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Mobtown Beat

Horse Sense

Baltimore City and B&O Railroad Museum Team Up to Construct a New Stable For Displaced Arabbers

Martha Cooper
A horse trots in the lot where temporary tent stables for arabber ponies are set up underneath the Monroe Street Bridge in West Baltimore.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 2/11/2009

After almost two years of living as exiles in their own city, it looks like Baltimore's arabbers--African-American produce peddlers who for generations have sold their goods from horse-drawn carts--may finally be moving into a permanent home ("All the Pretty Horses," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 22, 2007; "Horse Nonsense," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 3, 2007; "Homeless Horses," Quick and Dirty, Mobtown Beat, April 23, 2008; "In-Stable-ility," Mobtown Beat, April 30, 2008).

According to city officials, a new stable for the community of arabbers removed from a city-owned building on Retreat Street in 2007 will be built on property owned by the B&O Railroad Museum just across the train tracks from Carroll Mansion in Southwest Baltimore. Right now, the arabbers and about 20 of their horses are operating out of temporary tent stables on a muddy lot next to the railroad tracks under the Monroe Street bridge in West Baltimore. Construction on a new stable, the arabbers hope, could begin by the end of 2009.

"I got my beliefs," says Donald "Manboy" Savoy, the elder of the community of displaced arabbers, who owns the majority of the horses with his son Donald Savoy Jr. "They promised they are going to do something. I believe them."

On Aug. 8, 2007, the city condemned the dilapidated stables the arabbers were using to house their horses and carts, located on Retreat Street, an alley near North and Pennsylvania avenues. City inspectors deemed the building unsafe and in danger of collapse, so the city condemned it and promised to move the horses to a temporary location until it could find a suitable place to build new stables. The city even held a press conference at which Deputy Mayor Andrew Franks stressed the "importance of preserving the rich traditions of the arabbers of Baltimore City."

But since then, the city has not come through on its promises to find the horses a new home. Since the Retreat Street condemnation, a number of plans have been proposed only to fall through, including a plan to bring the arabbers into the effort to revitalize the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. When the stables were closed, the horses were first transported to the Bowie Race Track in Prince George's County, then to tent stables set up in the parking lot of Pimlico Race Track. In December 2007, they were once again moved, this time to the temporary tent stables on Monroe Street. In April 2008, Mayor Sheila Dixon said that the city had done enough to help keep the arabbing tradition alive: "It's important that they pull themselves together to sustain themselves," she said last spring, and the city said it would only help the arabbers if they put together a business plan.

But when the B&O Railroad Museum offered to lease a site to the city for one dollar per year on which to build a permanent stable for the horses, the city accepted. According to Mayor Sheila Dixon, it was the museum's involvement that made it feasible for the city to build the new stable.

"If it wasn't for the B&O stepping forward, along with what we are doing in the city, I think we would have probably lost [the arabbers]," she says. "We're excited about it,"

A new nonprofit organization, called Arabber Heritage Inc., was incorporated with the state on Jan. 9. The organization, which includes members of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative (PARC), the B&O Railroad Museum, and the Arabber Preservation Society, will manage the new stable.

Dan Van Allen, an occasional City Paper contributor and president of the Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that was set up in 1994 to help the arabbers maintain the Retreat Street stable when it was still standing, says he is guardedly optimistic that the city and this new nonprofit may actually come through.

"I do feel it's credible," he says. "I don't know why, but I'm hoping they will follow through."

Part of the reason for that optimism is the fact that Courtney Wilson, director of the B&O Museum, has taken an interest in the horsemen and -women whose temporary stables are located on the far western edge of the museum's property. Wilson declined several requests for interviews, but the arabbers themselves say that visitors to the B&O were intrigued by the goings-on at the stable, visible from the windows of the antique train that takes tourists on rides past Carroll Mansion. The intent is to incorporate the arabbers with the railroad museum by making the new stables a stop on the antique-rail tour.

"[The arabbers] have been interacting with the tourists and the museum really likes it," Van Allen says. "They want to keep them there."

The city will provide a $35,000 per year grant to the Arabber Heritage organization, which will manage the new stables. The city will diminish the allocation each year, until the operation becomes self-sustaining.

"We are working on a strategy to make sure the arabbers as a culture can keep going and have a home in Baltimore," says James Hamlin, director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Corp. and a board member of Arabber Heritage.

Early on in the arabber saga, Hamlin had advocated for preservation of the arabber way of life as part of the city's historic African-American heritage. If this new stable is built, Hamlin and others hope, it will make it possible to connect the produce-peddlers to the African-American historic tourism. A Heritage Trail has been established along Pennsylvania Avenue that points out Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's childhood home, the Mitchell family residence, and the location where the famed jazz club the Royal Theater once stood. Ironically, if the arabbers were still at their Retreat Street stables, not far from these historic markers, they could have been another major anchor in the Heritage Trail. But Hamlin thinks that right now it's important to preserve the tradition by getting arabbers involved in both the tourist trade and also the practical trade of selling fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods throughout the city.

"The worst thing in the world was in 1971 when the Royal Theater was taken down," Hamlin says. "We don't want this [the arabbers] taken away."

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Related by keywords

For Want of a Horse : Will this generation of arabbers be Baltimore's last? 4/28/2010

In-Stable-Ity : City Says It No Longer Can Help Arabbers Find New Stables 4/30/2008

Horse Nonsense : City Tells Displaced Arabbers They Can't Bring All Horses To New Stables 10/3/2007

All the Pretty Horses : Arabbers Wait And Wonder What The City Has Planned For Them 8/22/2007

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