In January 2015, six of Baltimore’s arabbers — the men who sell produce around the city from horse-drawn carts — were arrested and charged with animal abuse; 14 of their horses were seized. More than a year later, the city has dropped all charges against the men, but some are worried that the incident marked the beginning of the end for one of Baltimore’s traditions.
Baltimore’s a-rabs, who sell fresh fruit and vegetables from brightly painted horse-drawn carts, have long been on the decline — the Arabber Preservation Society was founded nearly 20 years ago. Current APS vice-president and filmmaker M. Holden Warren has devised a plan for their continued survival that utilizes the talents of well-known street artists to turn an a-rab stable into “a stop on the city’s cultural map.“
Between 2001 and 2005, I lived on East Preston Street, between Charles and St. Paul, and every so often I’d hear the clop-clop-clop of horses’ hooves outside my third floor window. Looking out, I’d see an Arabber selling fresh fruit and vegetables from his cart at the corner of Charles and East Preston, right opposite where Starbucks is now. I never see Arabbers anymore in Mount Vernon or even along Mount Royal, where I’d sometimes see a cart on the corner of Dolphin Street. But the Arabbers are still around, as I discovered this summer when a friend and I were taken on a walking tour of Southwest Baltimore courtesy of Martha Cooper, a photographer who commutes between New York City and her house in SoWeBo.
We started out journey at Hollins Market, and as we rounded the corner from Carrollton Avenue to Carlton Street, I got a whiff of country smells — straw and horse manure. Right there, tucked between Carlton and Lemmon streets, in a little crossroads of alleys, we came across a stable full of beautiful horses, a couple of ponies, some roosters, and two large coops of homing pigeons. Stablehand Terry Partlow introduced us to his horses Buck and Diamond, and showed us the horse-drawn cart and rig he uses to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables. The Carlton Street Stables look small from the outside, but are actually quite commodious, and–with the exception of one dirty pony that was tied up outside, waiting for a bath–the horses all appeared clean and well-kept. It was strange to find this little farm right in the heart of urban Baltimore — strange but wonderful, as there’s nothing better than the fresh scent of the stables. And although the Arabbers themselves may no longer be as common as they once were, it’s good to see their horses are cared for and going strong.
To learn more, check out the engaging documentary We Are Arabbers, completed by Scott Kecken and Joy Lusco Kecken in 2004. See the trailer video on our homepage.