The pitch goes something like this: There are a few sites in New York City that you, welcomed visitor, must see before you leave. There is Ground Zero, there is the Empire State Building, there is Times Square. But the jewel of it all, the heart of the Big Apple, the calming center, great pride, marvel of design, conservation and planning, is Central Park.
You must see the park, the pitch continues, before adding in the final playful twist: It’s too big to see on foot.
This is the pedicab pitch. The golden promise, that the best tour of the park is on a pedicab’s three wheels, powered by a knowledgeable guide.
The operators have a number of things going against them — cold weather and the fairly widespread perception that the rider is in danger of being ripped off, chief among them.
But those pedicab operators who work mostly in Central Park, as opposed to on city streets, are facing an existential challenge: being forced to cede Olmsted and Vaux’s masterpiece to their brother competitors in park transportation, the horse drawn carriages.
Hold your horses
Mayor Bill de Blasio got himself mixed up in equine politics early.
Animal rights groups campaigned and spent mightily to knock his pro-horse rival, Christine Quinn, out of the mayoral race. Candidate de Blasio said he would ban the rigs from the park on day one of his administration.
That proved easier said than done.
Two years later, de Blasio announced an “agreement in concept” on horse carriages. He couldn’t deliver a ban, but instead found a way to restrict the horses to Central Park, trim their numbers, and build a new stable within the park’s environs.
But the agreement announced last weekend also includes a provision banning pedicabs inside the park below 85th street.
De Blasio says that the pedicab “adjustment” was necessary for reasons of balance, but many pedicab operators feel that their demise was a sweetener to convince the unionized horse and carriage drivers to accept the deal.
And though some pedicabs might survive in the streets, that is the only place where they’d be able to, according to Laramie Flick, a pedicab operator and former president of the NYC Pedicab Owners Association. Tourists simply don’t make it far beyond the southern border of the park.
“To not allow pedicabs below 85th Street is to not allow us in Central Park,” Flick says.
Pedicab drivers have feelings, too
Being a pedicab driver was never easy, and the patchwork industry — which Flick calls “choas” — has no union or strong voice to defend it.
Pedicab drivers have been accused of being con-artists who would famously charge $400 for a short ride, but the job is good work for many — particularly immigrants and others trying to get by in a tough job market.
Central Park pedicab operators strive to separate themselves from the common fold as experts and expert salesemen for the park, adopted or not.
“This is a park for everybody,” says driver Giovanni Pacheco, noting that the Russian, Turkish, and other Muslim nation immigrant drivers are a veritable tapestry of America’s allies against ISIS.
The drivers love the park so much, says Josh Ozturk, a former driver originally from Turkey, that they sometimes yell at people who litter. They know everything about the park, culled from websites and books like Central Park Then and Now. Of course, that’s part of the pitch. But many of the drivers do know their history.
“It’s all man-made,” says Ozturk passionately, “except the rocks. Can you imagine?” He speaks of the park’s 26,000 trees, of the “brilliant” Olmsted and Vaux who designed the park in 1858, of the English tiles imported for the Bethesda terrace.
Smiley Fall, a driver originally from West Africa, rolls off stats about the size of the park (843 acres) and its key sites (Strawberry Fields of John Lennon fame, a favorite). Fall, 40, says the pedicabbers aren’t bothering anyone here, least of all the horse and buggies.
It’s a big park,” he says. “Walking is not ideal.”
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.