Is the Arabbers' time up?

April 19, 1994

Arabbers -- itinerant street vendors selling vegetables and fruit from horse-drawn carts -- have continued to be a warm-season tradition in Baltimore long after they have disappeared from many other cities. Now their time may be up.

"I think it makes sense to gradually phase out the a-rab horses," says city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson. "As we all know, horses may not be best kept in cities like Baltimore."

The threat to this African-American tradition has been caused by some of the remaining stable owners themselves. During the record freezes of the past winter, a number of malnourished horses were rescued from rotting, dilapidated stables. Many had severe foot wounds because a vendor had used roofing nails to shoe them.

This kind of cruelty, be it the product of negligence or ignorance, is unconscionable. The question is, though, whether abuses like these warrant the demise of arabbing in Baltimore or whether the tradition can be kept going by better enforcement of animal welfare regulations and other measures.

This is an intriguing question, particularly in the light of the concentrated efforts by the city and non-profit organizations to revive Sandtown-Winchester.

It so happens that, for several generations, that West Baltimore neighborhood was the center of arabbing. The horse and buggy vendors' activity began a steep and irreversible decline in the 1970s when local truck farms disappeared and fruit and vegetable merchandising concentrated in supermarkets. But that was only one of the reasons.

Roland L. Freeman, the Washington photographer who was raised in Baltimore and has documented arabbing traditions, was a budding fourth-generation vendor when he decided to get out of his male relatives' traditional business in the 1950s.

"I realized how few ever 'made it' from arabbing to what might be considered more 'normal and successful' lives, and how many of us were considered marginal, were treated marginally, and indeed learned to see and conduct ourselves as such," he wrote in his fascinating 1989 work, "The Arabbers of Baltimore."

As the tradition of arabbing families ended, the standards of upkeep for the horses and stables declined. Oftentimes, horses would be rented by people with little knowledge of arabbing customs or the animals involved.

But with so many city and private-sector efforts now directed at increasing Baltimore's attraction as a tourist destination, isn't there a way to keep arabbing alive? The colorful carts, the shouts of the vendors -- these are part of the city's flavor we would hate to lose.

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