RANDALLS ISLAND — The man who created Harlem’s Black Rodeo is squaring off against the Parks Department in a land dispute that may shut down Manhattan’s only horseback riding facility.
Dr. George Blair, 83, who started the New York Riding Academy in 1988, claims he is being pushed out of his stables on Randall's Island by the Parks Department, which has appropriated part of the land he uses and plans to build a playground there.
He has been allowed to use that land as part of a government agreement dating back to Gov. Mario Cuomo to promote horse riding in underserved communities and offer free lessons to kids from Harlem and East Harlem, Blair said.
“It was a complete dump,” he said, “There were cars, glass, trash, everything that you’d see in a junk yard. We agreed to clean the dump and turn it into a place where children for Harlem and East Harlem can learn to ride for free.”
It took him and his wife about five years and several hundred thousand dollars to clear the space just north of the 103rd Street footbridge and convert it into a stable. For the last 30 years he has kept up his end of the agreement with New York by offering free lessons to local children.
But all that changed this summer when the Parks Department blocked off access to a road that the couple used to bring supplies to the stables, stopped mowing their lawn, and took about 100 feet of the grazing land, Blair said.
The Parks Department asked for permission to use a bit of their land to install a container to store rental bikes, said his wife, Ann Blair, 74.
“When they asked for a small piece of land, of course without hesitation we said, ‘Sure it’s fine,’” she said. “But then we saw a large area that we cleaned up for the horses be gone and taken with the blink of an eye.”
Dr. Blair was furious that the Parks Department would take over land used to provide free services to children in order to store bike rentals that local children can’t afford and the park profits from, he said.
That acreage was full of shade trees that keep the horses and children cool during the hot summer months. He fears it's a safety risk for his students.
“The children can get sun strokes or dehydration in that heat,” Dr. Blair said. “I’m not going to put anyone out there. I wouldn’t put my own kids out there in the sun.”
Blair is considering shutting down the New York Riding Academy because he said the Park Department has violated their agreement and he fears that the agency wants to take over the space and use it for something else.
According to Blair, Parks Department staff at Randall’s Island have dismissed his complaints saying the order came from downtown.
It wasn’t until DNAinfo contacted the Parks Department on Tuesday that they changed their tune. A few hours after a reporter visited the stable, the deputy administrator of the park, Eric Peterson, spoke with Blair, he said.
“They said they got a call from the press office,” Blair said. “Up until yesterday they didn’t feel like they had any accountability.”
On Wednesday, the Parks Department confirmed that the administrator of Randall’s Island met with Blair, after they were asked about the land dispute.
The meeting did not bring a resolution to the issue, according to Blair.
On Tuesday the director of the park told Blair that moving the fence was a mistake and they are willing to work with the New York Riding Academy to correct it. The director also said that he was going to South Korea for the next two weeks and did not give Blair a timeline, according to Blair.
Additionally, the director told Blair that the Parks Department is raising about $10 million because they want to use that land for something else, according to Blair.
The doctor said he is willing to negotiate but only if they put the agreement in writing.
“What I want them to do is come back with a memorandum of understanding,” Blair said. “Let’s put it down in writing, have a look at it, and come to a meeting of the minds.”
If he does leave, he would like the Parks Department to reimburse him for the money he spent cleaning up the dump he cleared to build the stable and for the 30 years he spent giving free riding lessons to children.
A Parks Department spokesperson confirmed that they have long-term plans to develop a playground and comfort station on the land currently occupied by New York Riding Academy. He added that they are committed to working with the academy throughout the development process.
The Parks Department is also going to give the New York Riding Academy access to a road so they can load and unload equipment, the spokesman added.
Should the New York Riding Academy close, it would be the end of an era, said Ann Blair.
Dr. Blair has been promoting horses since the 1970's, when he organized the Black Rodeo on 150th Street and Seventh Avenue. The event inspired a documentary featuring Muhammad Ali and Black Rodeos across the country. Mayor Ed Koch called it “one of the two most outstanding outdoor events in New York City,” second only to the marathon, Sports Illustrated wrote in 1988.
In Randall’s Island they have Governor’s Ball, the FarmBorough Country Music Festival, and Frieze Art Fair. They also have a golf course and tennis centers that are not free to the public. Even the softball and soccer fields require a permit, he said.
"Most of these kids would probably never ride a horse," Ann Blair said. "They would probably never see a horse this close again in their life."