BALTIMORE — As three Arabbers rode through South Baltimore on their horse-drawn fruit cart, a Chevrolet Impala barreled toward them. The men jumped off just before the car slammed their wagon into a utility pole, spilling watermelons and cantaloupes across the sidewalk.
Tony, the tan Palomino that had been pulling the cart, escaped with only minor scratches. He was soon munching grass in a nearby median.
The produce vendors consider themselves lucky to have survived, but the incident last year was one of several recent crashes that have put Baltimore’s community of Arabbers on edge.
“So many cars on the road now,” said James “Fruit” Chase, who runs one of the city’s last remaining Arabber stables, on North Fremont Street in West Baltimore. “Horse gonna show you what’s bothering him so you gotta look ahead. If you know a big truck’s coming, you gotta look out for it.”
The job of guiding a horse and a day’s worth of inventory through city streets has always been hazardous. But while discount supermarkets, complicated health regulations and pre-packaged food have nearly wiped out the trade, the dozen or so Arabbers left find themselves dodging a growing number of cars.
Late last year, a horse near Coppin State University was spooked by a dirt bike, took off with its cart and crashed into a parked car. Another horse broke free of its cart near Fells Point in November and had to be chased down by animal control officers. And in December, a cart was struck between Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard and Preston Street.
Baltimore traffic officials say the number of cars in the city has rebounded to pre-recession levels. Light rail extensions, new taxi services such as Uber and Lyft and a rising urban dirt-bike culture are presenting new dangers for the Arabbers.
Snow and ice have forced Arabbers to park their carts and stable their horses for several days this winter — a different sort of occupational hazard. Chase bemoans the thousands of dollars the harsh winter has cost him.
“Can’t do nothing,” he said.
A break in the weather last month allowed a few fruit men to venture out. Under a gray but warming sky, they loaded boxes of fresh strawberries, oranges and green beans onto their yellow and red carts. Cigar-chomping Anthony “Frog” Savoy carefully buckled Tony into his harness and hooked the horse to the cart.
The horse pawed at a patch of ice until he found sure footing, and Bilal “Yusuf” Abdullah took the reins and led him out of his West Baltimore stable.
The horse stepped tentatively through the melting snow that clogged streets and piled against curbs. The icy mounds narrowed roadways while the freezing and thawing created new potholes for the wooden wagon wheels.
“I don’t go over the snow,” Abdullah, 25, said as he led Tony and the fruit cart out into the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. “I just go around it.”
A-rabbing — the name is supposed to refer to the nomadic life of a street merchant — took root in Baltimore after the Civil War as a way to provide blacks with work.
Once a thriving niche with more than 40 stables across the city, the trade has declined to just three stables.
The sight of a horse and cart clopping and rolling down the street has become unusual in a city filled with public buses, box trucks and hurried drivers. Drivers rolled down windows and took cellphone pictures.
Abdullah keeps blinders on Tony to keep him from seeing the snaking lines of cars. The horse’s ears twist in agitation at the hydraulic swoosh of a bus door opening.
“You just have to watch him,” Abdullah said. “Just rub him and talk to him. They don’t like that noise.”
Being a successful Arabber requires an expert’s feel for both the horse and the city streets, Charlie McLean said. He accompanies the cart as the crier, hollering the day’s fresh produce to passers-by.
“You got to keep your mind on your surroundings,” said McLean, 55.
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The horse is always first on the Arabbers’ minds, McLean said. And among McLean’s primary concerns are the urban dirt-bike riders who come tearing down streets and popping wheelies.
“They don’t give our horses respect,” he said. “They don’t think a horse belongs here. We’ve been here hundreds of years. … They come by just to see if they can get a reaction out of the horse.”
Baltimore dirt-bike riders often ride in groups, taking up entire roadways while pulling dangerous stunts. Police and motorists despise them because of the traffic hazards. But younger generations — including Abdullah — view them as a positive: Young men who take part in an exciting hobby instead of resorting to crime or drugs.
Abdullah said Arabbing has kept him out of trouble, too. He believes there is room on the streets for both cultures to co-exist.
A dirt bike rider flew down Fremont Street in front of the stables.
“You gotta be careful, you got to be sharp because you got these young people like these,” Chase said. “If you hear them coming up, get up to the horse and whisper.”
©2014 The Baltimore Sun
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ARABBERS