Who'll hold their horses?

City angers arabbers, denying their retired animals a home

October 16, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore institution of vendors hawking produce from colorful horse-drawn wagons is about to receive a major makeover, but some involved with the city's 19th-century tradition are unhappy with the proposed changes.

In August, officials condemned a West Baltimore stable housing 51 horses and ponies but pledged to help the quaint practice endure. A team of city officials began working with the street peddlers, known as arabbers, to find a suitable place to board their animals.

Now officials are overhauling the loosely regulated practice of arabbing, enforcing permit requirements for vendors and their animals, and replacing the ramshackle stable with a new facility to be built near the B&O Railroad Museum in Southwest Baltimore. Horse owners will be required to pay to board their animals at the new facility, and only working horses will be allowed to reside there.

But the changes have caused angst in arabber circles and created friction among family members in the business. They have also drawn the ire of retired arabbers and those keeping horses as pets who feel they, too, are entitled to use the new stable. Citing decades-old neighborhood affiliations and family-like bonds with their animals, these horse owners insist they are as much a part of the arabbing tradition as hawkers commanding produce-laden carts.

"I feel like the city has turned its back on us," said Dorothy Johns, who said her grandmother Mildred Allen was one of the first black female arabbers in the city. She said the city's rules are unfair to her family, whose members toiled in the trade for decades.

"They don't understand the relationship between the horses and us," said Johns, who owns three horses. "We're not asking for a handout. We're asking for a place for our horses, just like the rest of the owners." City officials say their priority is to preserve the vending tradition and encourage it as a viable business. They also point to new Health Department regulations that prohibit horses in Baltimore that are not used for selling produce or giving carriage rides.

"How do I tell the citizens of Baltimore, many of whom are in great need, that we are going to find funds to accommodate recreational equestrian users before we can find funds for streets and houses?" said Doug McCoach, director of the city's Planning Department, part of a team of officials who have been meeting weekly with horse owners.

"Arabbing as an institution has been moving along on its own without any city oversight," he said. "It's been almost an underground economy, and now is a chance to support them and mainstream them."

Officials envision a 35-stall stable at the dead end of South Fulton Avenue in Southwest Baltimore. McCoach would not give a specific cost estimate but said city officials hope to move quickly, with plans to put out requests for proposals next month.

When officials shuttered the stable in the 1900 block of Retreat St., the Maryland Jockey Club agreed to house the animals beneath a tent in the Pimlico parking lot for 90 days. City leaders recently asked for an extension until the end of December.

But some observers are skeptical about whether merchants can afford the city's plan. At a meeting discussing the charge for boarding horses, city officials tossed out a figure of $400 per stall per month, Johns said. Officials would not confirm that number, saying only that they hope to seek grants to offset costs.

"If you got 30 horses, that's $12,000 a month - that's ridiculous," said Felix Wills, 66, who boarded a horse at the Retreat Street stable, but stopped arabbing about 10 years ago. "The city doesn't get that kind of rent on M&T Bank Stadium. Besides, these guys just can't afford it."

Wills said he and a half-dozen horse owners paid the Retreat Street operator $150 a month to board horses.

Horse owners charge that the city has not applied the new rules fairly, saying one horse owner is being allowed to bring 19 horses to the new stable, even though only six are used for vending. City leaders maintain all animals housed in the new location will be working horses.

Johns' father, Ophas Allen, said he simply wants what is best for his four horses, who were his vending partners until two years ago, when he stopped arabbing because of health problems.

Allen, 77, said he was 10 when his mother gave him his first pet, a caramel-colored pony with white spots named Bobby. Allen was so excited about the gift, he said he slept with it for several nights. Growing up poor in West Baltimore, Allen said, he was forced to quit school by age 16 to help his mother in the trade.

"I raised my children on the wagon," he said. "It was rough, but I had to do it because I didn't have the proper education. I had to do it the best way I could."

Allen reasons the only way he can keep his horses is to return to arabbing, which he dreads.

"I'm scared to get out in the street - someone might rob me, kill me," he said.

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