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Horse Nonsense

City Tells Displaced Arabbers They Can't Bring All Horses To New Stables

Christopher Myers
IN-STABLE-ITY: James "Boom Boom" Chase and Dorothy Johns are afraid they may lose some of their horses if the city doesn't allow nonworking horses in its new B&O Railroad stables on Pratt Street.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 10/3/2007

It's been over six weeks since the city closed down the stables on Retreat Street that housed 51 horses owned by local arabbers, merchants who sell fresh produce in the streets from horse-drawn carts. Since Aug. 8, when the arabbers were evicted from the city-owned stable building, the horses have been put up in a temporary stable, under a festival tent at Pimlico Racecourse. As winter nears, pressure is mounting to find a permanent home for the horses; Pimlico has given the city until Dec. 31 to move the horses from the grounds, and the city's planning department may move the animals to stables being planned on the grounds of the B&O Railroad Museum on West Pratt Street. However, the city has declared that 15 of the 50 horses at Pimlico are not officially "working" horses, and it is refusing to make room for them at the new stables.

"The city is committed to finding a home for the working horses," city planning director Douglas McCoach told the horse owners at a meeting two weeks ago. "However, the city shouldn't be in the position of finding a home for horses kept as pets."

The decision has owners of the excluded horses fuming. They say the city, which promised it would not leave the horses out on the street after it condemned the dilapidated brick building they called home, has broken its promise to the arabber community.

Arabber Dorothy Johns, whose grandmother was one of the first African-American arabbers, is angry about the city's decision. Her father, Ophas Allen, and uncle Eugene "Fatback" Allen are elders in the trade. She says the city based its plans to move the 35 horses to the B&O stable on information it received from the man who is considered the patriarch of the Retreat Street group: Donald "Manboy" Savoy Sr., viewed by some to be the economic engine of this arabber community. Savoy Sr. had 19 horses at Retreat Street. He does not hawk produce from a wagon himself; rather, he leases his horses and wagons to other arabbers who need them. All of his horses have been approved to move to the new stables.

"We were all together from the start," Johns says of the Retreat Street arabbers, some of whom now fear they will be exiled after the move. Johns says the city is not uniformly defining who is an arabber and who is not. For example, she says, she has an arabber's license, while Savoy Sr., who is advising the city, does not. Johns has three horses, one of which is a retired working horse that would not be allowed to live at the new stable. "Why break us up?" she wonders.

Savoy Sr., 74, says he is not trying to exclude anyone and it's the city's decision--not his--to determine which horses will be allowed to move to the new stables.

"I don't try to condemn nobody," he says. "But I told those guys when they got those horses for riding or whatever what was going to happen."

The city's focus on working horses vs. pet horses has inadvertently forced the question: What, exactly, does it mean to be an arabber? Those left out of the city's horse-relocation plan may not technically peddle wares, but they have deep ties to the horse-powered produce peddling tradition in Baltimore. They may be retired arabbers, such as Frank "Sugarbowl" Winchester. Or perhaps they, like Savoy Sr., lease horses to other arabbers. Eugene "Fatback" Allen used to keep his horses at a stable on Whatcoat Street, until the city condemned it in the 1990s to make way for urban renewal. His horses were relocated to the Retreat Street stables, and now some of them are no longer considered "working" and will be excluded from the B&O stable.

Those on the list for exclusion say they and their horses--all of them--are as entitled to space at the new stables as much as everyone else. They maintain that arabbing isn't just selling wares off the wagon; instead, they say, it's about having a relationship with horses in the city, hanging around stables to teach others (especially kids) how to do the chores and care for animals. Many of them say they became hooked on the horses as children, and hanging out at the stables kept them from the pitfalls of street life common in inner-city neighborhoods.

James "Boom Boom" Chase , Savoy Sr.'s grandson, says he was on the verge of tears when he had to tell his son that his pony and nine other horses he owns weren't going to be offered spots at the new stable.

"Every day he worries me about coming up here," says Chase, who hasn't mustered the nerve to tell his daughters about the predicament yet. "I just can't bring him around here knowing that I'm not going to have them--it'll break his heart."

Chase says he went "horse crazy," buying 10 horses, but says he rents them out for special events and functions. He represents the modern-day incarnation of an arabber: someone who evolved from the horse-and-wagon peddling tradition to finding other ways to make a living working with horses. Over the years, Chase has taken other Baltimore horsepeople up to Amish markets to purchase their animals, and today other arabbers seek him out for his knowledge. Now he's faced with the prospect of losing all of that--his living, his position in the arabber world, his horses. He says if all the Retreat Street horsepeople would cut back on the number of horses they owned just a little bit there could be room at the new stable for everyone.

"I don't like to say [the word] `arabbing horses' out of my mouth," he says. "I just want to say `horses.' All of us were in that stable together."

McCoach says the city recognizes that arabbing is a cultural institution in Baltimore, and he wants to preserve the horse and cart business, which is teetering on the verge of extinction. In order to do that, he says it is critical that the city finds a new stable quickly.

"There is a huge sense of urgency here," McCoach says at a recent city meeting with arabbers. The City Council, he says, is not taking any new legislation for 2007, so it will not be able to change zoning ordinances in time to get a stable approved in a different location before the Dec. 31 deadline.

Olivia Farrow, the city's assistant commissioner for environmental health, says nonworking horses can stay at the Pimlico site until the others are moved. "When the work horses are moved out, the other horses are going to have to find a new home," she says during the meeting.

The animals approved for residence at the B&O site have been microchipped by the city (this was done, at first, without knowledge of the horses' owners), and the city Health Department has issued new regulations requiring all arabbers to hold two licenses: an arabbing license and a business license. The department also has begun to define working horses as animals used to haul produce carts or used in the carriage trade commonly around the Inner Harbor, Farrow says. She says the department based its definitions on the American Humane Society's recommendations that say nonworking horses should have green space for exercise; working horses get their exercise from working on the streets.

According to Dan Van Allen, president of the Arabber Preservation Society and an occasional City Paper contributor, the changes could damage the livelihood and health of the arabbing tradition. He says that allowing arabbers to have horses they can rent out for parties or to pull leisure carriages help offset costs of the arabber lifestyle. Most arabbers can't make enough money on produce sales alone.

"The arabbers is something that we have that is unique and they are trying to hang onto it and we appreciate that," Allen says, whose organization is an an advocacy group that sued the city for discrimination for spot-enforcing health regulations at stables owned by African-Americans. "Hopefully we can find a balance between working horses and pleasure horses."

Van Allen also says he wonders whether these new regulations will be applied to the arabbers operating out of two privately owned stables that operate in the city.

Last week, Chase walked through the temporary stables at Pimlico and pointed out six of his grandfather's horses that pull arabber carts: Rock Jughead Isaak, Lulu, Isaak, Houdini, Pearl and Polo. "The rest don't do [anything] but stand up," he says.

(Savoy Sr. says the extra horses are backup: "When you take a horse out, you need another one so they can rest. It also takes time to break them.")

Chase is reluctant to speak ill of his grandfather, who raised him. But he says he is frustrated that he is facing the prospect of losing all of his animals.

"How is the city going to determine which one arabs and which one doesn't?" he wants to know. "What are they going to do, hook the horses up the wagon and run tests?"

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Will this generation of arabbers be Baltimore's last?

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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

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

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