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Arabbers: An Endangered Species
by Christine Hansen
“Strawberries by the Quart!”
If lucky enough, among the common sounds of city life, one can hear the melodic combination of the jingle of bells and the slow gallop of hooves that come from Baltimore 's own horse-cart vendors, or arabbers.
Arabbers, also known as hucksters and entrepreneurs, are usually black males. An African-American tradition, arabbing was one of the few jobs that were available for African-Americans for a long time. It is the term for horse-cart vending—a tradition that has been halted in Philadelphia and New York City. Government officials and animal rights activists who don't want to see horses on the city streets have ceased arabbing in those cities.
Despite the small number, the arabbers who are active still make the best of their jobs and take pride in what they do. The wagons are painted bright red and yellow and the horses are adorned with “Baltimore harnesses.”
“They have special harnesses called Baltimore harnesses that are black with gold trim and bone rings, which are white plastic rings. They also have red tassels and red plume with bell drops,” Dan Van Allen, President of the Arabber Preservation Society said.
The bright colors draw lots of attention along with the jingle of the bells. For out of towners, the horses galloping among cars in the street may be a bit surprising as well. But, how do these arabbers stand out from each other?
“They have hollers like most street vendors—every guy has a different holler,” Van Allen said.
The hollers are actually are more like songs. The vendors make it musical to draw attention and to help preserve their voice. Instead of yelling all the produce they have, they make it into a musical melody. They often advertise their produce by listing the items in song. The songs vary from person to person, but generally list their best produce items, especially out of season produce.
The singing becomes their walking billboard. Combined with the trot of the horses and the jigle of bells from their harnesses, arabbers produce a sound that many can't imitate. The combination becomes a musical beat for native city dwellers. The sound of the horse-drawn carts and the hollers that follow are as popular as the jingle of the ice cream man in the summer. The only difference is, the arabber comes year round.
The hollering also helps draw attention in a world full of sound. It's easy to ignore the drilling of construction, honking of horns, airplanes and trains passing by, but it's not so easy to ignore a sound that is unlike the other city sounds. That's why, if lucky enough to hear and see one of these few vendors around the city, people should take the time to talk to them and learn about a folk tradition that is close to extinction.
The tradition has managed to stay alive in Baltimore city, the last city known to have arabbers present. This is partly due to the help of the Arabber Preservation Society, a non-profit organization that was developed to aid the few arabbers left. Volunteers of the society have stepped in to help them with city officials, the health department and animal rights activists.
Van Allen, now president of the society, said, the society started in 1994 when one of the stables was condemned for building code violations. A group of volunteers got together and fixed it up. With their efforts, the stables opened back up and volunteers continued to help with another stable. The society deals with any kind of problems from the health department and animal rights groups and provide a place for their horses to stay.
The society's main function is to help preserve the tradition of the arabbers. It also finances the stables where the entrepreneurs can rent a horse and store their wagons. There are two stables and a retreat center where the horses are kept along with other supplies.
Often called “a market on wheels” the horse-drawn carts contain produce items such as fruits and vegetables. The arabbers stroll through the neighborhoods of the city providing a delivery service of produce and other items. For most residents this is a blessing, as there are few supermarkets located in the city. As long as there is a demand for the product, the arabbers have business.
“They buy their produce from a wholesale market out in Jessup and divide it amongst the arabbers,” Van Allen said. “At one time they were selling wood and ice, and they've sold crabs and fish on the wagons. I've even seen wagons with scrap metal,” he added.
The arabbers work the streets year-round unless it is bitterly cold or too hot. Some make their entire living on arabbing, others work other jobs as well.
Even with the help of the Preservation Society, arabbers are close to extinction. Only six arabbers remain as active vendors. The cost to rent the horses and other equipment isn't cheap and the money isn't always good, Van Allen said.
For now, the entrepreneurs that fill the city streets will continue to fill the air and ears with a majestic melody that belongs solely to Baltimore.
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