Arabbers get new stable, submit to microchip tracking rule

When health department inspectors visited a Southwest Baltimore horse stable last year, they found a place with dangerously exposed electrical outlets, stalls on the verge of collapse and trash strewn about the premises.

They closed the site at 207 Bruce St., long a home base for arabbers, the street peddlers who have sold fresh food from the backs of horse-drawn wagons for generations.

A year later, a new owner is poised to reopen the facility, the third such site in town and a historic one at more than 100 years old. But she had to make a thoroughly modern concession to bring it back to life. Baltimore animal control officials required that Dorothy Johns, the owner, have her horses implanted with microchips for identification and tracking.

This marks the first time the city has enforced a rule that has been on the books since 2003: Those who own commercially licensed horses in Baltimore must have them microchipped. Few in the arabbing community are thrilled at the idea.

The requirement spotlights years of tension between the city and a-rabbers. Health officials — often responding to complaints filed by citizens or animal-rights groups — have sought to bring their oversight up to date, while arabbers who have held on to ways passed down from long ago say the regulations are excessive.

"They already make us take pictures of the horses and do so much paperwork. They want to be able to come out and just use a scanner. I don't think they should be harassing us like this," said Johns, 56, a member of a prominent local arabbing family.

Johns, who made all the necessary upgrades at her own expense, paid $100 to have her four horses microchipped this week. Arabbers will use them out of her stable. City officials say her license to operate is now in the mail.

Some see the move to enforce the rule for all arabbers as just another hurdle that foes of the trade are using to hasten its demise.

Health officials say it's the only way they can keep close tabs on horses that often are reassigned from one stable to another without notice, making it difficult to ensure that all working animals in the city are fit for their jobs and in good health.

"I'm very sensitive to the importance of this tradition in Baltimore. We want the people to see the arabbers' horses and enjoy them. But we want to be able to make sure the horses are healthy and fit to work. That way we can back [the arabbers] 100 percent if and when any questions arise," said Sharon Miller, director of animal services for the city.

Arabbing has been a staple of life in Baltimore since shortly after the Civil War, when vendors began leading colorful horse-drawn wagons through the streets selling produce, seafood and other delights.

For generations, the trade provided one of the few avenues to employment for blacks in the area. During World War II, when white workers took most of the jobs in factories, it became an almost exclusively African-American profession, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

As the salesmen developed as entrepreneurs and developed their own peculiar form of singsong patter, they wove their way into a city's collective unconscious. But their numbers have significantly dwindled in recent years.

Fewer than 12 are working today. Each of the stables puts about four horses and four wagons on the streets at a given time. The renovated stable will bring the total of horses and wagons to 12 each.

The term "a-rab" (pronounced AY-rab) is said to derive from the term "street Arab," a slang term widely used in 1800s London to refer to individuals of unfixed address, street salesmen, or both.

As modern life encroached, though, a profession that had long been unregulated began to draw scrutiny. Some were not convinced that the arabbers — many of them lifelong urban horsemen and women who had learned the trade from family members — were caring for the horses using modern standards.

Arabbers, who own their horses, typically acquire them at auctions in central Pennsylvania. Many horses are older and retired from prior activities, which experts say leaves them susceptible to illness and infirmity.

Health department officials say complaints from members of the public have increased over the past five years. Some reports say the horses look sick, too hot or overworked; others question the sanitation of their stalls.

Miller, a veterinarian tech who started on the job last January, said addressing the problems takes more of her time than she had anticipated. She stops by each of the stables every couple of weeks, she said.

The city Health Department ordered the Bruce Street stable closed last October. When the stable's manager, 95-year-old arabbing mainstay Ed Chapman, died in December, Johns — whose grandmother, Mildred Allen, was the first female African-American arabber in Baltimore — bought the place.

She, her husband David Johns and her brother-in-law Steven Randall have spent nine months replacing the stalls, covering the hazards, repainting, powerwashing and cleaning up. Dorothy Johns picked up the tab, which has come to more than $2,000 for materials alone.

"I did several inspections. I took pictures and wrote reports. Ms. Johns knew what needed to get done and did a wonderful job fixing everything. [Bruce Street] is a model for the other stables in the city now," said Miller.

Johns followed city regulations on the microchipping, which called for her to pay for the procedure. It took a few minutes per horse — the vet uses a needle to insert the chip between the horse's shoulder blades — and caused the animals minimal discomfort, she said.

City inspectors can use scanners to read the chips, instantly calling up information including the horse's name, age and complete health history.

Still, she called the microchip enforcement part of the city's recent history of "hassling" the profession. She points out that police horses don't face the same requirement.

Bilal "B.J." Abdullah, an arabber who is based at the stable on North Fremont Avenue, said the reopening of Bruce Street is great news for his business — "the more arabbers out here, the better," he said. But he also said the microchip rule "is crazy."

"Sometimes an owner doesn't keep a horse very long. Every time you get a new horse, you have to go through that? They'll do anything to keep arabbers out of the city," said Abdullah, who has practiced the trade for 20 of his 25 years, much as his father did before him.

Miller disagrees. Microchipping is common practice in animal care these days, she said, whether for domestic cats and dogs or million-dollar racehorses, and the practice simply allows city animal control experts a way to regulate a Baltimore tradition using 21st-century standards.

While some arabbers can be resistant when she asks for improvements, she said, others are starting to accept the necessity of more modern methods. Either way, she plans to stick to the rules.

"We want them to be around for a long time," she said. "Arabbers are a part of this city. But only if they're in compliance."

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