On Sunday, Aug. 28 a horse named Berry had one of his shoes partially ripped off pulling a carriage around Meeting and South Market streets. The horse experienced some bleeding, was cared for relatively quickly, and, as far as I know, is on his way to a full recovery. Super fucked up, right? Let’s make picket signs and all meet outside of Classic Carriage chanting something absurd, right?
As an animal lover, I don’t think horses should be used as a nostalgic practice to schlep tourists around our city for money. That’s just my take. Some of you may agree with me, others may disagree, but consider this: Horse-drawn carriage tours in Charleston started around 1972. I wasn’t alive then, but my earliest memories of Charleston begin in 1981, and for those who weren’t here, let me tell you, it wasn’t a pretty place. Our Holy City was banged up, run down, and had been economically punched in the face. My first memory of Charleston was when my mother brought my sister and me to Marion Square on a Saturday afternoon. She told us to stay close because it wasn’t a safe part of town. For a poor, shabby chic, Southern city, horse-drawn carriages seemed like a great idea. The carriages were basically the only thing separating the city from being utterly depressing. As I grew up and talked to people in other places, the carriages were the one thing they knew and liked about our town, well that and Rainbow Row. But over the last 30 years things have changed, Charleston changed, and now it’s our turn to change.
We are a darling of the country and of the world. We have arguably the friendliest people, the best food, beautifully restored historic buildings, great beaches, and amazing weather. Millions of people visit us every year, and millions (especially Ohioans) are moving here each day. Which is to say, many cities look to Charleston for inspiration and guidance on how to rebound out of their own depressed economies.
So, my question is, within this thriving landscape, do we still need the carriages? Excluding the obvious arguments for animal rights, the effect of car fumes, the brutal summer heat, the weight of seemingly ever-enlarging tourists (they do love our food), do we still need them? Do we even want them? Currently, we have up to 20 carriages clogging Charleston’s historic district; streets we all have to navigate, circling around looking for parking spots like sharks hunting their prey. Hypothetically, if we could remove the horses and not lose any revenue, wouldn’t we?
Think of it like baseball. In the ’80s the city of Charleston was like the RiverDogs (actually we were Rainbows, but just hear me out). We were a small, Single A, minor league team of a town with little draw for fans. And, like many minor league towns, we thought up creative ways to get people to come to the games — ideas like, bring your dog to the park night, or 10 cent beer night. That’s what carriage horse tours are, a small team’s gimmick to get people to visit. But now we don’t need gimmicks because we are the New York effin’ Yankees, and all the other teams want to be us. Now we don’t have to do anything but play ball and we’ll sell out every night all season long.
To the carriage companies and their employees worried about their jobs and businesses, I propose an alternative. Many years ago my grandfather and I toured the battlefields of Gettysburg. We paid for a guide to get in our car and, as my grandfather drove us around, the guide told us all about the history of the battle site. We stopped whenever we wanted or got out and walked around. It was an experience I’ll never forget. And one tour companies can replicate. Simply get rid of the overhead of horses, stables, and carriages, and replace all that with just one thing — more guides. The guide to guest ratio would go down, which would mean more jobs. And the guides could give more personalized tours, and do it all from an air conditioned vehicle. Or, you know, we could just wait for another bloody Berry incident.