PELHAM PARKWAY — There was a time, decades ago, when the horse stable on Pelham Parkway South and Stillwell Avenue was a quaint spot, frequented by the neighborhood's children who could pay $5 for an hour's ride.
"Twenty years ago this was a very popular stable," said Bronx State Sen. Jeff Klein, who grew up in nearby Morris Park and whose district includes the property. "It was a beautiful part of our community."
But the building declined steadily over the years as its owner fell behind on property tax payments, according to Klein, and the Department of Buildings issued a vacate order at small, now rundown barn nearly a year ago. Today, the only tenant left inside the stable, with its peeling white paint and decaying metal stairway, is Rusty — an aging, chestnut-colored horse who was so named so by a group of local kids.
Klein, with the support of community leaders and animal activists, has taken on Rusty's cause, rallying this week to get the horse moved from the dilapidated building. The senator also announced plans to draft a bill, along with Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, that would amend state law to allow animal enforcement to more easily remove animals from unsafe properties.
"There's a glitch in the [current] law," Klein said at a rally in front of the stable on Thursday. "This area is not appropriate for humans to live in, [but] unfortunately it's still appropriate for animals."
In an e-mail, a spokesman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) said their Humane Law Enforcement department was at the stable during the last month to examine the site and Rusty, and that "there was no evidence of abuse or neglect."
But Rusty's supporters said Thursday that the site is no place for an animal to live.
"You have a living creature in a building that is condemned," said Brian Shapiro, New York director for the Humane Society of the United States, who called the shed a "house of horrors more fit for Halloween than a horse stable."
"A person can't live in here, but a majestic animal like a horse can? That’s not acceptable," Shapiro said. "I don’t even feel safe standing in front of this building from 20 feet away."
The structure, at 1680 Pelham Parkway South, is crumbling in parts, its window is broken, and a set of stairs leading to a boarded-up door on the the second floor are completely rusted through. The horse is housed alone inside the barn, barely visible through the stable's small grated windows.
Klein said the site has long been considered an eyesore in the neighborhood. The city is set to take possession of the property in the coming months and auction it off, he said, but that process can be lengthy. Meanwhile, an affordable housing development is being planned for the empty lot next door to the site. According to their website, Meltzer Mendl Architects will be building a $22 million, 91-unit complex called Pelham Parkway Towers.
"When that owner builds this beautiful property, this eyesore is going to still exist," Klein said.
On Thursday, at least three other horses had appeared on the property, their heads poking out from a horse trailer which was set up behind the stable, set off by a broken wooden fence. A spokesman for Klein said the additional horses were not there previously, and he assumed they'd been moved there sometime in the last week.
The property owner, who Klein's office identified as Buster Marengo, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Klein said that so far, he's ignored their pleas to relocate Rusty. It is unclear whether Marengo is also the owner of the horses, and who is caring for the animals, Klein said.
"He's been less than an engaged owner," Klein said "He doesn't return any phone calls. He's impossible to reach."
Under current law, animal enforcement can't remove an animal from a property unless there are obvious signs of abuse and neglect, Klein said, adding that the law "doesn't take into account the structure," where the animal is housed. The bill that Klein plans to introduce into the State Legislature when its session begins in January would change that, he said.
"What we're saying is that if an animal control officer or an expert comes to any property that has already been designated not fit for human habitation, if they determine that that property is not fit for an animal as well, that animal can be removed," Klein said.
Officials warned Thursday that the economy and the steady number of homes going into foreclosure could lead to an increase in the number of animals left behind in rundown buildings.
"We're going to see more cases like this," The Humane Society's Shapiro said.
For now, Klein says their first goal is to get Rusty relocated to greener pastures.
"We've already reached out to animal sanctuaries all over the state," he said. "There's many many...kind-hearted individuals that'll give Rusty a great home, somewhere he can roam freely, some place that isn’t in danger of collapsing any minute."