On a Monday night two weeks after Baltimore City Animal Control officers raided the arabber stables on South Carlton Street in West Baltimore, Dion Dorsey, 37, still can’t believe he’s staring at an empty stable—it’s the eve of a snowstorm and hysterical talk usually brings brisk business for the produce peddlers.
“All we know is some people out of work,” says Dorsey, a third-generation arabber, who has raised a family of three kids from the horse-and-wagon trade. “And a whole lot of people are hurting.”
On Jan. 13, Animal Control officers confiscated 14 horses, a pig, a goat, and two chickens from the stable, one of the only three remaining stables in the city for arabbers, whose trade dates back to the 19th century and these days are often the only source for fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce. The city cited lack of heat and an abundance of cobwebs, charges that arabbers say don’t warrant confiscation.
“If this was a restaurant they wouldn’t run them out of business,” says Dan Van Allen, president of the Arabbers Preservation Society. “I think they are picking on the arabbers because they are poor.”
Talk to those in historic preservation circles and they say that the arabbers are much more than a stubborn old-world trade that still yields some money. “This is a tradition that you don’t find in other places,” says Clifford Murphy, director of Maryland Traditions at the Maryland State Arts Council.
In Baltimore, the horse and cart still survives as both a peddler’s pursuit and as a tenuous, folky, iconic symbol that outsiders marvel at and some locals see as a traffic hazard: creaking red-and-yellow wagons pulled by ponies with jangling harnesses. It’s the kind of spectacle that makes folklorists reach for recording equipment, artists for brushes, and the commuters for the horn.
These folks go by the very not-politically-correct name arabbers—derived from the term “street arab” and thought to hail from England and used to describe nomadic city peddlers—and have been eulogized for decades though they yet stubbornly survive to service neighborhoods where urban blight continues to make startling gains.
But confrontations like the recent one on Carlton Street aren’t new. In 2007, the city shut down an arabber stable in a dilapidated warehouse on Retreat Street, an alley off Pennsylvania and North avenues. What followed was a surreal exodus story within city boundaries. The horses lived under tents, first on the parking lots outside Pimlico Race Track and then wedged under a bridge on Monroe Street across the railroad tracks from Carroll Park.
In the meantime, the city, the arabbers’ supporters, and nonprofit foundations tried to hammer out a deal not only to rebuild the stable elsewhere but to create an educational facility. They were basically trying to do what the Baltimore Museum of Industry does with its living history exhibits where children would experience live horses in the city. The idea had some momentum. The city had allocated $500,000 for the proposed stable project and organizers were looking to plug the arabbers into the Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail celebrating Pennsylvania Avenue’s once-esteemed jazz scene. Despite promising talks of having the new stable on the B&O Museum property with a tourist train running in between, the arabber historic-heritage idea evaporated with in-fighting and mixed signals coming from the city. Some horses were sold, some were taken to Days End Farm, and others were taken to sympathetic horse pastures before the horses were allowed to return to the city to the Fremont Avenue stable near the Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue.
After the most recent confrontation, the question again is, does the city have the wherewithal to save what some see as a heritage distinctive to Baltimore and at least an economic resource in the tourism trade?
Murphy believes the arabbers’ longevity is related to the city and state’s long equestrian history; the peddlers’ decades-long relationship with the Amish, from whom they get their horses; and the city’s elaborate alley network. Not only is Baltimore known for the alley house, but the city’s swaths of disinvestments creates byways for the horses. The rolling blight also creates what social scientists call food deserts, big chunks of communities with little to no access to fresh and healthy foods. Linda Brown Rivelis of Campaign Consultation, Inc. sees the arabbers as a way to address these fresh-food wastelands and after the Retreat Street debacle, she tried to create a horizontal food chain where the arabbers would get produce from nearby farms, some within the city, instead of going out to warehouses in Jessup. But she found the urban farms were involved in their own survival battles, just trying to make ends meet.
To follow arabbers on their routes is to witness how a single person with a horse and cart can serve as a needle and thread, pulling the frayed fabric of a community together. As they roll down the street, people stop what they’re doing. Kids slam on their coaster brakes, a beautician will step from her shop, and elderly women will anticipate their knock on the door.
“It inserts a kind of humanity,” said Murphy. “The reoccurring theme in terms of the philosophy repeated by arabbers, teaching young kids to work and care for animals is a humanizing thing. And there is a lot of things dehumanizing by living in a difficult urban environment.”
I’ve seen this in a senior center lobby when the women all but cheer when Keith “Superstar” Brooks shows up after waiting weeks to get his license back, or when a woman leans out of her second-floor window and lets a dollar bill flutter down in the summer air to an arabber’s open hand. Just as powerful is watching the arabbers walk down a municipal hallway or any hallway and see people stop what they’re doing and recollect times they bought from the wagon. It’s another world that Baltimore has that other places don’t.
But while rich in tradition, being poor makes the arabbers vulnerable, says Jeff Buchheit, executive director of the Baltimore National Heritage Area. “The sad thing is we don’t appreciate something until it’s gone,” he says.
Rivelis believes that if the arabbers are going to find stability, it’s not going to come from the city but from the private and the nonprofit sector. “I would throw the challenge back out to the community: Is this something we want, then we do it?” she says.
After a meeting of the Arabber Preservation Society, James Chase, otherwise known as Boom Boom or Fruit, sat with a wiped-out expression on his face. Some of his horses had survived the Retreat Street ordeal, and he knew full well the struggle that the Carlton Street stables faced. He believed he had to somehow turn the Fremont Stable into an educational center. He broached this idea to Anthony Pressley, the director of community resources for the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation, who in his spare time is now looking to help the arabbers. Pressley said he saw the arabbers’ hold on the community at a block party last month and after a tour of the stable grounds, he too had visions of an educational center. “I have personally learned to appreciate the historic value they bring to the city and the impact to the community, if only they can reach their potential,” Pressley says.
Despite such talk about their historic clout, Chase and his wife Shawnta left the meeting weary until a man popped out of the office as if looking for an autograph. He said when he first moved to Baltimore 15 years ago he couldn’t understand this spectacle of horse and wagon and thought, “they need to get out the way.” But then he learned about their heritage and looked forward to seeing them.
Chase and Shawnta smiled and took the elevator back to the street. Check out a gallery of the stables HERE
With the Carlton Street Stable shut down, a reporter and a photographer visited the Fremont Stable for a little slice of life: