Produce Peddlers Ply the Inner City

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The crumpled dollar fluttered down from the third floor window, a standard form of cash flow for a group of horse-and-cart produce peddlers who clip-clop their way through Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods.

Closing his fist around the dollar is William "Cockey" Burnett, one of the peddlers called "arabbers," the only people left in urban America who still sell produce from horse and cart. He gives a bag of tangerines to a child to run up to the elderly man in the third-floor window, who is now watching Mr. Burnett persuade a woman to buy a sack of potatoes.

In Sandtown-Winchester, a west Baltimore neighborhood, the arabbers are a common sight. Their customers range from young men on street corners and construction workers to the elderly at home listening for the sounds of the halter's sleighbells jingling and the arabber's holler.

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Although cities have long since embraced motorized vehicles as the primary form of transportation, horses with their pom-poms and rickety red-and-yellow wagons are ideal for peddling. The slow, plodding pace allows the word to spread through the block of row homes that dominate the streetscape of Baltimore.

And the arabbers - who entice customers with their summer spread of melons, tomatoes, grapes, yams, strawberries, collard greens, and the big seller, bananas - can make $150 to $200 a day. The arabbers say business is especially brisk at the beginning of the month, when the government checks come in.

"A lot of people buy from the arabber because of the wagons - it's like a tradition," says Keith "Superstar" Brooks, who by many accounts is one of the finest arabbers in the trade. "They know we go to the market and get our produce fresh.... They'll wait. They'll honestly actually wait."

Now exclusively African-American, arabbing started in the early 1800s as a mostly white trade. Baltimore had stables on every corner and a steady supply of produce boats pulling up to piers now occupied by the city's premier tourist attraction, the Inner Harbor.

Arabber origins

Just how these horse-powered vendors got the name arabbers (pronounced "A-rabber") is unknown. According to Dean Krimmell, curator at the Baltimore City Life Museums, "arabber" may be a derivative from the term "street arabs" or "street urchins" used by Londoners during the mid-1800s to describe homeless children or people who made their living off the street.

The arabbing profession sprang from the street-vending heyday when salesmen canvassed their routes on foot. By the 1930s and '40s, blacks dominated the horse-and-cart profession as arabbing went from a living to a beleaguered way of life.

With names like Fatback, Cabbage, and China, the arabbers call out their wares in a sing-song holler.

In between posing for media stories celebrating the peddlers' tradition, arabbers struggle to survive in the chaos of the forlorn inner city bursting with drug dealers and unemployment. Today, there are only three stables left servicing about 40 horses and 25 licensed arabbers, compared with the 15 to 20 stables in the city in 1983.

Facing a losing battle with progress and rising license fees, the arabbers linked forces with supporters and formed the Arabbers' Preservation Society (APS) in 1994. Its president is Steve Blake, a carpenter who has built stalls and roofs in a long race with the city to keep the stables up to code.

Horsepower problems

An animal-rights group has criticized the arabbers for not properly caring for their animals, and argues that horses are inhumanely subjected to the dangers of traffic and weather.

Jerry Welch, the temporary director of the Bureau of Animal Control, says he's trying to protect the animals while preserving a Baltimore tradition. So far the stables aren't in violation, and Mr. Welch says that, as a last resort, he would take the animals if the arabbers couldn't properly care for them.

"I would hate to see the cable cars removed from the streets of San Francisco, and I would hate to see the arabbers removed from the streets of Baltimore," says Welch, who grew up hearing the sounds of the arabbers in his neighborhood. "It's part of our heritage. I don't know anywhere else where you can see arabbers."

The APS has hired an expert on draft animals to study the situation. Mr. Blake hopes the results will support his view that horses "can be successfully managed in an urban environment."

Vision for the future

When Blake isn't lobbying the city to help relocate a stable that was closed down last summer after 50 years of operation, he's trying to make the arabbers more stable economically.

He's contacting a budding urban-gardening program to provide a cheaper supply of produce, for example. But closest to his heart is his effort to encourage an arabber named Marvin Mack to become a blacksmith. Farriers cost the nonprofit society $10,000, the largest percentage of its budget.

Farrier Angus Whyte has been coming down to the stables for 18 months shoeing horses, filing their teeth, and trimming hooves. The arabbers went through five blacksmiths before Mr. Whyte, who has grown tired of commuting from the country to the city and plans to return to Scotland.

Blake doesn't expect that having a blacksmithing arabber will save the trade, although it will help.

But another arabber, Big Daddy, who is sitting nearby watching Mack be trained, thinks he sees a future for the trade. It could be Mack's 13 year-old son, who's always at the stables. The arabber takes heart from seeing the teenager there with his father, saying this is the way the tradition's always been passed down.

"They sit around here, then they'll pick up the knowledge," says Big Daddy, who put his daughter through college with arabbing money and doesn't want his full name used. Of Mack's son, he says, "If he don't take it up, the breed is lost."

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