Keeping A Commitment

He's Lost The Love Of His Life, But A Shared Passion For Baltimore Still Drives Powerful Development Watchdog 'Jay' Brodie.

October 27, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

He hardly looks like one of the most powerful people in Baltimore. A jovial, elfin man with gray hair, he doesn't wear fancy suits, run in elite circles or live in a big house. He doesn't even use a briefcase, lugging his voluminous files under one arm wherever he goes.

Yet as head of the city's economic development agency, M.J. "Jay" Brodie wields major influence over his hometown's look and feel, and has for many years. Right now he is shaping one of the biggest city projects in years, and one of the biggest in his 40-year career.

Last week, Brodie announced that the board of his agency, the Baltimore Development Corp., was endorsing billionaire Robert Johnson's plan to build a $200 million convention hotel near Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The final decision will be Mayor Martin O'Malley's, but Brodie has strong pull at City Hall and is sure to have a say in the outcome.

Brodie's power, and proximity to it, make some in town anxious; he's heard complaints about handouts given developers, the quality of the city's architecture and the Willy Wonka-style secrecy with which he runs the BDC, technically a private, nonprofit agency.

The hotel project, aimed at reviving the city's ailing convention business, takes up much of his time these days in his office high in a downtown tower. But as consumed as he is by the work, Brodie, 67, has other things on his mind right now as well. Genie, for one.

His wife of 44 years, Georgene "Genie" Brodie died a year ago this month. For Brodie, her absence has meant struggling through a new emptiness in his daily life.

"Some people told me the first year was the hardest," says Brodie, who still wears his wedding band. "I believe that."

Without Genie by his side, his accomplishments in rebuilding a shrinking city long past its prime bring him less pleasure. Not only was she his life partner, she was one of his - and the city's - biggest fans. Even as she lay dying last year, she wrote her first-ever song, an unself-consciously sappy ode to Baltimore - the "city we adore." Brodie still listens to a recording of it sometimes in his Wyman Park rowhouse.

Brodie, in fact, views his $155,940-a-year job as an extension of a civic and personal commitment that goes back decades to his days as a top city housing official. When his daughters were young, he and Genie took them on Sunday drives through the city, exploring its nooks and crannies. In the 1970s, the Brodies became pioneers when the family moved to the experimental Coldspring New Town community in Northwest Baltimore.

It would be no exaggeration to say Brodie has had two lifelong love affairs, one with his wife and family, the other with his hometown. Though his decision-making as the head of BDC is sometimes questioned, no one questions his intentions.

"He truly loves Baltimore, this man," says Anthony Ambridge, a former city councilman turned developer. "I don't know anyone who so single-mindedly loves the city as Jay Brodie."

Menasha Jacob Brodie was born in Baltimore at the height of the Depression. As a boy he lived with his parents, Meyer and Sarah, in a small North Broadway apartment above her father's tailor shop. Meyer Brodie - he was Berdichevsky until he passed through immigration at Ellis Island - had left Ukraine after World War I to farm in New Jersey, then ended up in Baltimore selling liquor.

Sarah Rachliss had emigrated from Poland with her family around the same time Meyer got out of Ukraine. She graduated from Eastern High School, the first in her family to earn a diploma, and went on to work as a secretary in the city water department.

Meyer Brodie yearned for a house of his own and saved for it until he had enough money to build a home on a steep Northwest Baltimore lot nobody else wanted.

As he grew up, Jay Brodie (Menasha never stuck) moved through the public schools, graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and enrolling at the University of Virginia to study architecture on a scholarship. The man who later struck some as tweedy enough to come from a line of economics professors was, in fact, the first in his family to finish college.

His life took a major turn in the summer of 1954, after freshman year at Virginia, when he went with friends to the movies on North Avenue. Georgene Gonzales, a dark-haired education student at Towson State College, was on duty as an usher. He was 17 and smitten by her sparkling brown eyes and bright smile.

The cinema became Brodie's favorite haunt. He persuaded the manager to let him in free since he wasn't watching any movies, and for a month he and Genie made small talk as he worked up the courage to ask her out. Their first date was at the movies.

When summer faded to fall, she visited him in Charlottesville, Va., where he took time out from his studies to dabble in poetry. A snapshot shows him looking dapper in a suit, one hand jauntily resting on his hip.

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