Quoted from Urbanite Magazine:
Year of the Horse
Going on the wagon with the last of the arabbers
by Charles Cohen
The women sat on hard lobby seats against cinderblock walls, wondering what happened to their man with the horse and cart.
Keith Brooks hits the streets of West Baltimore with his horse, Rose. Photo by Charles Cohen
For years, he came every Friday. He made his way on Mount Street—he and the pony with the little red feather propped on top of her head. Then one afternoon in February, he didn't show up at Franklin Square School Apartments on Mount and Saratoga streets. One Friday came and went, then the next, then another. The women would gather on Saturdays, hoping that maybe he switched days. But … nothing. Just like that, Keith Brooks and his horse, Rose, were gone.
Brooks is an arabber—he sells fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn cart. Just about every Friday and Saturday, Brooks runs his wagon out of a small stable on Carlton and Lemmon streets, a crossroads of alleys in the shadows of the B&O roundhouse. He's been doing this more than forty years—his father, James Brock, who was also an arabber, remembers him at 7 years old, running up ahead of the wagon, dropping off orders for regular customers.
Only in Baltimore is this business known by an anachronistic bit of 19th-century English slang (pronounced "ay-rabber"), and only here does it linger on among a handful of working practitioners. Among this rare breed, Brooks is the most dependable, especially lately: Often, he's got the only rig on the streets, living up to his old nickname—"Superstar." But this winter, the Health Department issued new license requirements, and Brooks was told that the city would take his horse if they caught him on the street without the new license.
If and when the last arabber disappears, that's how it will go—at some point, the country's only remaining horse-and-wagon produce peddlers will just vanish, without fanfare or ceremony, after some 150 years. But not yet; not today.
It took weeks dealing with all the various city agencies, but finally, on April 11, Brooks, a quiet man of 48 with expressive eyes and an ever-present toothpick behind one ear, has his new city-issued ID swinging around his neck as he hustles to get his wagon on the street. Brooks, his father, and Donald "China" Waugh, another retired arabber, work up something special in the back of the stable with the boxes of produce they buy from the wholesale market in Jessup.
To see these three lay out a wagon is to witness an unsung craft. The way they tilt the cardboard boxes off the sideboards of the wagon; the way they build a foundation of oranges, lemons, limes, apples, cabbage, potatoes, yams, 'lopes—any fruit that isn't fragile—laid snug as brickwork to withstand the jolts of the wagon ride. One of Brock's signature display moves is to stuff the greens on the leeward side, to fan up high along the back. Then come the pineapples, mangos, strawberries, kiwi, string beans, garlic, corn, okra, Romaine lettuce, three kinds of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. Father and son bungee-cord baskets and crates on the back. It takes two hours of work, sharing Newports and jokes.
Finally, Brooks leads Rose clopping out of the stable, and the heavy wagon rolls. After a month-long absence, Brooks knows what's coming—a long day of where-you-been complaints.
"A lot of people depend on me," says Brooks, not a man who likes to pause for conversation. "They're saying, ‘When you coming?' Because they can't get out—and the gas prices are high. I can bring it right to their door."
The 17-year-old mare sets a brisk jogging pace, and at times Brooks has to put his shoulder to her to get Rose to pull up curbside. Then she stands, as if that's what she wanted to do the whole time.
A loaded arabber makes a big impression on the boarded-up streets of West Baltimore. No exaggeration: You can smell the citrus wafting under the sunglow of the wagon's yellow canopy, bopping along tall and gawky. No need to let loose one of those famous arabber howls that catches the fancy of feature writers and folklorists— strawwwbeeerrrriiiiiees, wata-melllooon, canteeeeelooouuupe, booming out the wares. Brooks says nothing. People look for him.
Up steps a big woman, taking a shine to the brown pears. "Sweet as honey," she says.
A man contemplates the pears: "Hell yeah, Mr. Yo. Those brown ones was the stuff. They was ripe. They was booty sweet."
Along comes an old man: "You can eat them with no teeth—I got a few, but I ain't got what I need."
Teenage boys step off corners. A little girl reaches for her dad's hands. Kids swish up on coaster bikes. A beautician takes a break from her clients to sneak a peek. An old lady, her voice quivering, crushes dollar bills against the railing. Block by block, step by step, Brooks is catching hell from some of his regulars.
"Where you been?" says a woman. "I thought you cut me out of your route." Another customer digs into him good about the price of fruit. Brooks takes out the photo ID card he wears around his neck. "This picture cost me $150," Brooks says.
A few blocks later, Brooks finds himself yielding to a tough haggle from a woman with a broken-tooth smile. "Come on, Keith. I need some grapes," she says. "I got high pressure."
"High blood pressure?"
"Keith, don't you know that fruit helps with the high blood pressure?"
He snips her off a quarter bunch, no charge.
I first went out with a wagon in 1996, tape recorder and notebook in hand. Back then, as it was decades before, the story was how long arabbers, these curious men plying an antique trade on the streets of a late-20th-century American city, can ride the thinning crease of extinction.
The death knell for arabbing has been sounded in local papers since at least the 1960s, but the end has never seemed as close as it does now. In August 2007, the largest of the city's three last stables, a facility on Retreat Street in West Baltimore, was condemned by the city. Displaced horses were trucked off to temporary quarters at racetracks in Bowie and then Pimlico. The city minted new regulations, and twenty-three horses were sold off; many of the rest were quartered in temporary stables—tents under the Monroe Street Bridge in West Baltimore, where, at this writing, most of them remain, idle. Meanwhile, over in the Carlton Street stable, Keith Brooks has been the only arabber to maintain his regular route (except for his one-month hiatus) during this troubled year.
"It's closer to being on its last legs than it's ever been," says Roland Freeman, a D.C.-based photographer who grew up in an arabbing family in Baltimore and in 1989 published the book The Arabbers of Baltimore. "When this generation of men die, that will be the end of this. It is economically unfeasible to be an arabber today."
Freeman has followed arabbing, he says, for forty years; during the 1980s, he was instrumental in connecting the wagon owners with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Now, he says, he's largely given up hope. "The reason this tradition is dying in Baltimore is largely because of politics and money—and the arabbers themselves," Freeman says.
Indeed, arabbers are an independent-minded clan, and the very self-sufficiency that has helped them endure into the modern age may contribute to their present travails: They disdain the bureaucracy of the city's ever-more-labyrinthine licensing procedures, and don't always cooperate well with each other, either. As many well-wishers have learned, dragging this 19th century horse-and-cart business into the modern age is a complex challenge.
For me, the question of arabbing's future has always been bound up in the mystery of its continued existence: Why here? Is there some latent personality trait in this town—something in the city's slow-paced almost-Southernness, or in the influx of rural immigrants that migrated here in the last century—that etched a niche for a horse-powered trade?
"It's a tradition, man," Charles West told me. He is a 72-year-old former arabber, now one of Brooks' faithful customers. "It's something they have been doing since before I was born. I did it."
"But what if someone says, ‘Hey, it's a horse and cart. We're living in the modern world?'" I asked.
"I tell them it was horse and cart before cars. Let's deal with that end of it."
A survey of the recent history of arabbing traces the ebb and flow of Baltimore's love-hate relationship with this beloved but troublesome icon. Arabbers have long been celebrated as unique local color, their images filling tourist brochures, newspaper features, and documentaries (the most recent, We are Arabbers, was released in 2004). But the arabbers' working relationship with the city has often been thorny, especially since the mid-1960s, when urban renewal and a changed regulatory environment began gnawing away at the network of neighborhood stables. (Another critical blow: The city's wholesale produce market, source of the arabbers' wares, moved from the Inner Harbor to distant Jessup.) During the Schaefer Administration in the 1970s, arabbers circled City Hall with their wagons to protest a proposed hike in licensing fees, and old-timers bitterly recall how local horse owners were spurned when the city solicited the tourist carriage business around the Inner Harbor.
Arabbers and their defenders have also skirmished repeatedly with animal rights organizations. In January 1994, a horse and a pony died from a combination of starvation and cold at an East Baltimore stable that has since been closed. Later that year, city officials showed up at the Retreat Street stable, then a privately owned business, with a list of building code violations, along with horse buyers and auctioneers.
The threat of condemnation led to the creation of the Arabber Preservation Society in 1994. The group fought off the closure with repairs, and the building reopened in 1995. The Preservation Society helped arabbers obtain regular veterinary care, started a farrier assistance and apprenticeship program, and, in 1998, filed a discrimination lawsuit claiming that the predominantly African American arabbers were subject to Health Department inspections and regulations that were never applied to other horse-powered businesses, such as the Inner Harbor carriage rides.
That same year, then-councilwoman Sheila Dixon sponsored a bill to support arabbing as a "colorful Baltimore tradition," one threatened by "city licensing and permit requirements … and misguided and misinformed animal-rights activists."
The case was settled out of court, and, according to current Arabber Preservation Society president Dan Van Allen, an artist and SoWeBo resident whose backyard overlooks the Carlton Street stable, the city has generally had a more hands-off relationship with the arabbers in recent years. But last summer, on July 31, 2007, the city again condemned the Retreat Street stable and gave horse owners a two-week eviction notice. The building—a decrepit stone and cinderblock structure in an alleyway off North and Pennsylvania avenues that had been owned by the city since 2000—housed fifty-two animals, and inspectors said it was on the verge of collapse. It was also a fire hazard, thanks to bootleg wiring from a BGE pole.
Days after the August 8 eviction, at a press conference a few blocks away at the Baltimore Neighborhood Recreation Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, city officials vowed to find another stable for the eight horse owners who used the Retreat Street facility. At one point, Deputy Housing Commissioner Reginald Scriber rose and recalled how his father worked the wagons. "You have my word today," he said, "that as long as I have air in my chest, as long as I'm part of this administration, we're going to do all that we can … to find a location that is suitable so this won't happen again."
Assembled that day was a who's who of the surviving arabber community, a cast of characters I'd come to know well after years following the wagons. There was 76-year-old Donald "Manboy" Savoy, distinguished in his gray muttonchops. The city's biggest arabber, he rents up to six rigs and presides over a ramshackle lot of cinderblock buildings on Fremont Avenue that serve as a tack room, wagon storage area, and produce loading dock for the Retreat Street horses. Savoy walked away from the press conference glowing like a new parishioner. "I think everyone truly wants to keep the arabbers around," he told me.
Also present was 81-year-old Eugene "Fatback" Allen, whose mother, Mildred Allen, is credited as being the first woman arabber. The first time I met Allen was in 1996, in front of his tiny Whatcoat Street stable that has since been paved over to make way for the Sandtown- Winchester redevelopment projects. Today, he was wearing the same pained, quizzical look on his face. Allen had been relocated twice over the last decade, to Carlton Street, then to Retreat Street. All the while, he said, the city has been promising him a permanent location. He didn't seem to believe that this latest overture would be any different. "The city right now, they will promise you golden slippers," he said. "Unless we stay behind them and see that they keep their word, then we are lost."
When the city condemned Retreat Street, the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative (PARC), a nonprofit that advocates for the revival of the historic cultural strip that once thrived during segregated Baltimore, stepped in and encouraged the city to take a more preservation-minded approach. PARC has been trying for several years to build an Arabber Preservation Center on Manboy's Fremont Avenue lot, part of their effort to create a historic trail in the neighborhood. "As you can see walking up Pennsylvania Avenue, so much of our historic fabric has been torn down," PARC director George Gilliam told me. "What we're trying to do is stop historic products from leaving this community, and the arabs are the big part of that."
PARC lobbied the city to build the new stable on the Fremont Avenue lot, but, anticipating tough zoning issues, the city opted instead for a site on Monroe Street, on property owned by the B&O Railroad Museum. For most of the fall, Planning Department head Douglas McCoach ran detailed roundtable meetings with arabbers, engineers, architects, and even a small business consultant to create the new stable.
As meetings proceeded, the challenges involved in working with the arabber community quickly became apparent. There was a faultline between the Savoys—Manboy and his son, Donald Savoy Jr.—and the Allens—Eugene, his brother, Orphas, and his daughter, Dorothy Johns. The Allens are former arabbers who kept retired horses at Retreat Street; they represent the loose-knit cohort of ex-arabbers who work around the stable scene and offered $3 pony rides for neighborhood kids. The city, however, told the group that only working horses would be housed in the new stable, locking out ex-arabbers like the Allens. "The city is committed to finding a home for the working horses," McCoach said during one planning meeting last fall. "But the city really shouldn't be in a position of finding homes for horses that are pets."
The herd needed to be culled. Erin Sher, an assistant city solicitor who grew up as a racehorse walker at Pimlico, helped locate buyers— farmers, horse rescue organizations—for Retreat Street horse owners who wouldn't be allowed to move into the city's new facility. Many of these owners felt they were railroaded into selling their animals off.
Still: The Retreat Street relocation and the accompanying pledge to build new stables marked perhaps the first time in modern memory that City Hall had squared all its resources in making arabbers a cultural priority. According to City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the administration earmarked about $500,000 in various agencies to relocate and possibly build a new stable facility. But history has offered strong evidence that municipal intervention has been less than effective. Van Allen recalls at least two other plans to build new stables, one going back to 1968. Schemes to site arabber horses in city parks have long been floated, and there were once plans to integrate stables into the renovations of the Pennsylvania Market in the 1990s. All came to nothing.
"Every time they close a stable, they say, ‘We're going to build you a new facility, a beautiful facility, and don't worry because nobody's going to lose work.' But every time they haven't done it," an irate Dorothy Johns said at the August press conference. Over the course of the fall, she became increasingly vocal in her skepticism. "I think the city's aim in this is to get rid of it," she said. "I really don't think they are looking for someone to run it."
A rooster crows. A white horse rolls in a paddock turned back to rich soil, a broken cement lot just ten years ago. A man sits halfway up a fire escape on a spring day, a beer at his feet, taking in the strange mix of urban and rural scenery around the Carlton Street stable.
Hang around the stable and you can listen to a salty debate about the advantages of applying a homemade pepper-based salve on a horse's blister. You can see an old man named Walter Milton Kelly, better known as Teeth, walk over to a rotting old arabbing wagon, the lumber soft as driftwood, and spit. He built it forty years ago, he says.
China Waugh pulls a long knife out of a bushel basket, cuts through a pineapple, and begins one of his spiels on the history of arabbing, which up until the 1960s was a racially mixed trade. Sit on the tailgate with China and listen to him ticker-tape along, nailing dates and places with tooth-and-groove precision. He describes how the arabbers used to meet up for breakfast at Jim's Lunch on Pratt Street, letting their horses drink from the fountain in front of what is now the bars and nightclubs of Power Plant Live. "They all had sharp horses and beautiful wagons," he says.
China sometimes gets frustrated when people fail to understand how prevalent arabbing once was. "People don't know how amazing it was, because they weren't around during the horse and wagons," he says. "We used to go to the fish market, sold all kind of stuff off the wagon: crabs, shad roe, steakfish, porgies, butterfish or spots on Fridays, hardheads, lake trout, flounder."
Arabbing may look like some kind of living history encampment, but it works. Out in West Baltimore, there aren't many supermarkets; the most popular vegetable in the corner store is the potato chip. Brooks says he sells out his wagon faster than ever before. On Saturdays, when he rolls into Southwest Baltimore and Pigtown, he never makes it up into Federal Hill. In a world of disinvestment—boarded-up houses, failing schools, disappearing stores—the arabbers have an eager market to tend; in its own ambling way, a horse and cart is a nimble distribution system for this territory. Arabbers reach the people who need it most: low-income families and the elderly, people with little access to healthy foods from now-distant supermarkets. In a time of $4-per-gallon gas, one has to wonder if non-polluting, doorstep food delivery is an idea whose time has come again.
Keith Brooks' father, James Brock, explains it this way: "With a truck you can go more places and do more," he says. "But with a wagon you're going to slow down and sell more. You catch the people walking down the street."
The arabbing wagon is also making its last rounds just as more well-off consumers are driving to farmers' markets to seek out locally grown produce. (In November 2007, Urbanite publisher Tracy Durkin proposed investing in arabbers as a green food-distribution network in the Open Society Institute's Audacious Ideas blog.) But the idea of connecting the locavore movement with this quintessentially local institution faces some practical problems. "Arabber customers are mostly not organic food buyers," says Dan Van Allen. "They are looking for economical produce."
If business is good, Brooks says he might clear a hundred dollars a day, but he's probably being cagey about his margins. A stablehand offered me a different formula: A load of wholesale produce from Jessup might cost $400; street value, perhaps $1,200, sold over a two-day run. Asked about the potential risks of doing this business on some of the city's toughest streets, Brooks says he isn't worried: People on his route know him. He's had hassles from kids, bored thugs making a run at his wagon. For them, he carries a bat. I once asked Brooks' father about the danger of being an arabber these days as we cruised in his immaculately kept Mercury Grand Marquis. "They know me and they know he's my son," Brock said. "Any of them mess with him will have to deal with me."
But, as Roland Freeman notes, perhaps the biggest peril on the streets is time itself. A visit to the stables reveals a distinct lack of young people on the scene.
"The kids now days they don't have the interest," says Carlton Street stable manager Howard Smith. "They don't have that drive. When I come up in the '40s, things were rough. I was the fifth child. I wanted to have things like other kids had. I knew my parents weren't able to give it to me, so I sold newspapers, shined shoes, ran errands. When I got on the horse and wagon and I started arabbing, I loved it. I had money in my pocket every day. I raised my children arabbing."
Old-timers talk about how growing up horse-crazy kept them out of trouble, and it's not hard to see the same thing happening on Carlton Street. One afternoon I spied 10-year-old Dante Bradford running up the alley. Dante wanted to ride Buck, a horse that earned its name. Instead, he got razzed by stablehand Terry Partlow.
"Soon as you put the reins in his hands," Partlow said of Dante, "you can't tell him nothing."
Dante may not be the only kid hanging out at the stables—sometimes others bring their little ones by—but he appeared to be the only one working regularly. "We got to chase him home," said Partlow.
On another afternoon, I watched Dante climb on the split-rail fence at the paddock as Rock, the craziest horse of the bunch, did furious laps around the dirt and then rolled on his back. Behind him, in one of the brick alley homes, a party was going on. Music playing, door wide open. A teenager finished up a joint and came over to ask Dante if he wanted to meet a girl inside the house. Dante smiled, shook his head no, and kept watching the horse gallop in mad circles.
In December, the horses that had been quartered at Pimlico had to move on. A steady rain fell at the racetrack while the animals were led onto a trailer. Dorothy Johns threw her arms around her uncle. She gave up two of her horses so that her uncle could have at least one at the new location, and the loss put an ache into the old man. "I had horses before any of them had horses," said Allen. "This is what they do to me?"
Johns drove to the Monroe Street site of the new city stables. It was just a stretch of mud next to an old railroad line vectoring out of the B&O roundhouse. Johns waited for the trailer on the soggy flat. A crew was doing an Iwo Jima flag-raising act, hoisting the main pole of one of the festival-style tents that would have to serve as stables until a more permanent solution arrived.
"Oh my god," she said, shaking her head and recalling the months of planning, the endless meetings. "Now look at this. We're standing in mud."
For two hours she waited. The truck carrying the horses from Pimlico was lost. More than twenty city employees hoofed around in the muck, then departed. By the time the trailer showed up, the tents were ready.
The driver stepped out of his semi, wondering if he dared drive his truck farther down the rutted path to the tents. When he pressed his boot into the ground, it yielded like a fish's belly. He drove his truck a few more yards, until the wheels started spitting up mud, and then he, Erin Sher, and Johns walked the horses the rest of the way to their new home.
The winter that the arabbers spent in these tents under the Monroe Street bridge was not a happy one. Grounded by the city's new licensing regulations and marooned in an unfamiliar part of town, the old Retreat Street arabbers never took out a wagon. At times it was unclear who was running the stables, or even if the city still intended to follow through on its promise to build a permanent stable at all. Tension increased between the Allens and the Savoys. According to Dorothy Johns, city officials implied that she and the Allens were just looking for handouts. She contended that they would pay their way, as they always have.
In April, the arabbers held an emergency meeting. Sitting on benches that overlooked the bleak, gravelly site, Johns urged her family members and the other arabbers to march on City Hall and demand action if they had to. People seemed to concur, but no one seconded the notion. Then Fatback got up.
"They took my grandchildren's pony," he said. "They sold [my horses] for $150, because I had nowhere to take them. Is that right?"
A week later, Johns and the Allens moved their six horses out of the Monroe Street tents and into the private Carlton Street stable. She said that, with no information about when the new stables would be built, the situation just became intolerable. Left behind was Manboy's twelve horses, plus about a dozen other animals owned by others. "I feel sorry for Manboy and them," she said. "By the time they realize what's going on, it will be too late."
According to Reggie Scriber, the city's point person on building the new facility, the key concern is making sure that the stables are a self- sustaining operation: "The mayor said, ‘I'll build a stable, but I won't be responsible for taking care of the animals.'" PARC and Manboy have been tasked with producing a plan for the stables with Courtney Wilson, director of the B&O Railroad Museum.
Sometimes, Scriber says, he gets calls from people asking, "Why are you trying to hang on to this?" His father raised eight children working an arabbing wagon on Mount Street.
"I still think it has a lot to offer," Scriber tells them. "I think it's a tradition that we can't afford to lose."
"You see him?" I tell the young woman buying bananas. "He's the last horse-and-cart produce peddler in the country."
"Really?" she says. "You mean there is no arabbing in New York or New Jersey?"
It seems Brooks never thought about this distinction. He figures there will be other wagons joining him on the street by the summer's end. But once, loading produce in the alley, he did pause and say, "There used to be so many of them. Now I'm down to the last man. Last of the Mohicans, boy."
On Mount Street, Brooks keeps an impatient eye on a small dot up the street. That's where his father has parked his Marquis in front of the senior apartments. Those ladies have been waiting for a month now. For the next two hours, he'll be up there taking orders. Sometimes his niece, 9-year-old Tasha Brock, comes over and helps—three generations in the same trade.
Brooks gets buzzed into the lobby of the senior center and there the women are, sitting. He gets on one knee to scribble orders on a paper bag. Jane Robinson orders cabbage, collard greens, and sweet potatoes.
"I hope he stays around," says Robinson. She's 97 years old.
Jean Hooks, who's 72, places a hand on Brooks' arm. "He's a good man; he's a working man."
A woman named Ruth Fain, a resident of the center for twenty-six years, rolls her wheelchair over to the impromptu gathering in the lobby. "Keith's like a historical building," she says. "You take him away, you'll be destroying a monument. People will be lost without him—leave him the hell alone."
—Contributing writer Charles Cohen lives in Fells Point. He has reported on Baltimore's arabber community for City Paper and The New York Times.
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