On a recent cold night, I stepped inside Liam Flynn's Ale House in the North Avenue Market building.
I was curious about the jazz guitarists on the bill. Their playing was charming, but I was more amazed by the audience. Many patrons there that night had my age beat by 10 years or more. Any hesitancy about driving and then finding a parking spot at North and Maryland avenues at 8 p.m. must have evaporated.
This is not the largely vacant, intimidating neighborhood it was 15 years ago.
A few days later, I spent time with Joe McNeely, who has spent the past nine years heading the Central Baltimore Partnership, an affiliation of the neighborhood groups and entities in the pie-shaped chunk of Baltimore that begins at Pennsylvania Station and runs north to University Parkway. His office is in the Walbert Building at the corner of North Charles Street and Lafayette Avenue.
In many ways, McNeely has been a grand orchestrator here, balancing the interplay of three major academic organizations, artists and their groups, neighborhood leaders, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. It's a job I would not want. McNeely, at age 70, has decided it's time to step down and help his wife, Patricia Massey, in her recovery from a traumatic brain injury suffered in a fall.
"This is the most marvelous, collaborative group I've worked with in 40 years. It's been a thrilling job," he said of working for the very mixed bag of interests here.
McNeely arrived in Baltimore at age 26 in September 1970. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. A community organizer, he worked closely with Barbara Mikulski, who was then a social worker and teacher.
Before long, he was working to create and head a neighborhood entity, the Southeast Community Organization. He got a law degree and was tapped by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1977. McNeely later spent years as a consultant in the community development field before taking on his present job.
McNeely said he enjoys watching a part of Baltimore evolve for the better. What had been a dingy and dreary set of blocks, something of a stagnant and underused backside to a railroad station, has emerged with $800 million in new capital investment, two new schools and 1,200 units of renovated or new housing.
And yet, to many people, the Central Baltimore area is often viewed as a funky, arty crossroads at North and Charles. Administrators at the University of Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University became apprehensive, he said, when prospective students got off trains at Penn Station and discovered a dirty and dicey Baltimore.
"Joe's great ability was to listen and build trusts among very diverse groups," said former MICA President Fred Lazarus, who credited the rebuilding of the Greenmount West neighborhood and the arrival of the Montessori charter school on Guilford Avenue as milestones.
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McNeely said it's been about bringing people to the table and talking. He credits many people and mentions how Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger has become "the greatest apostle for the proselytizing of the underground here for the Baltimore mainstream." The underground, as he describes it, is the arts and entertainment scene that has taken root here.
"It's funky. It's got variety and it's got energy," he said.
McNeely divided new visitors to the North Avenue area into three categories. About half he said, might be titillated but would not return. A quarter would return if accompanied by someone else. The final quarter would say, "I'm coming back."
"Joe is not an advocate of process for process' sake," said Andrew B. Frank, an economic development special adviser to Hopkins President Ron Daniels, who has taken a major interest in the area and has met with some of its major property owners. "Joe believes at his core that the best outcomes come from a thoughtful, legitimate and inclusive process."
Frank then borrowed a thought from "Animal Farm," George Orwell's classic satire: "Nobody is irreplaceable, but some more irreplaceable than others. That's Joe," Frank said.