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Block party raises funds for Baltimore's arabber stables, celebrates horse-drawn tradition

Theodore Jackson remembers the sound of the arabbers’ horse-drawn wagons carrying fruit in the streets of his native Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore.

When he was growing up, his grandmother would send him out to the produce vendors to buy bananas, which they cut up to eat with cornflakes for breakfast.

“That’s just such a fond memory,” said the 34-year-old, who is attending New York University part time, working toward a master’s degree in food studies.

Jackson, a Pigtown resident who is researching arabbing as part of his studies, was among the visitors Saturday at an arabber block party in Butchers Hill. The event benefited the city’s three remaining arabber stables, which carry on a Baltimore tradition of horse-drawn vending that dates back to the 19th century.

Horses clip-clopped in the 100 block of N. Madeira St. outside MAXgallery, as arabbers gave rides to children as part of the fundraiser. Inside the gallery, visitors bought arabber-themed artwork. Organizers also collected donations.

Event organizer Robert Sullivan, a photographer, said funds raised from the event would benefit the three stables, located on Bruce Street, Carlton Street and Fremont Avenue.

Organizers have also launched a fundraising campaign through crowdrise.com. The funds will help one stable put two more wagons on the street; aid another stable in getting a new roof and more secure front gate; and help one with a “humongous” water bill, Sullivan said.

In October, Sullivan attended another arabber fundraiser — and came away wanting to “give something back.”

“One of the things that they mentioned to me several times was that everybody wants to take pictures of the arabbers,” Sullivan said. “They write articles, they do videos, films. But the arabbers feel that they don’t get anything back in return.”

The event also aimed to generate public support for arabbers, he said.

“The city has basically a history of trying to put them out of business,” he said. “So we want to try to turn that around.”

In 2015, city prosecutors charged six people affiliated with an arabber stable, alleging animal cruelty. The following year, a judge acquitted five of them of the charges. One was convicted of the lesser charge of failing to post identification.

At a question-and-answer session inside the gallery, several arabbers expressed frustration with city government, saying officials imposed unreasonable regulations on them.

However, third-generation arabber James Chase said that he feels his relationship with city officials has improved.

“The health department and the city are working with me,” he said.

Chase said many of the arabbers’ customers are “people that depend on us” for fresh food, such as elderly residents who can’t get out to the store.

Arabbers are “trying to preserve [the tradition] as much as we can, but we need the public’s help,” he said.

William Lewis, a founder of the Urban Horse Corporation, which seeks to promote arabbing, said it “has been a very helpful tradition for the city.”

“It has served a population that has been underserved by the city itself,” he said.

Dotsy Johns, who owns the Bruce Street stable, said the tradition is “in our blood.”

“I’ve been arabbing all of my life, my grandmother on down to me," she said. “We love the art of arabbing. … It’s just what we do.”

alisonk@baltsun.com

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