May 6, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Frank Rodden's son is only five-years-old, but he’s already a bona-fide equestrian just like his dad – and the little guy’s got a mess of blue ribbons to prove it. The Roddens are horse people. That’s why it pains the Clinton Park Stables co-owner so much when the mayor of New York City and other horse carriage critics, paint his family, his friends and his industry as “inhumane.”
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” says a visably emotional Rodden, 51. “But, yet, we’ve been accused of some of the most heinous things in the world. “The worse thing that you can say to me is that I’m some sort of animal abuser – apart from insulting my family, that’s probably the worse thing that you can possibly do.”
Rodden lives on a horse farm in the Catskills with his wife Abigail and their two children. He started driving a horse carriage for Jimmy Archer back in 1987. When Archer finally decided to turn over the reins and leave the 11th Avenue stables where he worked, Rodden and a partner bought his carriage and moved on to West 52nd Street.
Some time later, Rodden and a bunch of fellow carriage drivers joined together and bought the Clinton Park Stables located at 618 West 52nd Street. The three-story brick building situated between 11th and 12th avenues dates back to the 1880s, and was once home to the Sanitation Department’s old horse stables, as well as a factory making cardboard.
That same remarkable building now houses 39 carriages on its ground floor. The upper two floors, meanwhile, are reserved for 78 horses quartered in 8×10 box stalls. The steeds – “bombproof” draft horses largely bred in Amish country for the city streets and destined for Central Park – start exiting the building at 9:30 a.m. each weekday morning via a rubberized incline located just inside the front door.
“In a rural environment that’s what is known as a hill,” says a dry Stephen Malone, another Clinton Park carriage owner/driver who finds the current effort to put him out of business simply outrageous. “But because it’s an urban environment, our adversaries call it a ‘steep ramp.’ Horses have been climbing hills and mountains since the beginning of time. Horses and mules go up and down the Grand Canyon. This is nothing to them. But this ramp is the worst thing that’s ever happened in the minds of our adversaries.”
Aside from a number of attention-getting accidents that have occurred on city streets, Clinton Park Stable operators – affiliated with Local 553 Teamsters Joint Council No. 16 – argue that their horses are well protected, constantly monitored – and in many respects – even safer than animals left to their own devices somewhere out in a country field. Anyone who doubts that, they say, is invited to come down and tour the well-inspected facilities for themselves.
“Where are all these abused animals they talk about?” Rodden says. “We defy them to find them. An accident is an accident. It’s not abuse.”
Carriage operators are limited to nine-hour tours of Central Park, which they split between different horses and drivers assigned to day and night shifts. Each horse is required to get five weeks off each year. According to Rodden, however, the respite actually works out to six months out of the year, which horses spend “vacationing” at area farms.
Rodden’s own upstate farm is called “Finbar's” – in honor of the first horse he ever owned – and still keeps to this day. His latest, is a seven-year-old cross-bred draft horse that his award-winning progeny decided to name “Phineas” – after his favorite cartoon show.
“It takes four licenses for me to get out on the street,” Rodden says. “I’ve been in the business for 25 years, and I have no violations. Why should anybody walk up to me – whether they are a politician, private citizen, or an activist, and say, ‘You should change your life because I don’t like this?’ Walk into the butcher shop and tell him he’s got to open a vegetable store.”
Paul McDaid, 50, appears downright giddy, sometime later, buffing his shoes after switching into full riding regalia. He’s eagerly anticipating the marriage proposal he’s helped orchestrate for a customer later in the day.
Like his other Clinton Park compatriots, the Irish emigre has been driving a horse carriage in New York City for over 25 years. Helping customers celebrate the seminal moments in their lives is one of the highlights of the job – enduring the increased rhetoric coming from the mayor and his NYCLASS [New Yorkers For Clean, Livable and Safe Streets] supporters, however, is another story.
“It’s terrible,” the Queens resident says before heading out. “There’s no need for it. It’s just an overreaction. But certain people, you’re never going to change their minds – no matter what.”
Musing on the matrimonial theme a little further, Malone says that he’s probably hosted “a couple of thousand” marriage proposals and never gotten a “No” during his almost 30 years as a horse carriage driver. He still vividly recalls the marriage proposal he helped engineer back in 1999 on New Year’s Eve. That one came complete with music, cake, dancing – and a justice of the peace.
“The only thing I didn’t have was rice – so, I threw oats at them,” Malone says. “But when you get to us, it’s already a sealed deal. It’s what makes the job so special.”
Critics of the horse carriage industry may have been around a long time – but Rodden blames the new mayor for turning up the hysteria while behaving like king “waving a wand.”
And despite often recited assurances to the contrary – the horse carriage drivers at Clinton Park Stables maintain that the threatened ban isn’t about the horses at all – but rather a greedy and cynical bid for the valuable West Side real estate that the city’s stables occupy.
Says Rodden, “I don’t want to be a footnote in history that we were animal abusers, and have my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren look back and say, ‘Yeah, one of our ancestors abused horses in Central Park, that’s why they put him out of business. Absolutely not. Whether it costs me materially or not – I will not have that footnote in history. Simply, because it’s not true.”