The Baltimore tradition of arabbers (pronounced: A-rabbers) dates back shortly after the city’s founding in 1729 and today’s closely knit group of arabbers are the last door-to-door food merchants in urban America. (Courtesy photo)

By PK Semler
Special to The AFRO

Baltimore’s iconic arabbers, a multigenerational group of city natives who use horse drawn carts to bring fresh produce and fish to the city’s most deprived communities, have been tackling for decades one of the key aspects of the city’s food desert syndrome: lack of transportation.

A key element of the seminal 2015 Johns Hopkins University’s Baltimore food desert study is the definition of the term: any neighborhood where at least 40% of residents lack private transportation and live at least a ¼ mile from a supermarket.

The Baltimore tradition of arabbers (pronounced: A-rabbers) dates back shortly after the city’s founding in 1729 and today’s closely knit group of arabbers are the last door-to-door food merchants in urban America.

James Chase is a third generation arabber who manages and runs the Fremont Avenue stables in west Baltimore’s Sandtown Winchester neighborhood. He is president of the Arabber Preservation Society, the undisputed leader of the arabbers and can be considered a national hero for what he and his arabbers did during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Afro interviews Baltimore arabbers James Chase and Dan Van Allen #SecuringtheBag from Capitol Intel on Vimeo.

During the worst of the COVID-19 lockdown, Chase and all the other Baltimore  arabbers went door-to-door in East and West Baltimore with their horse drawn carts providing free masks, hand sanitizers and food to communities of color most devastated by the pandemic. 

Like true heroes, Chase and his arabbers’ acts of civic bravery were born out of a selfless desire to do the next right thing for their Baltimorean neighbors who also happen to be their age-old customers. 

Every morning around 8 a.m, the Baltimore arabbers go out to food wholesalers at the Giant Maryland Food Authority in Jessup, Md. to purchase fresh produce and fish which they later transfer to their carriages before making rounds in their respective neighborhoods until returning to their stables at dusk.

For Chase, arabbing is simply a commercial business of transporting fresh produce, serving the niche of ill-served neighborhoods in the middle of the city’s food deserts. 

“We go home to home and the people come out and buy what they need. They also tell us what they’d like for the next time we come around,” Chase said.

Another faithful customer is civil rights leader and food desert advocate, Marvin L. “Doc” Cheatham Sr., who buys fruits and vegetables from his arabber on his weekly rounds to his neighborhood of Easterwood/Sandtown. 

Notwithstanding the enormous public service and the pride native Baltimoreans have in this living cultural and historic institution, arabbers’ continued existence is constantly under threat by an unholy cabal of unsavory real estate developers, unfaithful elected officials and public servants along with animal rights activists like PETA , said Dan Van Allen, the Arabbers Preservation Society President Emeritus.

“While tourism organizations such as Visit Baltimore like the arabbers as an attraction, others like developers always want to bulldoze the stables and ally themselves with money-grubbing public officials while animal rights groups want to shut them down,” he said.

The most shocking example was when Baltimore City prosecutors, on the apparent bidding of PETA, tried to jail a group of six arabbers for at least one year minus a day on animal cruelty charges brought by Baltimore Animal Control Services in a non-jury trial in Baltimore City Court. 

The Maryland public defender Jeff Gilleran, who defended one of the stable hands in the case, said Judge Nicole Pastore-Klein immediately agreed that the animal cruelty charges were groundless. Stable owner William J. Murray was found guilty of a trivial administrative charge of neglecting to post proper identification.  

Despite the seemingly groundless charges, the arabbers lost their livelihood as the city confiscated 14 horses and were offered no compensation for their loss.

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