The New York Times packed a powerful one-two punch this week in favor of the Central Park horse and carriage trade, with a Monday editorial strongly supporting the industry and an op-ed piece on Tuesday by actor Liam Neeson urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to drop his proposed ban.
However, those who work in the heavily Irish industry are still greatly concerned about their livelihoods and see their battle against de Blasio as an uphill one, particularly as the mayor reiterated his desire last week to eliminate the horses from Central Park.
“We’re still fighting for our jobs, and this is still a David vs. Goliath battle,” Colm McKeever, originally from Co. Meath and a driver for more than 25 years, told the Irish Voice on Tuesday.
“We are, of course, very happy for the support from the Times and Liam Neeson. But we’re under no illusions at all that the mayor has given up. We’re worried about our futures.”
Neeson, whose public appearances in defense of the industry last month included a call for de Blasio to “man up” and meet the horses and drivers in person, penned an op-ed for the Times in which he claimed class is at the root of the proposed ban.
“I can’t help but see the proposed ban as a class issue: [the drivers’] livelihoods are now at risk because the animal rights opponents of the industry are well-funded by real estate interests, which has led to speculation that this powerful lobby wishes to develop the West Side properties owned by the stables,” Neeson wrote.
“As a result, an entire way of life and a historic industry are under threat. We should ask whether this is the New York we want to live in: a sanitized metropolis, where local color and grit are thrown out in favor of sleek futuristic buildings and careening self-driving cars?”
In January the Irish Voice and IrishCentral published an open letter from Neeson in which is described the ulterior motives at play in the proposed ban as "a land grab."
In his New York Times piece, Neeson once again called on de Blasio to visit the West Side stables where the horses are housed before following through with the ban.
“Before we lose this signature element of New York’s culture and history – instantly recognizable to the millions of tourists who visit our city and contribute to its economy – the least the mayor can do is come down to the stables and see how the horses are cared for,” Neeson wrote.
“I urge Mr. de Blasio to meet the working men and women whose jobs are at stake and to start a dialogue that will safeguard a future for the horses that the majority of New Yorkers want.”
During a Google Hangout interview last week to mark his first 100 days in office, de Blasio once again voiced his support for the elimination of the horse and carriage industry, even though he has been unable to accomplish it during his first weeks in office as he had originally pledged.
The mayor said he expects action on a proposed ban later “this year.”
“It’s just about as common sense as you could possibly think, that a horse in the middle of the streets of Midtown, it doesn’t belong, isn’t going to be able to live the kind of life that it should and is going to create a dynamic for everyone that creates problems, and I think a humane society doesn’t do that to animals,” he added.
Though the mayor remains steadfast, McKeever and his colleagues are encouraged that positive publicity generated by Neeson and The New York Times will make ban supporters think twice about the issue.
“I’ve had lots of calls from people since the coverage who want to take a second look, people in the past who wouldn’t have been considered supporters of ours,” McKeever said.
Neeson’s op-ed cited a proposal by Mindy Levine, the wife of New York Yankees President Randy Levine and a long-time animal rights activist who adopted a carriage horse in 2012 that attempted to bolt in Columbus Circle. Levine sees compromise in having the carriage horses and other riding facilities exist within the confines of Central Park.
“I think Mindy Levine is very reasonable and very courageous in coming forward,” McKeever said.
Though de Blasio has said he would meet with members of the horse and carriage industry, he has yet to initiate outreach.
“We’d still be delighted to talk to the mayor and show him how well cared for our horses are,” McKeever said.
The Times editorial on Monday cited the need to safeguard the 300 jobs that the industry provides.
“Don’t do it, Mr. Mayor. Here’s an instance where delay and inaction are the preferable form of leadership. Let the carriages and the horses alone. Let this small business survive. Side with the drivers and do not add fleets of new cars, electric or not, into the streets and parks,” the editorial urged.
“Carriage horses have a place in New York, a working, workaday city. The de Blasio administration should make every effort to ensure that they are safe and protected. They do not need to be banished.”