Even Cowboys Get the Blues


At the far edge of East New York, beyond the train yards, bodegas, and housing projects, Dumont Avenue suddenly reaches an incongruous line of trees. A yellow traffic sign warns of a dip as the road slopes into a little valley full of rusted car parts, isolated houses, and flimsy buildings surrounded by razor wire. The neighborhood, which straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border, is called Lindenwood, and within it is a section some people call “the Hole.”

About a hundred horses currently live in a complex of ramshackle stables at the Hole. A quarter of these horses are owned by members of the Federation of Black Cowboys, an eight-year-old volunteer organization of 45 men—many of them retired police and corrections officers—who teach horsemanship and stable management to neighborhood kids and disabled children from the five boroughs. Soon though, there won’t be as many stables to manage. Some of the land at the Hole has been sold to a developer, and roughly 40 horses—the Federation’s and others—are to be evicted at the end of the month. And due to funding troubles, the Federation’s fourth annual rodeo, scheduled for May 31, was canceled as well.

As airplanes fly low, headed for nearby JFK Airport, a lanky, dreadlocked man leads a white horse down a dirt road. The back of the man’s jacket is emblazoned with “Federation of Black Cowboys.” Cornealius Cleary, who came to New York from Jamaica in 1976, earns his living giving riding lessons, but more often than not lets kids from nearby projects ride for free.

“I’ve got till the end of May to find a new stable,” Cleary says as he unlocks a tall metal gate. Cleary taps Dalton lightly on the rump and the white horse walks forward into the stable yard. This stable, housing 20 horses, is one of the biggest in the Hole, but it’s hardly a pastoral setting. A row of abandoned truck trailers has been turned into horse stalls. Wheelbarrows and feed tubs mingle with rusted car doors and hubcaps. A chicken sits atop a three-legged chair. Despite the bleak surroundings, Cornealius and other cowboys’ horses are impeccably groomed.

Local homeowners would be happy to see the stables go. One resident, Elizabeth Watt, complained to The New York Times about an eight foot tall manure pile near her home. In April 2001, the Department of Buildings issued violations, citing stable owners for running businesses in a residential area.

Cleary doesn’t want to be involved in the politics of the situation. He just needs somewhere to keep his horse. Nearby Jamaica Bay Stables charges $800 a month for board. Kensington Stables, near Prospect Park, charges half that, but it’s still beyond Cleary’s reach. Here, in this strange urban outpost, Cleary had been renting a stall for $140 a month.

The Federation of Black Cowboys’ main facility, Cedar Lane Stables, lies a few blocks from the Hole on Conduit Avenue. The Federation’s lease from the Parks Department stipulates that no more than 40 horses be kept at Cedar Lane, and with many cowboys owning more than one horse, there is overflow.

Cleary, who joined the Federation in January of 2001, had to migrate to the Hole to find a stall. But his stable there is privately owned and on the block for demolition. Cleary and dozens of other horse owners—some Black Cowboys, some not—are getting displaced.

Keith Conner, the Federation treasurer, a soft-spoken man who, when he is not on horseback, is a mortgage lender at Merrill Lynch, isn’t sure what the Federation can do to help its members fight the eviction. Leaning on a desk in the Federation’s office—a trailer nestled between rows of Cedar Lane’s battered wooden stalls—Conner explains that the cowboys need to build bigger stables. The federal government owns vast tracts of land along nearby Jamaica Bay, and the cowboys would like to set up there. He hasn’t yet been able to sort things out with the many government offices involved.

“We could build a place big enough for all our members’ horses and then some. We’d like to build an official training facility for working with kids too.”

The Federation’s annual rodeo, held in the large paddock of Cedar Lane Stables, is the Federation’s biggest community outreach effort. Spanning three days, the event features trick riding, bull and bronco riding, and barrel racing. Renting bleachers alone costs $15,000 and the entire event runs close to $60,000. This year the Federation didn’t receive enough donations to foot the bill. Conner explains that the Federation sorely needs corporate sponsors to continue its children’s programs and to find larger accommodations.

“What I love best,” he says, motioning at a handful of young boys outside the office, “is watching kids get hooked on this. It turns their lives around.”

The kids in question are walking into a small tack shop, Debbie’s Reins and Things, that’s set up in a trailer across from the office. Inside the shop, Debbie Singleton, a friendly woman wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, is doing brisk business selling the boys snacks—for themselves and for the horses they’ll be riding this afternoon.

“This boy’s a trick rider,” Debbie says, indicating one of her young clients.

The boy pushes back the brim of his hat and beams proudly.

“I was just like him,” Debbie tells me, “had my first pony ride right here at Cedar Lane when I was seven. Once my son was grown, I got a horse and came back here.”

Last June, Debbie founded the Cedar Lane Jewels, a cowgirl offshoot of the Federation. Eight members ride in parades and compete in barrel races, a test of skill that requires weaving in and out of rows of barrels at top speed. Debbie’s horse has a stall at Cedar Lane, but she, like everyone else, is worried over the fate of the soon-to-be-uprooted Federation horses over at the Hole.

Dennis Gonzalez is a part-time lifeguard who stables Tango, a chestnut Arabian, at a stable in the Hole. Though Gonzalez isn’t a member of the Federation (he’s white), he is sympathetic to Cleary and the others’ plight.

“It’s tough being a cowboy in East New York,” he says.

Any cowboy here could tell you about riding a horse from East New York to Brooklyn Heights through rush-hour traffic, or cite the merits of a particular brand of hoof oil, but they don’t know much about the land disputes and are reluctant to say much about them.

Department of Finance records show that most of the vacant land surrounding the stables was bought by Wildwood Construction in 2000. A spokesman for Wildwood, who would not give his name, confirms that Wildwood is also about to purchase the lot the stable is built on from its current owner, Paul Stabile.

“Horses are beautiful animals,” the Wildwood spokesman says, “nobody wants to kick them out. But those stables aren’t clean. We’re going to build two-story homes there.” Though Stabile did not wish to comment, he confirms that he is selling the land.

Gonzalez and his horse Tango are safe for now. The land underlying their tiny stable hasn’t yet been sold. But all the horse owners feel like they’re living on borrowed time. What they have here at the Hole isn’t much. Rain causes the area to flood frequently and the dogs that guard the stables barely keep the rats under control.

For people like Gonzalez and Cleary, there aren’t many alternatives.

“I’m going to look at a stable up in the Bronx next week,” Cleary says, “but even if I can afford the place, it’s not gonna be easy getting up there. I live in Canarsie, Brooklyn.”

Cleary leads Dalton into his stall. As Dalton pokes his head out to nuzzle with his neighbor, a bay quarter horse, Cleary gently pushes an orange cat from a bale of hay, breaking off a flake for his horse.

“I’ve got a lot of lessons with kids scheduled for next week. Problem is, I don’t know if me and Dalton will be here.”

Research assistance: Danial Adkison