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Mobtown Beat

All the Pretty Horses

Arabbers Wait And Wonder What The City Has Planned For Them

Christopher Myers
RODE HARD AND PUT AWAY WET: Arabbers scramble to load their horses into trailers bound for a makeshift stable at Pimlico Race Course after the city condemned their retreat street stables.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/22/2007

Charles McLean stands lathered with more sweat than the horses he is tending in a large festival tent set up in a parking lot at Pimlico Race Course.

As temporary homes go, this one is not so bad--a nice bit of asphalt quickly converted into an equestrian refugee camp for about 50 horses, including miniature ponies and a mule. A breeze blows through the open tent and the horses happily chomp straw as McLean walks through their makeshift quarters. He pauses at a stall to have a word with Juvenile, a robust chestnut stallion, for trying to bite him.

"Get over there and have your time-out," McLean tells the horse. As if he understands, Juvenile leans up against the wall and watches McLean with big, sad eyes.

McLean, 47 grins, revealing a gold tooth embossed with a heart.

"He's homesick," he says. "They're all homesick."

McLean is talking about the horses, but he is also homesick. He, the horses, and a group of loose-knit, produce-peddling Baltimoreans, known as arabbers, were evicted from their stables on Aug. 8. They were housed in an old city-owned warehouse on Retreat Street, an alley that juts off a bleak segment of Pennsylvania Avenue. The building had fallen into such disrepair and was considered such a hazard that the city condemned it on July 31, giving the horses and their keepers just 14 days to leave the premises. They did not, however, offer the arabbers a new stable.

One other arabber stable still operates on Carlton Street in Southwest Baltimore, but the closing of the Retreat Street stable will have a significant impact on the patriarchs of a folk culture in Baltimore that has long revolved around selling fruits and vegetables out of horse-drawn carts to city dwellers. The practice, which dates back more than a century, gives the city a rural flavor and has given neighborhood kids who hang around the stables a chance to learn about horses--a unique opportunity in the inner city.

But now those horses, McLean, and the other arabbers are in limbo.

"Believe me, if you let one of them [horses] go, he would go down to Retreat Street by himself," McLean says.

Whether or not that horse would be welcomed at Retreat Stable, though, now a condemned and boarded-up building, is another story. The city has not decided whether it will pay for the repairs the warehouse needs to make it safe for habitation. For now the horses are safe at Pimlico while the city mulls alternate locations that could accommodate 50 horses. But politics--and the anticipation that few neighborhoods will want to host a bustling stable--could make the relocation difficult. So far, the city has considered an industrial spot on Fremont Avenue and a more bucolic location in West Baltimore near Leakin Park.

"To a certain extent all options are equal until we get the costs and the community issues that is associated with the site," says city planner Andrea Limauro, who has been working with the arabbers for just over a yearn. Until then, the future of the arabbers--the last horse-and-cart produce peddlers in the nation--is in the city's hands.

When the arabbers were first informed of their pending eviction, talk was terse in the blistering heat outside the stables. Midlevel officials from the city housing department and the mayor's office were, at first, unwilling to discuss relocation money or assistance with the move.

"What are we going to do?" Shantee Chase, wife of arabber Don James (also known as "Boom Boom" or "Fruit"), asked when the city came to talk to them. "Tie [the horses] to a tree?"

George Gilliam, of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative, has been working for years to get the arabbers plugged into the plans for a Baltimore Heritage Area that would bring tourism to the forlorn district once famous for its jazz scene ("Street of Dreams," Feature, Feb 2 and 9, 2005). He says he was shocked that the city was throwing the group out of its home base. He says he started making phone calls to the deputy mayor's office to let them know that the arabbers were going to be one of the cornerstones of the heritage area, a $400,000 city-funded concept. The looming eviction, Gilliam told City Hall, could extinguish the arabber way of life.

On Aug. 8, city housing inspectors found that electricity had been jury-rigged to the stable. Although the city had initially promised the arabbers 14 days to find a place for the horses, the city had to cut off electricity to the building for safety reasons and planned for the immediate removal of the horses.

"We didn't know what was going to happen that day," Gilliam says. "We didn't know if the horses were going to be in the street."

The city's top brass, which refused to commit to helping the arabbers just a day or two earlier, suddenly leapt into action. Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank, announced that the city recognized the "importance of preserving the rich traditions of the arabbers of Baltimore City."

He put to rest any notions that the arabbers were being evicted because the horses were sick or ill-tended.

"I just want to add or emphasize that every report we've gotten [shows] that these horses are in excellent condition and they have obviously been cared for," he said at a press conference on the eviction proceedings. "This is not the condition of the horses at all. This is about the condition of the building and safeguarding the horses and their caretakers."

The arabbers were evicted before a media gauntlet that watched as reluctant horses were loaded into trailers by their frazzled keepers and trucked up to Pimlico. Meanwhile, the city's top officials sat with stunned horsemen/women in a basement bowling alley at the Shake and Bake Recreation Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, assuring them that they'd find a more permanent place for the horses to go.

"You have my word today," announced deputy housing commissioner Reggie Scriber, "that as long as a I have air in my chest, as long as I'm part of this administration, we're going to do all that we can, all that we need to do to find a location that is suitable so this won't happen again."

It's been nearly two weeks, though, and the arabbers still don't have anywhere permanent to go. Most have not been able to work since being put out of their Retreat Street home base on Aug. 9. City planner Limauro says it is taking some time for the city to find a suitable location for the horses, carts, and peddlers to inhabit.

"It's not like relocating a mom-and-pop operation," Limauro says. "It's horses, and horses in a city are not as easily moved around as other kinds of business."

Many arabbers, including McLean, would like to see the city renovate the Retreat Street stable and bring it up to code so they can move the horses back in. The neighborhood groups in that area, however, are already eyeing the location and have earmarked it in the Penn North Area Master Plan as a residential/commercial zone. According to Annie Hall, president of the Penn North Neighborhood Association, the group does not mind having the arabbers in the community--it just doesn't want them on Retreat Street. Hall says last time she was in the old stables, they were not in good condition: "Half of the stables didn't have doors on them. It looked just deplorable, and that was two years ago."

Occasional City Paper contributor Dan Van Allen, president of the Arabber Preservation Society, which has represented the Retreat Street arabbers in its ongoing problems with the city, challenges the concept that the master plan reflects the whole community's opinion about relocating the arabbers. He thinks the city should put them back on Retreat Street once the stables have been repaired.

"I'm a little bit skeptical about this new location," he told city officials on the day of the eviction. "We have a location: Retreat Street. Have problems with the building? Fix the building."

The Arabber Preservation Society owns a plot of ground on North Fremont Avenue that is slated to be made into an Arabber Education Center, a centerpiece in the planned Baltimore Heritage Area. The center would serve as a landmark to bring attention to the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, once bustling with nightclubs but now a blighted area.

Deputy Mayor Frank calls the proposed Arabber Education Center, which currently houses the arabbers' red and yellow wagons and serves as a staging area where the men and women can load their produce onto their carts, an integral part of the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I have seen the plan that the Arabber Preservation Society plans [for Fremont]," he says. "We are committed, with the Housing Department, to moving those plans forward."

But if the city waits too long to figure out what to do with its displaced produce peddlers and their equines, some arabbers worry, there may not be many peddlers left to populate that center.

Back at the tent at Pimlico, Dorothy Johns, whose grandmother was one the city's first African-American woman arabbers, was appointed the group's spokeswoman. She says she wouldn't mind having the horses located around Leakin Park--a large area where the horses could graze and the arabbers could ride.

Meanwhile, McLean continues making his rounds up and down the aisles, introducing a reporter to horses that go by the names of Doughboy, Mr. Sunny, and Brandy. He stops to let some kids talk about their favorite horse, Blackjack. They say they like him because he has funny teeth and is so gentle all you have to do is just place the reins on the side of the neck and he'll go in that direction.

"This is our life right here," McLean says, clearly unwilling to let a temporary setback shut the arabbers down. "This is what I've been doing since I was 12, learning how to earn the dollar bill the right way. I like to see it go on, let the young ones take it over."

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Mobtown Beat archives

More Stories

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

Robert Strupp Leaving Community Law Center (4/8/2010)

Culture Shock (3/24/2010)
A subculture of the city's Latino community shows signs of growth

More from Charles Cohen

Divided Royalties (6/9/2010)
SoundExchange seeks out artists to give them money earned from digital transmissions

Horse Sense (2/11/2009)
Baltimore City and B&O Railroad Museum Team Up to Construct a New Stable For Displaced Arabbers

Feeling Blue (1/21/2009)
Some People Are Born Freaks. Jim Hall Turned Himself Into One.

Related by keywords

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

Horse Sense : Baltimore City and B&O Railroad Museum Team Up to Construct a New Stable For Displaced Arabbers 2/11/2009

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

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