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November 14, 2013

Old Tradition Lives On in Baltimore, Maryland

by Zlatica Hoke

Modern technology and a hastened lifestyle are seeing many old traditions worldwide come to an end, but in the U.S. city of Baltimore, one tradition is fighting to survive, and perhaps even grow. Street merchants who sell fruits and vegetables from colorful horse-drawn carts have disappeared from most U.S. cities, but still can be found in Baltimore. Soon, the city’s streets may be home to even more.
 
Residents of Baltimore are familiar with the traditional call of what are known as arabbers -- street vendors who sell fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts.
Twenty-five-year-old BJ Abdullah has been arabbing most of his life. He starts his day by loading his cart with local, freshly bought produce.  
 
"I got cabbage, I got collard greens, I got string beans," calls out Abdullah.
 
Customers can have the goods delivered at their doorstep or go to the cart when they hear the distinct sound. Many of the regular customers are elderly people who cannot walk to the market, while others just find them convenient.
 
"It's convenient, they come to you. You don't have to go out and get it," explains local arabber patron Veronica Cunningham.
 
The origin of the word arabbers could have derived from the 19th century expression "street arabs", referring to people, mostly African-American men, who had access to the port and horses and could start arabbing as a small business.
 
In recent years, the tradition began to decline and some stables have been shut down for building code violations. Animal rights activists also have complained that the horses are poorly treated.
 
In 1994, a preservation society was formed to address these issues and preserve the tradition.  President Daniel Van Allen said recent years have seen a revival of the historic trade.
 
"We've gone, in the past few years, from one to two wagons after one of the stables was shut down for urban renewal, and back up to eight wagons out on the street, and hopefully we'll have four more wagons out on the street next year," said Van Allen.
 
BJ Abdullah said he does not plan to give up his job in any case.
 
"Oh I'm going to keep on going until I can't walk no more. We're gonna be around, we ain't going nowhere. It's been around over a hundred years, this [trade business] ain't going nowhere," said Abdullah.
 
Long hours at work for many Americans and a growing demand for wholesome local produce may put the old Baltimore trade on the road to recovery.