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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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One sunny Saturday, in a narrow street in Southwest Baltimore, a group of men and one woman lean against their cars and chat. No one flinches when a tall young man riding bareback on a large black horse rounds the corner and clatters to a stop.

"That's my nephew," Dorothy Johns says. Johns is the unofficial spokesperson for the Allen family, longtime arabbers who keep their horses at private stables on Carlton Street. The stables are the social center for the family: for those still actively arabbing, for retired arabbers, and for those who just enjoy the horses. There's Dorothy's dad Ophas Allen, who at 80 years old isn't willing to reenact the famous holler. "I can't do it no more," he says. There's Dorothy's cousin Maynard Allen, who is perfectly willing. "Tangerine, taaaaangerine!" He yells so loud his voice breaks. "All you gotta do is buy one, try one!" Several members of the family are cleaning the stables, and another six are out hawking produce with horse and wagon, according to Johns.

The Carlton Street stables--currently home to about 20 horses--have not been issued a citation by the Health Department since 2005. Even animal welfare advocates have few harsh words for them. Bob Anderson, formerly of Animal Control, says that during his tenure Carlton Street was "much better" than other stables. Stacy Segal of HSUS says: "I have not been to those stables personally, but I can say I've received no complaints about them." But the seizure of the Savoys' horses has had a ripple effect, according to Johns. "After they seized their horses [the city] did try to enforce harder laws for us," she says, "or try to find things wrong that really weren't wrong."

Johns says the uproar about the treatment of the confiscated horses has reflected badly on all the arabbers. "They were doing a lot of things that they shouldn't have been doing," she says of the Savoys. "We try to do it right."

This is just one of the conflicts that have arisen within the city's tiny arabbing community over the last few years. The problems started before the horses were taken. Both families kept horses at the Retreat Street stables, and when they were condemned, the horses were moved together to Bowie and then to Pimlico. But in 2007, when the city decided it would not house non-working horses in the tent stables under the Monroe Street bridge, a rift formed. In an article in City Paper at the time, Johns complained that the city was deciding which horses were working horses based on information from Donald "Manboy" Savoy Sr., all of whose animals were approved to move to the tent stables ("Horse Nonsense," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 3, 2007). The implication was clear.

"They were saying that all the arabbers were together, but everything [the city] did, they did just for the Savoys," Johns says now.

Donald Savoy Jr., Manboy's son, is reticent on the subject.

"Hopefully, we can all join together instead of saying this person got that and that person got that," he says. "It should be for the culture of the arabbers, bonding, unity." His nephew James Chase is more blunt. "You'd think that because we are the last arabbers, you'd think we would stick together," he says. "But some people just hate to see somebody get ahead."

Such rivalries are natural in a pursuit like arabbing, says Arabber Preservation Society President Dan Van Allen. "It's like a herd of cats," he says. "Part of the beauty of [arabbing] is the independence."

If arabbers have historically been independent characters, it is largely because they were able to make a living from their trade. And that is not the case for any of them at the moment. The Savoys had to sell seven of their horses to pay for the upkeep of the remaining 10. "My [stable] bill last month was $3,600," James Chase says. The horses are at a boarding facility in Marriottsville and have not worked for months. The family hopes to have them arabbing by June.

Dorothy Johns says the vendors in her family are just breaking even these days. She hopes it will get better as the season progresses, and blames poor sales on city regulations that limit the hours the horses can be out on the street. The rules prohibit arabbers from operating when the weather is particularly hot or cold, and when there is snow, ice, or excessive rain. From the last Sunday in October through the first Sunday in April, the horses must be in by dusk. That is often before their customers are home from work, Jones says.

Some experts say arabbing is no longer a feasible way of making a living. Late last year, Jim Kucher, executive director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the University of Baltimore, and a group of his students--a chapter of the Students in Free Enterprise--considered helping the arabbers improve their business model as a student project. But ultimately, they decided against it. "[The students'] position and mine is that unfortunately this does not seem to be a viable business," Kucher says. Kucher says the key problem is the very element the arabbers love most: the horses. Their slow pace makes them an inefficient way to transport food. "[Arabbing] may still be something that is able to be saved and perpetuated, but that is going to require ongoing philanthropic support," he says.

Dorothy Johns says her family will be just fine as long as they are left to run their own show. But the Savoys have enlisted outside help. Linda Brown Rivelis, president of a local consulting firm called Campaign Consultation, has worked with the family since she met Don Savoy Jr. several years ago.

"One of my passions is youth that didn't have anything to do," Rivelis says, "and then there's this incredible arabber community, and I'm putting the two together and thinking, Wow, here's a real opportunity for young people to do something in the summer and learn a profession." Both parties are vague about what her pro bono work has entailed, but Savoy says Rivelis has helped him financially. "Without her support, I don't know how really I would have gotten through it," he says.

Rivelis has grand visions for Baltimore's arabbers. She sees them working out of at least five stables, delivering everything from coffee to organic produce to fertilizer while teaching city kids the trade. (A draft of her plan is entitled: "Successful City Youth Health Green Arabbers: A Win All Around.") She is only working with the Savoy family. She says she hasn't had a chance to talk with the other arabbers. "We don't purport to be able to work with all the arabber community," she says. "You work with who you know."

Rivelis says she plans to work pro bono on the project until the end of July. By then, she hopes to have found land in the city for a stable, a nonprofit willing to take the program under its wing, and seed funding for three years. It's a huge endeavor, but she insists it's doable. "This is very entrepreneurial, very innovative. This is gonna happen," she says. "This is not a few wild-eyed crazy people."

The arabbers have long been a popular subject for makeovers. In a recent issue of The Urbanite, state folklorist Elaine Eff and designer Mike Weikert proposed housing the arabbers' horses at Pimlico, alongside organic gardens, a museum, and a farmer's market. Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks has called on the city to recruit new ponies, train new arabbers, and appoint a liaison to strike compromises between the city and the arabbers, among other things. Thus far, nothing has taken hold. And this year, for the first time, Preservation Maryland included the arabber community on its annual "Endangered Maryland" list. Despite Rivelis' sunny forecast, extinction would seem the next logical step.

Even some of the arabbers seem worried. "It's up to the kids," James Chase says. "We got kids, and they love horses and all that, but the world's changing."

But Rivelis says her aim is to transform arabbing, not to preserve it. "It's not preservation. This is not even renovation," she says. In the past, Baltimore's arabbers sold fish, ice, wood, and even scrap metal. Maybe, if her project is successful, the holler "Coffeeeeeee! Gourmet coffee!" will one day echo down Baltimore's streets. The question is whether the qualities many people value about the arabbers--their self-sufficiency, their stubbornness, their connection to the past--has a chance of survival along with the horse and cart.

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Tags: arabbers, humane society, horse

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