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Baltimore's a-rabs, men who sell fruit from horse-drawn carts, are a charming tradition. But the city's health department was right that it could not ignore the poor conditions in which horses were being kept in the city's largest a-rab stable, which was infested with rats and strewn with trash. The animals, according to the Humane Society, suffered from parasite infestation, malnutrition and extremely overgrown hooves. The question is what happens next: Two years after the city promised to find a permanent home for the a-rabs, does it have any further obligation to help them?

In 2007, Baltimore housing inspectors discovered that a building the city had bought in assembling property for an urban renewal project was actually a makeshift stable. A-rabs had been squatting there, rent free, with jury-rigged electricity. The city condemned the building and, for a time, arranged to board the horses at Pimlico. After a few months, it moved the horses under a bridge in South Baltimore, where they stayed until Tuesday, living most of that time in a series of tents.

The city and a-rabs had been working on a plan to build a permanent stable on land owned by the B&O; Museum, with the city providing subsidies that would phase out over three years. The deal was close to fruition, but following the health department's discovery about the animals' condition, it now appears likely to fall through.

The a-rabs to have allies in the community. A group of volunteers has been trying to build support for a plan that would integrate the vendors in an effort to make fresh fruit and vegetables more readily available in the inner city and would train youth in animal husbandry and acquire the skills that go along with it, such as mending harnesses and horseshoes.

That's a laudable idea, but it elides one important question: Is there enough money to be made in a-rabing to not only provide a living for the vendors but also to take proper care of the horses?

The evidence would suggest not. The horses were in bad condition and living in an abandoned building before the city got involved two years ago, and since then, it has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on veterinary bills, feed and shelter, and even that hasn't been enough to keep the horses healthy. Even if the city provided the a-rabs with a proper stable tomorrow, what good would it do if the business can't support itself?

A-rabs are a tradition in this city dating back to the 1800s, and the memories of horses clomping down the streets are a powerful memory for many people. But the city can't afford to get into an equine version of its entanglement with the Senator Theatre - in a position of throwing good money after bad in an effort to prop up a bygone business model for the sake of nostalgia.

If volunteers and a-rabs can find a way to revive the business, that would be wonderful. If they need logistical help, the city should give it. But not more money. Whatever debt Baltimore owed to the a-rabs, it has been paid.

Readers respond

I am the grandson of an a-rabber, Charlie Hayes, who worked the streets and alleys of Southwest Baltimore from the 1930s to the 1950s. There were also men with horse and wagons who taveled the same routes who were known as "ragmen." They would pick up anything that families wanted discard.

Talking about this brings back memories of holding onto the back of streetcars, stealing small chunks of ice from the rear of the iceman's truck and watching the coalman send a load down the chute into the basement.

I find it shameful that our city can build the Inner Harbor but can't afford an inspector and safe and clean location with strict guidelines protecting the horses. No argument that the profession has gone downhill with no oversight. Why can't we preserve some of the wagons and hire a few old guys drive them around the harbor and parades?

Let's not throw all of our history out for the ragman to cart away, Balmer!

Mr. Charlie's grandson

I saw footage of the horses being taken away. They are definitely not in the greatest shape, and it is difficult to defend their caretakers. However, it is impossible to defend a city that provided no oversight for what is both a business and a tradition.

Melissa Cavanaugh

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