City-owned building condemned for safety violations

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore officials yesterday condemned the stable housing more than 50 ponies the city's a-rabs use to sell produce because of code violations and unsafe conditions that threatened the safety of the animals.

City officials will meet with the a-rabs at 1 p.m. today to inform them that the ponies must be moved and to discuss possible short- and long-term solutions.

A-rabs are produce vendors who sell their wares along city streets from horse-drawn carts - often announcing their presence with shouts. The tradition dates to the mid-1800s.

Michael Braverman, deputy commissioner for code enforcement, said the a-rabs could move the animals on their own or the city would find a location for them.

"This administration is 100 percent committed to keeping this tradition alive and in the city," Braverman said.

An inspector for the city's Health Department, which oversees animal control, deemed the facility in the 1900 block of Retreat St. "in very bad shape" after a June inspection, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner.

The animals were in good health - an assessment with which the Humane Society agreed, the health commissioner said. But the condition of the building, owned by the city, warranted an inspection by housing and fire officials.

"The building was a threat to the animals, whether it was threat of fire [or] the structural integrity of the building," Sharfstein said.

Nuisances included filth and rodent infestation, he said. Braverman added that the building has structural-integrity problems with the walls and the joists that hold up the second floor.

Initially, the city's Department of Housing and Community Development recommended that the facility be vacated by Aug. 14. However, Baltimore Gas and Electric shut off power yesterday because someone had "rigged up some wiring so they could get electricity outside of the building," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon.

As a result, the housing department condemned the building yesterday, Braverman said.

The city's Office of Emergency Management set up a portable generator to power fans, Sharfstein said. Firefighters were "going to be there all night to make sure any needs that crop up are met," Braverman said.

In a statement issued last night, Dixon said that "the city will make every effort to lessen the impact of this action on the livelihoods of the a-rabbers."

"I want to reassure the a-rabber community and those that rely upon their services that this action is being taken for one reason only - to protect the health and safety of the horses, their caregivers and nearby property owners," she said in the statement.

"There were a lot of concerns on the part of the a-rabbers that their horses were going to be taken away from them," McCarthy said. "The mayor's committed to fixing this situation."

The city contacted the Maryland Jockey Club, which has offered assistance.

"The goal, of course, is to get the horses back in the city of Baltimore, in the care of the a-rabbers," McCarthy said. "Maybe there's a scenario where we could get the horses back into Baltimore at Pimlico at least for the short term.

"We have to reassure a-rabbers that they are going to have their horses returned and that our goal is that they continue their livelihood," McCarthy said. "But we have to find some long-term solutions to the a-rabber problem, and the city has to find out how and why this building was allowed to get into this situation."

This is not the first time that the city has stepped in to protect the animals. Crackdowns began in the 1960s, according to news reports. In 1994, officials rescued 44 work horses and ponies from a dilapidated stable on Retreat Street. That year, then-Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said it made sense to gradually phase out the a-rab animals. "As we all know, horses may not be best kept in cities like Baltimore," he told The Sun.

The a-rabs have dwindled from about 100 vendors in the 1980s to perhaps a few dozen a few years ago, according to news reports. A 2006 article on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Web site describes "arab" as a British term for homeless youth, though it is unclear how the term became associated with the street vendors.

Though their numbers declined, efforts have been made to preserve and honor the tradition.

In 1998, 26 a-rabs led by the Arabber Preservation Society filed a class action federal lawsuit against the city to fight ordinances that regulated the business and closure of one of the stables.

We are Arabbers, a 2004 documentary by a Villa Julie College professor and his wife, chronicled the experiences of the street vendors.

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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