Preservationists try again to save arabber tradition

Another effort underway to pull arabbing back from brink of extinction

There are but two arabbers working in Baltimore right now, and some days only one of them actually walks a route. If not for BJ and Frog, it seems, the tradition of the colorful horse-drawn fruit-and-vegetable wagon might be kaput. So, attention must be paid: There's another effort underway to preserve and boost arabbing in Baltimore.

But before I tell you about that, some historical exposition:

The term "arabber" (pronounced AY-rabber) is believed to have derived from "street Arab," a slang term used in 19th-century London for individuals of unfixed address, street vendors, or both. Generations of Baltimoreans used the term for the roving peddlers who sold piles of produce and pounds of seafood out of a canopied, wooden wagon drawn by a horse with an ornate bridle and jangling bells and chains.

After the Civil War, many black men found a way to make a living as arabbers. By World War II, the arabber ranks in Baltimore had become almost exclusively African-American.

During the past quarter-century, the number of arabbers dwindled to a precious few. Controversies erupted periodically, including allegations that horses were treated inhumanely and others saying that overzealous animal-rights activists were out to harass arabbers and end their tradition. Stables closed. There are only two left, and only one that's active.

This week, there's a Baltimore District Court trial scheduled for six people who were charged with animal cruelty after a raid on one of the stables. Animal control and health officials found what they described as poor living conditions and "excessive cobwebs" in the old Carlton Street stable, seized 14 horses and shuttered the operation.

It's cases like this that have damaged efforts to preserve arabbing in Baltimore, and it's too bad because this is a tradition worth saving and promoting. With better management, arabbing could be a point of civic pride. The nation should be able to see the plumed horses and their regalia in bump shots on "Monday Night Football." Tourists should be able to buy fresh fruit off the wagons on downtown streets. The arabbers should be a viable source of fresh fruit and vegetables for people who live in the city's food deserts.

But city officials have taken a pass on the opportunity to fix this tattered tradition.

Twice since 2007 I have used this space to present a 10-point plan to save and expand the arabber tradition in a sustainable, safe and humane way. It was a good plan, if I do say so myself, and I just did. (Many other people told me they liked it, too. So there.)

All the plan needed was buy-in from the arabbers and some interest from city business and civic leaders, starting with the mayor of Baltimore.

Unfortunately, the mayor of Baltimore when I first described the plan had bigger concerns: She was worried about getting indicted — and, it turned out, with good reason.

My plan appeared in print for a second time in November 2009, and I assume the mayor missed it on account of her trial.

The succeeding mayor didn't show much interest either.

Certainly, there are more important issues facing the city than preserving a tradition fraught with challenges: Humane treatment of horses, horses on busy city streets, a sustainable business model, and money to renovate the Fremont Avenue stable, a former lumberyard in West Baltimore.

But our traditions distinguish Baltimore from Everyplace Else USA, and arabbing is one of them.

If not for the Arabber Preservation Society and people like Dan Van Allen and Holden Warren, the final thread by which the tradition hangs might have snapped by now.

So here's the latest idea from the preservation front: Fix up the Fremont Street stable to meet the requirements of the Maryland Horse Industry Board and have the stable certified as one of the state's three dozen Horse Discovery Centers.

Quick exposition: Last year, the industry board certified 35 licensed equine farms in 15 counties as "discovery centers," places where Marylanders could take tours, learn about horsemanship, take pony rides and/or sign up for riding lessons.

Warren says he's working with arabbers, the horse industry board, city health and animal control officials and other groups to get the designation and establish an "Arabber Preservation Center," part museum, part stable.

Ross Peddicord, executive director of the horse industry board, supports the group's aspirations, but said that "they have a long way to go." The Fremont Street stable needs a big cleanup and a lot of work, he said, including the building of a turnout for the horses on an adjacent lot.

For now, Warren sees the designation from the state as the first step in a long-term plan to gain more public support for arabbing as both a Baltimore tradition and a real livelihood.

Maybe the next step is to get the next mayor on board this wagon, to bring arabbing back from where it is now — near extinction.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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