An arabber (or a-rabber) is a street vendor (hawker) selling fruits and vegetables from a colorful, horse-drawn cart. Once a common sight in American East Coast cities, only a handful of arabbers still walk the streets of Baltimore. They rely on street cries to attract the attention of their customers.
The term arabber is believed to derive from the 19th century slang term "street arabs". Arabbing began in the early 19th century, when access to ships and stables made it an accessible form of entrepreneurship. African American men entered the trade following the Civil War. Brightly painted and artfully arranged, arabber carts became a common sight on the streets of Baltimore. To alert city dwellers to their arrival, arabbers developed distinctive calls:
Holler, holler, holler, till my throat get sore.
If it wasn't for the pretty girls, I wouldn't have to holler no more.
I say, Watermelon! Watermelon!
Got 'em red to the rind, lady.
During World War II, factory jobs opened to white laborers, leaving arabbing an almost entirely African-American vocation. By then, arabbing was already in decline, threatened by the expansion of supermarkets and the dearth of public stables. In the later 20th century, arabbers faced additional challenges from city zoning and vending regulations, and from animal rights advocates concerned about the health and welfare of the horses.
In 1994, the Arabber Preservation Society was founded to help bring Baltimore's Retreat Street stable, which had been condemned, up to city building codes. The society continues to renovate and promote the preservation of the stables serving the remaining arabbers, who number fewer than a dozen. Besides providing a nostalgic glimpse of the past, arabbers still serve a practical purpose, bringing fresh produce and other goods to urban neighborhoods that are underserved by grocery stores.
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