There are bigger and more pressing issues than the one to which I turn again today — the preservation of the arabbers of Baltimore — but few that so well symbolize both the city’s potential for excellence and its tendency to mess things up.
It would not take much for City Hall to ensure that the arabbers’ horse-drawn produce wagons remain a presence on the streets in a sustainable and profitable way. It requires official acceptance, common sense and progressive sensibilities in the treatment of the vendors and their animals, and probably a centralized stabling area — I have a spot in mind — to make the arabbers more visible to a public that thinks they’re cool.
Combating crime is important. Improving the public schools is important. Developing more affordable housing is important. Keeping trash off the streets and waterways, attracting more businesses and residents, paving potholes, fixing old water mains, maintaining parks — all more important than preserving the clippety-clop of the city’s past.
But the thing is, in Baltimore, we have to do all of it, or else you have a city that’s just about problems, and not about potential.
Don’t get me wrong: Priorities are high on my priority list.
But there’s a lot of other stuff that needs continuous support. I’m talking about the neighborhood festivals and the downtown attractions: Light City, under way now, and Fleet Week later this year. The city needs to plant more trees and establish the Flowering Tree Trail. (The first of what’s hoped to be Baltimore’s annual cherry blossom festival will be held Saturday at Middle Branch Park.) The city needs to support the museums, the arts and the annual Artscape festival, and it needs to preserve historic buildings and institutions.
Which gets me back to the arabbers, who are just barely keeping their tradition alive.
One of their chief problems in recent years was a city government that wished them away.
In 2015, health officials closed down the Carlton Street stable in Southwest Baltimore and effectively put five arabbers out of business by confiscating their horses. A year later, a veterinarian called by the state testified that the seized horses had shown no signs abuse or neglect. After a short trial in District Court, a judge found the arabbers not guilty of animal cruelty.
By then, their horses had been sent to a rescue farm in Howard County, where they were eventually adopted by new owners. None of the arabbers has been compensated by the city for the loss of their horses or income, according to Malik Muhammad, one of the men who stood trial.
There are just a few arabbers left, but several, including Muhammad, would like to resume operations. There are volunteers working with them. This past weekend, there was a block party to raise funds to keep the tradition alive through the three remaining stables on Carlton Street, Bruce Street and Fremont Avenue.
The stables need repairs. The arabbers need more wagons. There is an effort underway to have the Fremont Avenue stable meet the requirements of the Maryland Horse Industry Board for certification as one of the state's Horse Discovery Centers, so that visitors can visit and take tours.
All that is good. But what’s missing is a business plan to coordinate and promote the arabbers and help them turn a profit. They should be part of the city’s food chain, selling as much local produce as possible in parts of the city where it’s needed most, as well as in areas where tourists and TV cameras are likely to catch them.
My suggestions start with stabling. The three neighborhood stables are all on the west side of the city. That’s fine; they should be preserved and improved. But there’s a way to provide a more centralized stabling area for some of the horses and ponies.
Baltimore’s police horses are expected to get new stables on the campus of the B&O Railroad Museum. Officials launched a fundraising campaign for it last summer.
There are no plans for the mounted unit’s present stables, along the Fallsway in Central Baltimore, after the police horses leave. That space could be made available for the arabbers. It would give the arabbers easy access to neighborhoods on the east side and the Inner Harbor.
Horses out of the West Baltimore stables would continue to serve those neighborhoods, as well as the west side of downtown, and Camden Yards on game days.
That gets to another suggestion: Exploiting the “wow” factor of the arabbers. Keeping with tradition, the ponies should be decked out in ornate tack and plumage and made far more visible than they are today. The city could provide arabber parking spots in high-profile areas — near Harborplace and Harbor East, in Mount Vernon and Station North.
Even with all the city’s priorities, there’s got to be a way to mount some public will to get this done in a smart, humane and lasting way.