valuable, underdeveloped New York lots — and has teamed up with ambitious pols to use the emotions of animal rights activists as fuel for their own agendas?”

Remember kids, the difference between “concerned citizens” and “special interests” is whether or not they support your campaign.  Granted that the groups leveling these accusations at de Blasio also have their own interests to protect – they’re carriage drivers trying to save their jobs, and carriage aficionados who wish to preserve a recreation they enjoy.  But it’s interesting how one side of this struggle enjoys a presumption of high-minded idealism that Big Media is extremely reluctant to puncture.

That’s how it always works when the media is ideologically sympathetic to a political cause.  Behind just about every compassionate, public-spirited save-the-world campaign to ban or regulate something, you can find big money interests who stand to make a bundle by crushing whatever the State has beneath its heel.  Ironically, liberals are usually trying to keep metaphorical horse-and-buggy industries alive with taxpayer subsidies.

McCain reports that the banned horse-drawn carriages would be replaced by “electric replicas of antique cars,” which is absolutely pathetic – and, given the recent performance of electric cars, potentially dangerous.  At least horses don’t burst into flames.  Even if the electric antique cars work reasonably well, I can’t see how they’re going to be much of a substitute for the carriages, which seem to be surviving animal-rights challenges in other cities, at least for the time being.  If you’re really got your heart set on riding in a little electric car, you can always take up golf and move to Florida – or, if relocation and golf aren’t in your budget right now, consider joining the Shriners.  (Bonus: you get to wear a fez.  Fezzes are cool.)

The cynic would conclude there are people waiting behind the scenes to cash in no matter what Big Government decides to do.  We’re left to wonder whether any given decision makes sense on the merits… and Bill de Blasio’s horse ban has even some of his high-profile supporters shaking their heads.  It should be noted this wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue – he did talk about it during the campaign, so presumably folks like Andy Rosenthal either weren’t paying attention, didn’t think he was serious, or were prepared to grant him a few indulgences on the road to building a New York City that Snake Plissken would consider worth his time.