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City Says It No Longer Can Help Arabbers Find New Stables

Frank Klein
HOME IS WHERE THE HORSES ARE: A group of Baltimore Arabbers discuss the city's recent announcement that it would not be building new stables to house the horses displaced when the city condemned their stables last year.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 4/30/2008

When Mayor Sheila Dixon was asked recently what would become of Baltimore's arabbers, a community of urban horsemen who hawk fruits and vegetables from the back of horse-drawn carts who were displaced last August when the city condemned their stables, she was blunt.

"They are a business," she said. "If they are going to operate as a business, then they got to get themselves to the level to sustain themselves."

That's a turnaround from the city's position last year, when its inspectors found numerous violations at the city-owned Retreat Street building that housed the horses and carts many of the city's arabbers use to make their living. The city's housing department evicted about 50 horses from the building on Aug. 7, condemned the building, and publicly promised to help find new stables for them ("All the Pretty Horses," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 22, 2007).

"We are going to own this problem for the community," Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank announced at the time. "We are going to solve it."

Now Dixon says the city is not "responsible for the arabbers" and told a reporter at a recent groundbreaking event in Curtis Bay that "we are working with them, we are helping them, but it's going to be up to the arabbers" to solve their own problem.

After the city removed the horses from Retreat Street, it moved them briefly to Bowie, in Prince George's County, then to a parking-lot tent at Pimlico Race Course. In the fall, tentative plans were announced that the city would build and operate stables on Fulton Street near the B&O Railroad Museum. The city's planning department held a series of meetings to address the stable construction. Architects and engineers were consulted, and the city discussed having the Pennsylvania Area Redevelopment Collaborative, which views the arabbers as a possible tourist attraction for the revitalization of the Pennsylvania Avenue area of West Baltimore, manage the stables. In December, no plans had been finalized and the horses were moved once again to makeshift stables, this time on Monroe Street in Southwest Baltimore. The horses and their handlers spent the winter on the forlorn corner of B&O Railroad property across the street from Carroll Park, along with abandoned rail cars, encroaching mud, and crumbling buildings. The city put the tents underneath the Monroe Street bridge, for shelter, graded a turnout spot for the horses, and put up some sheds on the lot.

The city had already disappointed many arabbers when it refused to house all the horses displaced from Retreat Street--any nonworking horses, including retired animals and horses kept as pets, would have to find a new home ("Horse Nonsense," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 3). Some arabbers felt the city was backing down on its promise not to put any horses out on the street; since then, things have gotten worse.

On April 9, City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake questioned the administration's request for $65,000 to provide security at arabbers' stables, then detailed in an e-mail some $500,000 that has been earmarked to help the arabbers out of their predicament: $150,000 from the Department of Planning; $90,000 from the Baltimore Development Corp.; $150,000 from the Department of Public Works; and $150,000 from the Department of Housing. She says the city is facing a particularly tight budget this year, and she has a problem spending that much money to assist such an antiquated lifestyle, which she says is likely to go extinct anyway. Rawlings-Blake says she would like to see a business plan from the arabbers before the city approves any expenditures for their cause.

"I'm almost loathe to think what the [community] advocates that I have met with over the last month would do to me or say to me if they saw my name next to $500,000 for stables at this point," she says in an interview.

It is unclear what the status is of plans to work with the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative to help with the stables "I'm being told that there is no funding for a stable and really the city does not want to get into the horse business or the stable business," says James Hamlin, director of the Pennsylvania Avenue group.

Sterling Clifford, spokesman for the mayor's office, says the city is still negotiating on the construction of stables, but he declines to elaborate.

"This is obviously a historic, significant phenomenon, and there is a lot of interest in preserving this history," he notes. "But there is a limit on what we can subsidize."

Not surprisingly, some arabbers are upset that the city is backing out of its promise.

"The city hasn't kept their part of the bargain," says Eugene "Fatback" Allen, a 78 -year-old retired arabber, who urged his fellow horsemen last summer to view the city's "gilded promises" skeptically.

Dan Van Allen, an occasional City Paper contributor and president of the Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit formed in 1994 to preserve and support the horse-cart vendors in Baltimore, has been critical of the city's relocation promises since the beginning. He says the city would have spent less money rehabbing the condemned Retreat Street stables than searching for and building new ones. He says the Preservation Society is contemplating legal action,

"[The city] moved them here with all the promises, and now if they drop out it will be pretty sad, and they may be more liable than they say they are," Van Allen says, while walking through the Monroe Street grounds.

Aside from the stables on Retreat Street, the only other arabber stables in the city are on Carlton Street in Southwest Baltimore, where only one arabber plies his trade, and on Bruce Street, owned by arabber Ed Chapman, who has retired from the business.

"Right at this point in time, there is a culture that could die right before our eyes, or we could educate the young people and learn the significance of the industry of the arabs," says George Gilliam, executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative. Since 2003 his organization has been pushing for the construction of an Arabbing Preservation Center on a vacant lot on Fremont Avenue owned by the Arabbers Preservation Society. The center could serve as a source of fresh produce for the surrounding neighbors and also as a cornerstone for the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, which was once a thriving African-American community.

Gilliam's organization helped keep the horses from being turned out into the streets in August, when the Retreat Street stables were first condemned, by urging high-ranking city officials to step in and help the arabbers. But since then, the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative has been accused of giving preferential treatment to particular arabbers while leaving others out in the cold.

Dorothy Johns is a horse owner and spokeswoman for an arabbing family named Allen that has been in the business for generations. She says the arabbing community does not consider the Pennsylvania Avenue group its representative; rather than have stables managed by someone else, she says, the arabbers ought to have their own space. She says there needs to be room for all the arabbers and their horses--retired or not. She says the retired arabbers offer a unique historic perspective on the trade and ought to be included in whatever plans are being made.

"All we know is we are here," Johns says. "And they are saying no more money. We didn't want this in the first place."

During a recent visit to the Monroe Street tent-stables, arabber Leonard "Felix" Wills stood on the gravel horse-turnout area and suggest that it might be time to march on City Hall. Back in the 1970s, arabbers did indeed ride their horses and wagons around City Hall to draw attention to a dispute the community was having with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

"Gather up former arabbers," Wills says. "Old arabbers, push them in wheelchairs, I don't care. Get them to City Hall. They're going to hear us."

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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)
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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

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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