To Darius McKeiver, Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood is home.
The self proclaimed “Carroll County boy” traded life in a rural town to perform for the colorful streets of Baltimore’s premier entertainment district in 2009. But since then, home for McKeiver — otherwise known by his drag name Stealya Manz-Blue — is beginning to look different.
“It’s a bit of a ghost town,” he said. Many of the hallowed haunts known to embrace him and other artists have either shuttered or are disappearing.
On Jan. 12, McKeiver and what he calls “a gaggle of gays” are opening The Club Car, a queer cocktail bar and performance venue at 12 W. North Ave., with the hope of reviving the area. The pop-up business is the latest to occupy the space, but the first since the pandemic to aim for a permanent spot on a largely vacant block.
They have two months to prove their value to landlord Michael Schechter. With the right amount of foot traffic and liquor sales, Club Car founder Ryan Haase said, they could usher in a Station North “renaissance.”
In the last 10 years, neighborhood spots like the Hippo and Jay’s on Read have closed. Bars like Rituals, formerly in The Club Car space, never survived the pandemic. Last week, the 20-year-old Joe Squared served its final slice of pizza.
Haase told The Banner a successful bar could attract new art galleries and help bolster the arrival of Mobtown Ballroom, a cafe and dancehall weeks away from opening on the block following a move from Pigtown last year.
The Central Baltimore Partnership, which advocates for small businesses in the area, said they have collaborated with The Club Car in an effort to bring people back to the North Avenue Market area.
“It’s difficult to drive people to a space where there’s not much happening,” said Abby Becker, a Station North Arts District manager with the group.
She referred to the market space as “a major building in the middle of a transition,” making the act of earning a long-term lease difficult. It’s a familiar plight to Becker, who says the lack of available venues has caused the number of small businesses in the area to dwindle, even as the number of residents flocking to Greenmount West, Barclay and Station North rise.
“There’s a question of affordability and finding property owners who are willing to sell or lease these spaces,” she said.
In the last year, Haase, with the help of the CBP, opened two other pop-ups in the space: a John Waters-style Tiki bar named the Pink Flamingo and a woodsy Dasher and Dancer cocktail bar that sat in the Holiday Market. Neither concept lasted more than a week.
“Everything just takes baby steps,” he said of the strategy.
But The Club Car, he said, is being built to last. Furniture and decor will be modeled after a train car as an ode to the spot’s proximity to Baltimore’s Penn Station. Accents of gold and rich blue paint will line the walls. A chevron-patterned black and white stage — a relic from the owners who operated The Windup Space until 2019 — will sit at the heart of the venue.
Patrons looking for a show will be treated to cocktails and a rotating band of performers. Meanwhile, artists can lean on the business for either rehearsal space or an opportunity to debut new material.
Starting at 6 p.m. Friday, The Club Car will display paintings by Alix Tobey Southwick. At 8 p.m., Ben Shaver will play the piano as singer Amber Wood takes the microphone.
The space will be the only cabaret operating in the neighborhood, according to Haase.
He promises to immerse audiences in a bygone era, boasting stacks of magazines styled after the 1920s and retro lighting. Rent rates negotiated with the help of the CBP have allowed The Club Car to be a space where artists can pay to display their talents without breaking the bank and customers can spend up to $12 on a cocktail.
The offerings aim to stick out among the neighborhood, where the cost for space is “astronomical” compared to when Haase opened his other business, the Stillpointe Theater Company, 14 years ago, he said. In certain neighborhood spots, McKeiver has seen drinks rise to almost $18.
“A lot of places are no longer accessible to mobile artists who just want to get up to the mic and sing or tell a joke,” McKeiver said.
While the city’s transit hub earns an overdue renovation, McKeiver anticipates costs may rise, ideally, with additional foot traffic.
“Hopefully we can all still afford to live here,” he said.
Still, McKeiver and the rest of the team are optimistic about what a lively new bar can bring to North Ave.
“Seeing those garage doors lift up and all the lights coming out of the windows on that block is what I’m looking forward to,” McKeiver said.
“That’s what it was like when I first got here.”