No Place for a Horse-Carriage Driver

In a small theater on East Third St. at around 8:00 p.m. on Sept. 26, you wouldn’t have wanted to be a carriage-horse driver.

It was a benefit screening of Blinders: The Truth Behind the Tradition, which documents the alleged abuses of the horses that ferry tourists around Central Park in hansom cabs. Before the film had even started, organizers ejected a driver for threatening to disrupt the event, and a sympathizer was thrown out when he showed his pro-carriage colors during the question-and-answer session afterward.

But you wouldn’t have minded being city councilman and long-shot mayoral candidate Tony Avella, who has been making political hay out of the issue ever since the untimely death of Spotty the horse in 2006.

Playing to a crowd of several hundred adoring Eastsiders after the screening, the white-haired Councilman said, “Speaker Christine Quinn just goes along with what the mayor wants.”

He claimed that the rest of the Council simply doesn’t want to rock the boat. “They say, ‘Of course horses don’t belong on the streets of New York City.’ But Christine Quinn is blocking this bill.”

Avella does not have the equine-outrage vote to himself among the mayoral contenders. Comptroller and all-but-declared candidate Bill Thompson found in an audit last year that the industry supervision was unsatisfactory, telling the New York Times that “the agencies entrusted with oversight here have dropped the ball.”

And according to John Phillips, the 22-year-old president of the League of Humane Voters of New York City, the organization is in talks with the office of the current mayor to come up with an alternative to the carriages.

But meanwhile, only five of 51 council members have signed on to Avella’s proposed ban.

“It’s gaining traction in the sense that it’s being talked about,” said event underwriter Mary Max, admitting that the ban’s political progress is slow. “But what isn’t slow in politics?”

Max, wife of artist, animal rights activist, and tax fraudster Peter Max, compared the industry to “putting an 80-year-old man or woman into a labor camp.”

The audience was diverse.

In the ticket line, Al Streit, the leader of the pigeon-rights group Pigeon People, chatted with a woman who had just come from protesting the bank bailout on Wall Street and who was handing out fliers calling for the abolition of the Fed. There was a woman from the animal-rescue group Farm Sanctuary, as well as a smattering of people wearing power suits.

During the screening, the audience in the half-full theater chuckled at footage of overweight tourists raving about their carriage rides, gasped at graphic b-roll of downed horses, and made angry noises about the callousness of abusive drivers.

“These are the people that we’re dealing with,” said Phillips, who has headed the organization since graduating from Stuyvesant High School four years ago. “This is a tiny, insignificant group of people that are petty, and I could call them other names, but I won’t.”

During a Q&A session afterwards, audience members demanded to know why the carriage-horse lobby—representing all of 293 drivers—was so powerful in City Hall and in Albany. Avella took the chance to rail against campaign contributions and highly paid lobbyists.

The Q. and A. session quickly turned sour, with participating audience members arguing for more immediate action.

“It’s all preaching to the choir — it’s all gobbledygook. It’s ‘if I get elected, if you get elected,’” protested one woman at the microphone. “Do you know how many times I’ve had to reinvent myself? Get a new job!”

Interrupting a succession of other women demanding action, a man got up to defend the carriage driver who had been thrown out before the screening. “Don’t be blinded by Blinders!” he shouted, as the audience booed and yelled.

“Let’s pummel him! Let’s attack him!” shrieked the woman at the other mic, who then started to get shouted at herself.

“Remove her too, if she’s going to act like this,” said Phillips from the front of the theater. Security forcibly removed the man, who continued to shout things about being a Columbia University graduate as he they propelled him up the stairs.

The removal cast something of a pall over the event, as one panelist commented, almost sadly, “We kind of missed an opportunity to understand where in the world he comes from.”

Smaller soapboxes surrounded Avella’s. One of those on LHV’s list of 31 approved city council contenders, civil rights attorney and “the only out vegan candidate” Yetta Kurland, described her district–the 3rd, comprising Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, and the West Village–as being “full of animal lovers.” One of her other priorities is “better dog runs for our puppy dogs.”

Singer Nellie McKay was also in attendance, flitting around in a yellow jacket and spotted blue dress. The waifish platinum blonde arrived and appeared to be snuggling with ubiquitous anti-gentrification activist Tom DeMott (the two have found common cause against Columbia University, she for the school’s research on animal subjects and he for its plans to expand north into West Harlem).

Also in attendance were Steve Nislick, CEO of Edison Properties, and Community Board 7 chair Mary Rosenthal.

One industry, at least, stands to benefit handsomely from Avella’s plan: bicycle-powered cabs. Outside the theater, three men claiming to be pedicab drivers had bought several copies of the DVD, and fulminated for their own reasons against the carriage drivers.

“I feel they should kill them all…they cut you off,” said Tony Montagne, 32, who said he came to the U.S. from Italy three and a half years ago and has been driving a pedicab ever since. He says he makes $2,000 in an average week, $225 of which he pays to rent his cab, and some of which he sends back to family in Italy.

“They should make them drive,” he said, baring his calf. “I got good muscle.”

No Place for a Horse-Carriage Driver