A-rabs struggle to hold on

URBAN CHRONICLE

Peddlers: Along with dwindling ranks, they are threatened with the loss of their staging center.

July 22, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

AND NOW there are maybe half a dozen.

That's about how many a-rabs are left in Baltimore, selling fruits and vegetables out of their horse-drawn carts in a tradition that goes back to the mid-19th century.

The number is down from about two dozen a few years ago.

"We're just trying to hold on," said Donald Savoy, also known as Manboy, a 55-year-veteran of the business who is retired from the streets but still provides the horses used by most of the remaining a-rabs.

Now, along with their dwindling ranks, the peddlers are threatened with the loss of the West Baltimore "Arabber Center" -- the staging area where all but one of them load their carts and hitch up their horses.

The center, in a former lumber yard on Fremont Avenue behind the Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue, is owned by the Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit group that is marking its 10th year.

In a fund-raising letter this month, Daniel Van Allen, president of the society, wrote that the society "must raise $5,000 soon or we will be forced to close the Arabber Center."

That figure may be conservative. The center is facing a property tax bill for the current year of $3,758. In addition, the center owes the city back taxes, interest and penalties totaling $9,272 for the previous two tax years, according to records.

The fear is that if the taxes remain unpaid, the certificate could be bought at next year's tax sale, possibly leading to loss of the land.

Van Allen says the society has about $4,000 on hand, mostly from what's left of the April sale of a house in Southwest Baltimore that the group had once hoped to turn into an a-rab museum.

At its annual meeting Sunday, the group decided to study the sale of the Fremont Avenue property as well, Van Allen says. But he says the pressure to sell has lessened since the benefactor who lent the society the money to purchase the property three years ago is no longer insisting that her loan be immediately repaid.

At the center two days before the meeting, a couple of young a-rabs were preparing to hit the streets in the manner of their forebears.

Donald Savoy III, Manboy's grandson, described being an a-rab as "joyful."

"It's like meals on wheels," said Savoy, 27. "Some people can't get out" to go shopping.

But he acknowledged, "It's fading out."

Juan Shearin, 24, who began working as an a-rab with his grandfather when he was 8, said much the same thing. "A lot of us just fell off," he said.

A full-time cook at Martin's West, Shearin is an a-rab part time, "just like a hobby." Asked what's changed since he started, he answered: "You can say the public changed a lot. They tell you in a heartbeat, `I can go to the supermarket and get it cheaper.'"

Shearin has large watermelons for $8 each, peaches at 7 for $2, white corn at three ears for a dollar.

As soon as he hit the streets, he cajoled a female passer-by to buy a box of cherries for a buck. "They're sweet but not as sweet as you," he told the woman.

Besides serving as a staging area, Van Allen sees the Arabber Center as an alternative to the aging stables where the vendors' horses are kept on nearby Retreat Street -- a curving passageway so narrow that to call it an alley seems an exaggeration. The street is being eyed for redevelopment.

It was a crisis involving the condemnation of the Retreat Street stables that led to the creation of the Arabber Preservation Society in 1994. Van Allen, 51, who restores furniture for a living, said he got involved because he lives near another stable in Southwest Baltimore and relates to the a-rabs as "an entrepreneur" and a "preservationist by trade."

Half a dozen years ago, the society filed a lawsuit contending that the city harassed the a-rabs by enforcing standards at stables the vendors used and not elsewhere. Van Allen said the suit was settled out of court and that he hasn't heard of any recent complaints. A spokeswoman for the city health department said all three city stables met "minimum requirements" and that another inspection is due at the end of the month.

Van Allen said his organization has been similarly quiescent in recent years but says he wants to reinvigorate the group.

He is hoping the screening Sept. 9 of a documentary, We Are Arabbers, at Villa Julie College will help generate renewed interest in his group and the a-rabs themselves.

He calls the small number of remaining a-rabs "a shock" but says a-rabs are a resourceful bunch. "As long as there's a vacant lot, they've been able to find places to operate out of," he said.

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