Saving Central Park

By Barry Benepe

Two events happened in 1966 which have bearing on our urban life today and possibly well into the future.
I published Pedestrian in the City in the ENO Foundation Traffic Quarterly that was later reprinted in four languages around the world. Also that year, Transportation Alternatives led a bicycle blockade through the Central Park Drives to close them to motor vehicle traffic.

The first recommended that planners design streets for motor vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle traffic. This led to former governor Mario Cuomo’s ‘Complete Streets’ policy, under which public roads were to be designed to accommodate pedestrians and bikes as well as vehicles.

HORSES AND CARRIAGES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN A PART of the history and enjoyment of Central Park. Photo by Barry Benepe.

The second action resulted in a cavalcade of cyclists led by a horse and carriage carrying US Congressman Bill Ryan, City Council Member Ted Weiss and Democratic District Leader Edward I. Koch. The rear dozen cyclists each bore a letter on their backs spelling out “Sunday Car Ban” to support the permanent closing of the drives every Sunday in addition to the three annual closings for bike races. Fifty years later, a group called “Transportation Alternatives,” the “American Youth Hostel” and others lined the drive to wave goodbye to the last automobile to take part in the drives.

Now, District Three’s City Council Member Erik Bottcher proposes to undo this forward-looking humane policy.

In his Fall 2022 newsletter he recommended that cars be returned to the Central Park Drives and furthermore proposed that horses and carriages be eliminated with their flesh inevitably turned into canned dog food.

The Council Member had his ear to a spokesperson for NYCLASS, a pseudonym for a real estate developer, Steve Nislick. Nislick is the owner and CEO of Edison Moving and Storage Company, which, interestingly enough, owns all of the land beneath the High Line.

When the High Line was still a railroad it was purchased by West Village resident Peter Obletz, who had purchased the rail from CSX with the intent of restoring rail freight service to the West Side.

Mr. Nislick had persuaded former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to tear down the High Line so that he could develop the property under it. Fortunately for our community and the city, Giuliani lost the election to Michael Bloomberg who made the High Line a public park.

Bad actors never cease their efforts, however. Mr. Nislick has also gotten the ear of Council Member Bottcher, who has supported his request to drive the horses and carriages out of Central Park so that he could purchase their stables for development.

Horses and carriages have always been a part of the history and enjoyment of Central Park. They move at a slow walking speed, are well cared for in comfortable stables and often offer the only opportunities for children to see horses. The carriages are extraordinary examples of cabinetry and decorative painting.

We should all help Council Member Bottcher see the benefits of keeping our horses and carriages in the park. One concern he expressed has to do with rush hour traffic. In Central Park? Rush hour traffic is a problem for all of us, not just the horses. It is like dealing with crime by getting rid of the victims.

We must continue our struggle to protect our public spaces.