Horse Drawn Carriages Leave a Neighborhood Divided

A horse drawn carriage in Central Park

A horse drawn carriage in Central Park

Alexandra Summa is fighting to preserve a tradition. With New York City’s horse drawn carriage industry on the brink of termination, the 15-year-old activist is using her voice and the power of community activism to save what she believes is an important New York City tradition.

The Eleanor Roosevelt High School sophomore, who is a member of the National Honor Society, has lived on the Upper East Side all her life and has enjoyed carriage rides in the park for nearly as long. “I do not want to see a part of New York’s heritage, which was such a treasured part of my childhood, disappear senselessly,” said Summa in an interview.

After hours spent in Central Park’s stables and with several carriage drivers, Summa founded IconicNYC, a student activist group intent on keeping the horse drawn carriage system up and running.

“I decided I could play a small part in the debate and have my voice heard on this issue,” said Summa. “We use the group to reach out and connect with people.” The group mainly utilizes petitions and postcards preaddressed to the mayor to share its message.

Summa is one of many New Yorkers resisting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to ban Manhattan’s horse drawn carriages, an industry which brings in roughly $19 million annually. De Blasio, who stated throughout his mayoral campaign that he would eradicate the industry upon election, believes the working horses are treated inhumanely.

Although the mayor’s decision to eliminate horse drawn carriages has been hotly debated on a citywide scale, it (literally) hits close to home for Upper East Siders, many of whom are divided on the ban.

Naomi Semeniuk, an animal rights activist with the Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages, is fighting alongside the mayor to put an end to horse drawn carriages for good.

“These horrors just keep happening to these beautiful, suffering creatures we love so much,” said Semeniuk, an Upper East Side resident. Semeniuk, who also works to promote vegan lifestyles in the neighborhood, believes immediate action is necessary in order to halt the horse drawn carriage industry.

“We need an upsurge of compassion with radical change and humane education because we can no longer be a society that kills, maims and abuses animals,” added Semeniuk. “Ignorance kills and in this case there’s plenty of ignorance.”

According to The Humane Society, there have been dozens of documented accidents resulting in injuries and deaths of New York City’s carriage horses through the years, as well as records of insufficient veterinary care.

The horse drawn carriage debate is not a new one. However, in recent months the issue has garnered increased attention, in part due to the involvement of high profile advocates firing from both sides: the actor Liam Neeson has been outspoken in his efforts to keep the horse drawn carriage system alive, while actors Alec Baldwin and Lea Michele are campaigning publicly for a ban.

Although treatment of the horses is at the epicenter of debate, for those whose livelihood depends upon the horse drawn carriage industry, the issue extends beyond the condition of the animals.

Boris Majkut, 36, is one of approximately 130 carriage owners in Central Park. “I have been doing this since 2003,” said Majkut, who lives in Bayside, Queens. Majkut admits he hasn’t closely followed de Blasio’s efforts to abolish the industry, but hopes the mayor is sympathetic to those whose jobs will be lost if he follows through with the ban.

“I can tell you, the horses are treated well and they are in good health,” added Majkut. “This is my buddy,” he said, gesturing to the dark brown horse behind him, whom he calls Rocco.

While the continued existence of horse drawn carriages has left many Upper East Siders in contention with one another, some in the neighborhood believe the focus on the issue is a waste of government muscle.

“I can’t believe how much energy is being spent on this,” said Debra Blank, 59, a therapist who has lived on the Upper East Side for most of her adult life. “Maybe it’s inhumane to horses, maybe not, but what I do know is that there are people suffering right here in the neighborhood and we should place more value on that than the well being of horses.”

Yet, for those who do stand decidedly on either side of the issue, efforts will persist.

“There are simple things that can be done that would improve the quality of working conditions and safety for the horses,” said Summa. “No one supports animal abuse—these animals are well cared for. Unlike the mayor, I have visited the stables.”

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New Upper East Side Prekindergarten Accommodates Children with Disabilities

The Lighthouse Child Development Center

The Lighthouse Child Development Center

At a recent meeting of the Community Board 8 Youth and Education Committee, it was revealed that children in New York City with developmental needs have a new community locale. Two Upper East Side establishments, the Lighthouse Guild and Jewish Guild Healthcare, have fused to form the Lighthouse Child Development Center. The prekindergarten center, which was hatched late last year, is now up and running in its home on East 59th Street and Park Avenue.

The center, which was represented at the March 10 meeting by Lighthouse Guild’s Director of Government Affairs Lester Marks, integrates special and non-special needs children. According to Marks, this is an innovative practice in education for those who are developmentally disabled.

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to test for many developmental or visual impairments and you do see children fall behind early,” said Marks who has two young children of his own. He explained that the mixed setting is beneficial to all students as it creates a nurturing environment for early intervention and socialization.

Meant for children up to five years old, the Lighthouse Center has a student body of nearly 200. About a quarter of those students have special needs that are either developmental or involve visual impairment. It also has a staff of over 40, many of whom are Upper East Side residents themselves, according to Marks.

The center has made a number of changes to accommodate the addition of special needs children. One such modification was strengthening the Parent Center to increase communication between parents and faculty. Community Board 8 co-chair Judith Schneider appreciates that measure.

“When our son was young, I noticed he was watching the television like this,” said Schneider as she placed her palm an inch from her nose. “It turned out he had problems with eye sight. He got glasses but then he never wanted to wear his glasses at school and we didn’t know how to deal with it. Eventually the teacher had to get involved.”

Like everything on the Upper East Side, tuition for the center is not cheap, running at $1,400/month. However, thanks to Universal PreKindergarten funding, some children, who come from as far as Far Rockaway, are able to attend for free.

“I’m thrilled to have it in the community,” said Community Board 8 member Barry Schneider, a parent himself. “To find out your child is impaired at age two—that’s a daunting task. A strong foundation to turn to is immeasurable.”

As the meeting concluded, Marks insisted that the Lighthouse Center’s work cannot be fully understood until it is seen for one’s self. With that, he extended a rolling invitation to all members of the Youth and Education Committee to come experience the center.

“I could talk about it all day,” he said. “But seeing the program, feeling the energy, that’s the only way to really understand what we’re doing.”

A Late Night Sandwich with Company

It’s 9 a.m. on a chilly Friday morning, and Yuvi Memaran is ready to call it a night. He has spent the evening and early morning hours behind the counter of Green Gourmet, one of the Upper East Side’s few 24-hour markets, and, as he has come to expect, the evening’s work has left him drained, albeit entertained.

“Thursdays are a busy night,” says Memaran, 34, with more pep than might be expected of someone who’s going into his 22nd consecutive hour awake. “I made about six, seven sandwiches between 2 and 5.”

The sandwiches, says Memaran, were all for customers he had served before. “I knew everyone who came in last night,” he says. He also knew what they would order. 

Memaran has been an employee of Green Gourmet for five years, and spent three of them working the overnight shift. While he is relatively unknown to the organic market’s daytime patrons, he has become a confidant and companion to late night “regulars,” as he calls them. 

Memaran checks out a late night customer

“One night, a few months ago, I was out downtown and a drunk guy tried to steal my friend’s purse,” says Kimille Howard, 22, who has been a Green Gourmet customer since moving to the neighborhood six months ago. “Everything was fine, but I came back up here and of course told Yuvi about it. He always asks what’s going on, and honestly, it adds a sense of security.” 

Memaran, who immigrated to the United State from his birthplace of Amman, Jordan in 2008, believes the nightshift has given him the opportunity to make unique connections with Upper East Side residents. “People who come in at 3, 4, 5 in the morning are not people who come in before work—especially on the weekends, because we’re the only ones open this late so people come in after going out.” He pauses with a sly laugh. “The nighttime can be fun.”

What is cause for more discontent is the commute Memaran endures to get to and from his workplace. To reach Green Gourmet, located on the corner of East 73rd Street and York Avenue in the East Side micro-neighborhood Yorkville, requires 85 minutes of travel from Memaran’s home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—that is, when the three separate trains he must take run smoothly.

“When it’s warmer out it’s okay, but when it’s like this—” he motions towards outside where the sun is shining but the temperature sits bitterly below 30 degrees. “This is the time of year I decide I’m moving to California.”

Memaran’s customers hope he won’t follow through with such claims. “Yuvi is awesome,” says Monica Meletio, 24, who has lived in Yorkville and shopped at Green Gourmet for two years. “I pretty much go in to see him every time I go out. The night isn’t over until I’ve said “Hey” to Yuvi.”

So, does Memaran plan to say goodnight to the nightshift anytime soon? “I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “I can’t work through the night when I’m 60. But for now, it works for me.”