NEW YORK -- After earning a well-deserved reputation as one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, New York has found itself late in the 20th century facing a difficult and unexpected question:
Is this a horse and buggy town, or what?
Militias have formed in the canyons of Manhattan to do battle over the future of the famous horse-drawn carriages that clip-clop through Central Park and pose outside the Plaza Hotel, giving the city an aura of romance and old-world charm.
Animal rights activists, who count among their number Brooke Shields, Kurt Vonnegut, Candice Bergen, Gloria Steinem, Christopher Reeve and Willard Scott, say the horses are poorly treated, even abused, by stable owners and carriage drivers who care only about making money. The sight of carriage horses slogging through Manhattan streets is a familiar one.
Businesses on Fifth Avenue and Times Square chime in that the carriages strangle the shopping and tourist district by snarling traffic and aggravating their customers.
On the opposing side is a group of about two dozen stable owners and 400 carriage drivers, who have set themselves up as David in a fight against a Goliath of New York celebrities, Fifth Avenue money and animal rights activists.
The battle lines have been drawn over issues of jobs, temperature measurements and the effect of horse urine on pavement.
But the fight also has to do with how much you have, where you live, where you come from and the aspirations you bring to the city.
The City Council of New York passed legislation Tuesday generally loosening the restrictions on when and where carriage drivers can take customers.
The ASPCA, Friends of Animals, the New York State Humane Society and a group called the Caring Coalition all opposed any loosening of restrictions. They cited horses that collapsed in the heat several years ago, exhaust fumes that the horses must endure in Manhattan traffic and accidents that have occurred between carriages and cars.
"They are a lot of wealthy people, but they don't own New York," said Lonnie Rosenberg, an attorney for the pro-carriage forces. He said the opponents of the law wanted to see horse-drawn carriages off the streets altogether.
"It's a long-running battle between animal rights people and people who work with animals," Mr. Rosenberg said.
But businesses in midtown Manhattan have been uniform in their belief that carriages hurt business.
"We are not against tourists," said Brendan Sexton of the Rockefeller Group, which operates Rockefeller Center. "We don't put up that [Christmas] tree to repel tourists."
The new law will allow horses to work nine hours a day instead of six, and when the temperature goes above 90 or below 18 degrees Fahrenheit, drivers will be allowed to complete a ride in progress before taking horses back to the stable. Currently, as soon as the temperature exceeds those limits, horses must be walked back to their stables.
Probably the most significant changes, however, deal with where the carriages can go and when. Since 1989, when the first restrictions were adopted, the carriages have been limited to Central Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In rush hours, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., they were banned from the streets altogether. After 7 p.m. they were permitted in other areas of the city.
The new regulations allow the horses to work in Central Park all day, including rush hour; restricted zones are smaller, and the restrictions apply only during peak theater hours from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
When a council committee voted to send the bill to the full council, the only two dissenters were council members Kathryn Freed, a downtown Democrat, and Charles Millard, an uptown Republican from the East Side.
Ms. Freed was clearly frustrated. "We are the ones who are going to have to be subjected to this," she lamented.
She had a final warning for members who were willing to let the horses loose in the heart of the city.
"Horse urine is incredibly corrosive, and it tends to eat up the streets."
N Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Jan. 5.