February 4, 2008
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.
In the 1940s there were roughly 50 arabber stables in Baltimore; now there are three. The city is leaning on them pretty hard, apparently because some of the stabled horses are retired animals being kept in a place of honor by their owners, rather than as full-time working horses.
Baltimore wouldn’t be the first city to have its priorities screwed up, but this seems particularly unnecessary — not to mention unfair.