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Arabbers, their horses reunited

The Baltimore Sun

Dorothy Johns winced as she watched her elderly horse, Foreo, squirm away from handlers leading her into a makeshift stable at Pimlico Race Course.

"Poor thing, she's all worked up from the ride up here," said Johns, watching along with a handful of Baltimore arabbers who gathered beside the temporary stable to welcome their horses and ponies back to the city.

Last week, city officials condemned the arabbers' decaying stable in the 1900 block of Retreat St., noting structural problems, filth and trash that blocked exits. The closing of the decades-old stable forced a scramble by city officials and volunteers to find temporary housing for the animals.

It also reignited long-simmering tensions between city officials and the arabbers, whose tradition of selling produce from horse-drawn wagons has been a Baltimore institution since the 19th century.

City officials promised the practice would endure and have met with arabbers and their advocates numerous times in the past week to discuss options for a permanent stable. Last week, city staff members and volunteers moved the horses to the Maryland Jockey Club training facility in Bowie while temporary housing was being built on a Pimlico parking lot.

Yesterday, trailers of fussy horses arrived at the improvised stable -- a giant blue-and-white striped tent, complete with spacious stalls full of hay and water.

The city is spending $20,000 over the next month to house the horses at Pimlico, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. But Sharfstein added that the horses could stay as long as three months.

"We told the city they can't stay forever," said Georganne Hale, director of racing at the Maryland Jockey Club, adding that the tent is not equipped to handle snow or cold weather.

"We're all horse people," said Hale, who was at Pimlico yesterday overseeing the horse transportation. "We want to help them just like the city wants to help them."

Horse owners said they were thankful for the city's help, but they worried about the future.

"It's really nice what they are doing, trying to get the stable straightened out for us," said Stanley "Stan Boo" Dorsey, 64, who said he has been arabbing all of his life. "But we'll be glad when this [is] all over with."

What comes next is unclear. The city is considering numerous locations, including rehabbing the Retreat Street facility and adjoining city-owned property. But even the horse owners cannot agree on the best solution.

Some arabbers prefer a location owned by the Arabber Preservation Society in the 1100 block of N. Fremont Ave. Community advocates envision expanding the site into a living museum, complete with stables, wagons and an amphitheater that would show the 2004 documentary We Are Arabbers.

"That's my best wish right now," said Donald "Man Boy" Savoy Sr., 74, an arabber for more than a half-century, who operated the Retreat Street stable.

Savoy said the city and the arabbers have long known that the Retreat Street stable was in disrepair. For a year, city planners, community leaders and arabbers have discussed the Fremont Avenue project, and an architect produced renderings of what could be.

But some owners of aging horses, such as Johns, prefer that the city convert an out-of-use stable at Leakin Park into an arabber horse "retirement center," where the animals can roam on spacious grounds away from the central city.

Of the 51 horses housed at Retreat Street, arabbers used only about a dozen, said Savoy. The rest were retired or housed there by their owners.

Sharfstein said city officials are not sure what will become of the nonworking horses.

"It's a very important question which we have not yet addressed," he said. "Our first obligation is for the safety of the horses."

Johns said a retirement facility would honor the legacy of her grandmother, Mildred Allen, who she said was one of the city's first African-American women arabbers and helped many of today's vendors get their start. Johns' father, Ophas Allen, said his mother gave him his first pony -- Bobby -- at age 10, and he's been arabbing off and on ever since.

Allen said he is hopeful for the city's help, but he has heard promises before.

"Years ago, they said they were going to do this and going to do that," he said. "But they never did anything at all."

Donald Savoy Jr., 50, who showed up at Pimlico yesterday with a Chevy pickup full of fruits and vegetables that he has been selling on street corners, said there is enough blame to go around.

"Everyone should have done more to prevent this," he said.

He said some of the horse owners who are not arabbers did not help repair the Retreat Street Stable, despite the problems.

"You got to pitch in," he said. "You got to keep up your horses."

Reginald U. Scriber, the city's deputy housing commissioner, said the city is committed to finding a permanent location for the arabbers.

"I can't go back and tell you who said what, but what I can tell you [is] what is taking place today and what is going on in the future," he said. "We have an obligation to make sure we do all that is right and fair for the arabbers. We need to help them as much as [we] possibly can."

For now, Scriber said, arabbers' wagons will be taken to Pimlico so the vendors can continue their work.

"We know a lot of senior citizens depend on the arabbers," he said. "We think it's a good tradition that must continue."


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