by Brigitte DUSSEAU (AFP)
NEW YORK - Many US cities have quintessential sights and sounds: San Francisco's clanging cable cars, New Orleans and its raucous Mardi Gras, and Washington's political mudslinging.
New York has an abundance of them too, and the new mayor has ignited a firestorm by announcing plans to nix one that is a century old -- the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park -- calling them inhumane.
In their place, if he gets his way, get ready to kick back in electric cars.
"We are going to get rid of the horse carriages. Period," Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said in December, one month after being elected.
"We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City. They are not humane. They are not appropriate to the year 2014. It's over."
This month he hammered away further, calling his idea non-negotiable.
He did however promise to discuss things with the people who make a living from this very Big Apple tourist attraction, which involves 220 horses, 170 drivers and 68 carriages.
NYClass is one of the groups pressing to get rid of the carriages.
"New York is one of the most congested cities in the entire world. These horses are working in midtown traffic with their noses against the tail pipes," said the group's Chelsie Schadt.
"Horses don't belong in traffic," she added.
The group donated $1.3 million to the campaigns of de Blasio and other mayoral candidates opposed to this attraction -- which has been immortalized in romantic fashion in many movies.
"It is absolutely about defending animals," said Schadt, adding that the carriages had been involved in around 20 accidents in recent years.
- 'Not like people' -
"Horses are not like people. They need daily turning out, time every day to behave like a horse, pasture-grazing and socializing with other horses," she added. "They go from the confines of their stalls to the streets of New York City, back to their stalls."
So nerves are on edge at the stables housing the horses.
Conor McHugh, the husky manager of the Clinton Park Stables on 52nd Street, gladly opens up the facility, built in 1860, for a tour.
On the ground floor are the carriages themselves, adorned with plastic flowers and American flags. In the basement, pedi-cabs are lined up. And upstairs are the horses, 79 of them, each in its own stall measuring three meters (10 feet) by 2.4 meters.
McHugh shows off the water troughs, the hay, and the sprinkler system in case there is a fire.
He explains that all the horses that take people for rides in Central Park must spend at least five weeks a year on a farm and cannot work more than nine hours a day, from the time they leave the stable until they get back.
Nor can they toil in temperatures above 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) or below -7 degrees Celsius.
"People who are against our business keep insisting that our horses never see time on the farm, or never get to run in the fields and never get to be, according to them, a horse," McHugh said.
But "by law, they have to do all of those things," he added.
Schadt counters that even if there are rules to protect the horses, "there is simply no way you can regulate that industry to make it truly humane."
So NYClass wants to replace the carriages with electric-powered copies of early 20th century cars to offer that same "nostalgic feel".
The horses would be retired to 'sanctuaries' and looked after by the people who drove the carriages, calling this a very fair alternative.
- Happy horses -
The first prototype of the cars, at a cost of $450,000, could be ready in the spring.
The project needs the approval of the city council but is not yet on the agenda.
The carriages would be phased out and the electric cars phased in over a period of three years.
Carriage driver Christina Hansen, a member and spokeswoman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City, is livid.
"You have this weird combination of real estate and animal rights, where special interest groups got to spend a lot of time and money on getting Bill de Blasio elected mayor because he promised to ban the carriage horses," Hansen said.
"On one hand, the animal rights people, they just think that anybody holding any animal for any reason is wrong," she said, glancing at a carriage parked near the Plaza Hotel on the southeast end of Central Park.
"They just think it is wrong for them to work."
"The real estate people, our stables on the west side of Manhattan, are very valuable real estate, and we're not going to sell so long as we have our horses." Like McHugh, she is up for a fight.
"We're in it because of the horses," Hansen said. "We are taking care of our horses. They are healthy and happy."
If the project passes, she says, the carriage association will sue the city on grounds it is unconstitutional for the government to tell people what they can or cannot do for a living.
"This is New York. This is Central Park. It's like getting rid of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building."
Image via Amy Pearl/WNYC