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For Want of a Horse

Will this generation of arabbers be Baltimore's last?

Photographs by Frank Klein
Dorothy Johns (left) stands with her father Ophas Allen (front right) outside the carlton street stable where they keep their horses.
Michael Garrett, Dorothy Johns' nephew, takes one of the Carlton Street horses for a ride.
Arabber Donald Savoy, Jr.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 4/28/2010

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At a recent class at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in the rolling hills of Howard County, a trainer holds up the skeletal remains of a horse's foreleg. "This is ringbone," she says, pointing to a bony growth. She proceeds to detail other afflictions of the horse, from melanoma of the anus to Cushing's disease to ulcers. Many of those in the audience are newcomers to the equine world, but at least three of them--the only African-Americans in the room--have spent much of their lives around horses.

Donald Savoy Jr., his nephew James Chase, and his cousin Donte Miller are members of one of Baltimore's last families of arabbers--street vendors who sell produce from horse-drawn wagons. In March, the men signed an agreement with the city to reclaim horses that were seized last fall after Animal Control officers found standing water, mud, and a rat infestation in the city-owned tent stables they occupied in Southwest Baltimore. Along with attending the two-day horse-care class, the men consented to provide a monthly report about the care of each horse, hold quarterly meetings with the Humane Society of the United States for a year, and relocate their horses to a licensed stable regulated by the Maryland Horse Industry Board. If they fail, nearly $50,000 in citations could be reinstated, and they could lose their horses for good.

It might seem a fitting time to write the eulogy for the venerable tradition of arabbing. Once a common trade along the East Coast, the practice only survives in Baltimore, and here just barely. But the fact is that journalists have been profiling the "last arabber" for decades. One headline from 1939 reads: "The Street Hawker Loses His Voice." In the 1960s, it was "Arabbers Expected to Disappear." In 1995, The New York Times ran a story entitled "Fewer Produce Peddlers Tread Baltimore Streets." Yet come warm weather, they're still out there clip-clopping down the street, albeit in small numbers.

"We've been hearing that this is the last arabber for 15 years," says Dan Van Allen, an occasional City Paper contributor and president of the Arabber Preservation Society, which formed in 1994. "They're so adaptable."

Still--at the risk of joining a long line of misguided oracles--the odds seem particularly bad for the arabbers these days. Slim profit margins are a problem, but only one among many. Animal rights advocates are more vocal than ever, and internal strife within the arabbing community isn't helping the tradition survive. It seems likely that this generation of arabbers will be the last.

The biggest challenge is perhaps the city's relationship with the arabbers, which has run hot and cold over the years, often in quick succession. In 2007, the crumbling city-owned stable on Retreat Street, one of only three left in Baltimore, was condemned. At the time, Deputy Housing Commissioner Reggie Scriber--whose father was an arabber--made a passionate promise to the evicted arabbers: "You have my word today that as long as I have air in my chest, as long as I'm part of this administration, we're going to do all that we can to find a location that is suitable so this won't happen again."

About 50 horses were moved to Bowie, and then to Pimlico Race Course. At that point, the city decided it would not pay for the upkeep of retired or non-working horses, and nearly half were sold. The rest ended up at a makeshift tent stable under the Monroe Street bridge in Southwest Baltimore. (One arabbing family subsequently moved about six horses from the tents to private stables on Carlton Street.) In the spring of 2008, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, then City Council president, questioned the amount of money the city was spending on the horses, and Mayor Sheila Dixon publicly declared that the arabbers were on their own. But behind the scenes, the city was in talks with the B&O Railroad Museum about the possibility of building a new permanent stable on the museum's grounds.

"I had a bit of a vision of opening an arabber heritage museum," says Courtney Wilson, director of the B&O. "The arabbers for generations interfaced with the railroad to get their produce, so there was a good connecting story." In early 2009, Wilson formed a nonprofit board called Arabber Heritage to manage the stable, and offered up 40 acres of the museum's land.

According to Scriber, the city developed preliminary drawings and set aside almost half a million dollars from five different agencies to build a pole barn. Early last year, the city announced--prematurely, as it turned out--that the displaced arabbers would have a new home on the grounds of the B&O.

But last November, the city seized the 19 horses remaining in the tent stables and carted them off to a horse rescue farm. Animal Control inspectors had found that the tent stables were in disrepair, with a lack of proper bedding for the horses, standing water, and other unsanitary conditions, according to a Health Department spokesman. Plans to build a permanent stable were quietly dropped.

The Savoy family, which owned most of the confiscated horses, says it did the best it could in the temporary stables.

"If you're so concerned about this place, give me my horses and I'll take them somewhere else," says Shawnta Chase, wife of James Chase. "[Reggie Scriber] backstabbed us."

Her husband James is more charitable. "I think [the city] entered the situation with good intentions, but it became too much for them," he says, "and they just tried to find a way to railroad us out."

Scriber, for his part, says the arabbers didn't live up to their part of the bargain: caring for their horses. "It's so disappointing, but I can't blame the city of Baltimore in this case," he says. "The arabbers did not do anything they were supposed to have done."

Scriber says that the city had already spent nearly half a million dollars on moving and housing the horses after the closure of the Retreat Street stable. After the conditions in the tent stables were discovered, he says, the city lost the will to fund a permanent stable. "I'm heartbroken," he says. "But the city of Baltimore has done all [it] can do at this point."

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Tags: arabbers, humane society, horse

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