A-rabbers file suit against city Vendors aim to stop alleged attempts to shut down businesses

July 10, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

A coalition of a-rabbers, the itinerant vendors who have a long Baltimore history of selling fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts, filed a class-action federal lawsuit yesterday seeking to block what they call city efforts to shut them down.

The a-rabbers, who have sold their produce on city streets for more than 150 years, have struggled to stay afloat amid not only changing times but also changing city ordinances that are clamping down on them.

"If Baltimore loses the a-rabbers, a bit of the city soul is lost," said Steve Blake, the president of the Arabber Preservation Society, which filed the suit against the city in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "Some city agencies have tried to get us in every way they can, including subterfuge and over-regulation."

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of about 26 Baltimore a-rabbers who Blake says earn between $12,000 and $30,000 a year, seeks to stop the city from "harassing" the vendors and also to permanently lift a closure order for their horse stable on Carlton Street.

At issue is the city's attempt to regulate the a-rabbers' three horse stables. Without the stables, the a-rabbers say, they cannot maintain their businesses.

City Animal Control officials issued the order March 26 after noting in reports that the stable's conditions did not appear up to code. For example, city workers said, the horses at the stable were overweight and in need of better care.

Animal Control officers listed 22 conditions that needed to be improved at the stable, including rodent and pest control, stall cleanliness and general upkeep.

But in their lawsuit, the a-rabbers contend that city regulations "are unrealistic and burdensome and were promulgated to harass the a-rabbers and to force [them] out of business by shutting down their stables."

The vendors also operate stables on Bruce and Retreat streets.

After an April 2 hearing, Animal Control officers temporarily lifted the closure order and agreed to set another hearing date to discuss the problems outlined in their inspection reports, the lawsuit said. But no date has been set, it said.

Blake and the workers at the Carlton Street stable say they have renovated the horse stables to satisfy city officials' requests.

"See, we just renovated this," Blake said yesterday while giving a brief tour of the Carlton Street stable, where horses such as Diamond, Dynamite and Snake-Eye are housed. "It's light and airy."

Sleeping in a chair in the middle of the stable, under a picture of Jesus, was an elderly man described by Blake as "Pistol, who's been the stable master here since the 1920s."

Baltimore health commissioner Peter Beilenson, who oversees the Animal Control bureau, said yesterday that he agreed a-rabbers have a place in the pages of Baltimore history. But they may not have a place in future pages if they don't improve conditions for the horses, he said.

"The a-rabbers of 150 years ago didn't have their horses clomping around city streets with huge cars whizzing by them," Beilenson said. "In the last year, we had two horses killed by

cars, one right down on Pratt Street."

Beilenson said the quality of the stables is also a concern of city officials. "We want to make sure the horses are being properly cared for," he said. "Other than that, I would simply say that I think the a-rabbers are being treated fairly."

The horses, carts and harnesses at the a-rabber stables are rented to the vendors for $15 to $20 per day. Typically, the a-rabber will buy a load of produce from the Jessup wholesale food markets and sell it from his rented cart at retail prices.

For many years, battles have been waged between the vendors and city leaders. In 1967, a rift between then-City Council President William Donald Schaefer and the a-rabbers culminated a protest outside City Hall.

"We drove around and around until they listened to us," said Albert Ennis, who owns three of the horses at the Carlton Street stable. "Most a-rabbers are guys just trying to support their families."

Ennis said a protest of a-rabbers around City Hall probably wouldn't work now.

"They've changed so many of the rules now, I doubt that they would let us protest," Ennis said. "Besides, you can't circle City Hall anymore. They don't let horses down some of those streets."

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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