The Wanderers' Songs

The Last of Baltimore's Arabbers—Horse-and-Cart Vendors—Are Fading Away.

An empty arabber cart in the city of Baltimore, which wants to close down one of the arabbers' last three stables.

Credit: Rachelle Bowden

On the streets of Baltimore, it is getting harder and harder to hear the holler of arabbers. These street vendors, peddling produce and seafood on horse-drawn carriages, have been a part of Baltimore life for decades. But with less than a dozen arabbers on the street today, along with new city regulations on their horses and the potential loss of the stables they use, the cries of the arabber may be a thing of the past.

The word "arab" was British slang for homeless youth. While no one is sure how this term translated to describing street vendors in Baltimore, the word conveys the transience of arabbers' lives.

For African Americans, arabbing is a tradition that started after the Civil War, when jobs that offered independence for African American men were hard to find. Selling food from a cart was one of the few self-sufficient trades. Yet arabbing didn't become a distinctly African American trade until World War II, when industrial jobs opened up for white vendors.

"Today, they are living history, a reminder of Baltimore's past and the fact that horses built our cities and did the work that is now being done by machines. They are a reminder of a different time when people helped people," says Scott Kecken, who directed the 2004 documentary We Are Arabbers. "We felt that the arabber's story paralleled the story of Baltimore and America: the change from the industrial revolution to the computer revolution, the rise of corporatism, and the changing economic and social forces. They are the last of a past that no longer exists in American cities."

Arabbers' distinctive hollers are rooted in the slave cries of the old South. They are partly nonsensical, based on rhythm and not words, and are unique to each arabber, advertising what they have to sell for the day. Along with their calls, what distinguishes arabbers from other street vendors are their colorful wagons, where they artistically arrange the day's produce. Instead of heading straight home after work, arabbers took their horses back to a stable. 

Arabber Paul "Hottentot" Wilkens poses at Dieckman stable.

Credit: Scott Kecken

"The stables are the heart and soul of their culture. Sometimes, these men had more pictures of their horses than their family. They truly loved and cared for their ponies and had a special relationship with them," Kecken says.

The numbers speak for themselves: While there were approximately 50 arabber stables in the 1940s, only three remain in Baltimore today.

The Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit that formed in 1994, is working to save the stables. Six years ago, the city condemned the Retreat Street stable in the name of urban renewal. The city has told arabbers that they have at most three years left to use the stable, and then the building will be used for another purpose. City planners have yet to come up with a plan to relocate the stables.

"We have restored roofs and walls, rewired, plumbed, built stalls, and hauled manure at both the Carleton and Retreat Street stables. Without our stables, how can arabbing continue?" asks Dan Van Allen, president of the society.

Van Allen has fond memories of arabbing from his childhood, "hearing the sounds and bells and hollers coming down our alley," he says. "I lived right near the stables. Waking up to the sight of horses, playing in the park behind our house and China loading his wagon with boxes of produce," Van Allen remembers. "Chickens in our yard, goats in the alley, ducks waddling down from the stables, hearing Sterling holler, 'Strawberries by the quart.'" 

Walter "Teeth" Kelly sellling watermelon at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 1999

Credit: Scott Kecken

Every summer, arabbers hit the road for Washington, D.C. They have been selling their wares at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival since 1972, when Maryland was the featured state. One of the few groups that the Smithsonian asks to return every year, they have become a fixture at the festival.

Baltimore native Roland Freeman grew up in a family of arabbers. After starting a career as a photographer in the late 1960s, he realized how important it was to document the vanishing culture. For 20 years he worked on this project, finally publishing his 1989 book The Arabbers of Baltimore, which is filled with personal recollections and photographs. "I grew up around this. When I was six or seven years old, even younger, I'd go to 'shoot 'em ups,' Western movies, with horse and wagons," Freeman says. "The Western movies were a big scene for younger people, and we had horses right there in the community with us: we could walk them, brush them, water them—it was exciting."

Along with the potential loss of arabbing, Freeman mourns the changing character of the West Baltimore neighborhood he grew up in, known as Sandtown. He remembers when people would sit on their porches on the alley streets and arabbers would come around and sell produce door-to-door. Many of the houses have been razed, but arabbing is one of the few parts of old Baltimore that is left.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, says his organization has provided grants to repair arabber stables and wagons, as well as organizational support for the Arabber Preservation Society.

The society is seeking historic designation for the stables and turn their arabber center, behind the West Baltimore market where arabbers load their carts, into a tourism center.

More important than getting this designation, however, is actually keeping the arabber tradition alive. Nearly all of the arrabbers are approaching retirement. Without a new generation of arabbers, even historic designation will not save the arabber way of life.

"The city laws have changed. While young people used to be stable hands, they can't anymore. You have to be 18 or older to handle horses, you have to have a license, animal inspectors come in regularly to check the stables. It's not the same," Freeman says. "Traditions are passed down generation to generation, but if young people can't handle horses, it's stopping them from joining the trade."

City officials, who defend the new laws, say licenses are necessary for the arabbers, the city, and the horses.

"Regulations are a benefit for the health of the horse," says Eric Holcomb of Baltimore's Committee on Historical and Architectural Preservation. "Arabbers now have access to a veterinarian and a horse-shoer. It also helps keeps the neighborhood where the stables are clean, and the arabbers themselves."

What will it take to keep arabbers on the streets of Baltimore?

"Preservation of arabber culture will depend on government and public acknowledgement of its value. Specifically, preservation of our remaining stables and encouragement from city planners, health officials, and permit granters," Van Allen says.

Freeman believes that arabbing can be saved as well, but thinks there is a more simple solution. "As long as there are people who want to do it there will be a place for them," Freeman says. "There are still people who are fond of arabbing, who want to be served door to door. People are needed to preserve arabbing."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed