Baltimore's Threatened Arabbers

April 25, 1994

Many older residents of the Baltimore region have vivid memories of itinerant street vendors who sold fish, oysters, vegetables and fruit from their horse-drawn carts and who advertised their wares with such nearly-undecipherable yells as "Annarannall loopes" (Anne Arundel cantaloupes).

In the decades since World War II, this merchandising tradition has been rapidly disappearing. Now it is threatened with a final blow. Upset about several instances of mistreatment of horses, city officials want to ban arabbers altogether. "I think it makes sense to gradually phase out the arab horses," explains Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner. "As we all know, horses may not be best kept in cities like Baltimore."

Cruelty to horses -- whether it is the product of negligence or ignorance -- is unconscionable. We wonder, though, whether such abuses warrant the demise of arabbing or whether the tradition can be rebuilt by better enforcement of animal welfare regulations and other measures.

This is a particularly important question now that the Schmoke administration has chosen tourism and the hospitality industry as an economic development tool for Baltimore. What better way to enliven the downtown area than reintroducing colorfully dressed arab horses and vendors who know how to take care of them?

The recent cases of ill-treatment of horses speak volumes about the decline of standards in arabbing, which was a particularly strong African-American tradition in Sandtown-Winchester. The careful training began weakening when desegregation opened doors to blacks. Thus, Neal Janey could go to law school and become a judge and city solicitor unlike his family elders who had made their living by arabbing. This is just one example.

Roland Freeman was a fourth-generation arabber when he "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 became a photographer and chronicler of African-American folkways. His 1989 book, "The Arabbers of Baltimore," is the standard work on the subject.

For various reasons connected with changes in lifestyle and society, arabbing may no longer be a viable merchandising concept. But if applied selectively in tourist areas, it is a tradition that could be preserved and revived.

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