How Meet Me in the Alley Reflects Wheeling’s Growth

A lot can change in 10 years. Looking back to what Downtown Wheeling was like in 2014, it’s impossible not to notice how certain things have changed for the better. Storefronts that were once vacant are now home to new businesses, buildings slated for demolition have instead been saved and restored, and art continues to fill our city in new and exciting ways. While far from perfect, there’s so much to be proud of here in The Friendly City.

Many of the successes we enjoy now are a direct result of work that began more than a decade ago. If you were around Wheeling in the early aughts, you might recall feeling that change was coming. After decades of decline, there was a newfound sense of hope and excitement. Large-scale projects were taking shape across the city, like Orrick relocating their Global Operations Center into the previously vacant Wheeling Stamping Building and the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau partnering with several local organizations to save the Capitol Theatre. But revitalizing a community isn’t all about the big development projects. There need to be even more people working in smaller ways to foster community pride and hope for the future. Luckily, on the heels of that early 2000s momentum, there were several grassroots efforts led by caring individuals who believed in Wheeling and wanted to contribute in their own unique ways. One such effort was led by Bennett and Katy McKinley, who embarked on a yearlong project to document the people of Wheeling through a photo project called Meet Me in the Alley. 

The premise was simple: meet them in the alley in Downtown Wheeling, share three descriptive words or phrases of your choosing, and get your photo taken. After editing, the photos were shared on social media and later displayed at the Wheeling Artisan Center Gallery, where the community was invited to view more than 1,100 photos collected during the project and take home a copy of their own. 

At the time, Bennett was a stay-at-home dad and photographer. Meet Me in the Alley was a passion project that grew organically. It started as an experiment with friends and family to see if photos taken in a nondescript alley in downtown Wheeling (with just the right lighting) would be worth anyone’s time. It grew to be something much more than that.

  • Bennett McKinley's 2014 Meet Me in the Alley portrait.

Today, McKinley is a full-time middle school science teacher who is just as optimistic about Wheeling’s future today as he was in 2014. We spoke with him to learn more about his recent announcement for Meet Me in the Alley 2.0 and how the community can get involved!

What originally inspired you to start Meet Me in the Alley?

It wasn’t really based upon inspiration. I was taking headshots for a friend, and he happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. To this day, he claims they are the best photos that have ever been taken of him. The Alley became the most beautifully organic community-wide project that could have happened in Wheeling.

I took photos of my wife and son in the same exact spot in the Alley, almost as a way to prove that it wouldn’t work. And somehow, it ended up proving me wrong. The Alley is magic. Something about the framing, the lighting, the ordinary and yet unique backdrop…it all just worked.

Who were some of the key players involved in making the original MMitA a success?

Of course, the Alley project wouldn’t exist without Glenn Elliot. He was the accidental original subject. And thanks to him, we spent a lot of time meeting some of our current best friends while hanging out around his stoop.

  • Glenn's 2024 Meet Me in the Alley portrait.

There were many memorable evenings spent with people who really care about Wheeling. Business owners, educators, politicians, community leaders…and really just a lot of individuals who wanted to see Wheeling thrive.

What were some of your most memorable moments from the first project?

Tor Hershman sits at the top of my memory. His is one of the most interesting examples of how unique the project was. He walked up to me and handed me a playing card. He said, “turn it over.” The backside was laminated with his name as if it were a business card. He also handed over a self-produced Halloween CD mixtape, with a singular track that was over an hour long.

His YouTube channel had thousands of views, but he was better known as a wholehearted supporter of Wheeling music. You couldn’t go to an event with music without seeing him. He would stand in one spot and just jam. His energy was incredible. 

  • Along with Tor's photo, he chose to submit the words "philosopher, parodist, poet, and dancin' fool" to accompany his portrait.

Outside of humans, a 1-ton elephant named Bobo was backed into the Alley on a trailer. You can see Bobo in his forever home now on Main Street. But before that, he debuted in the Alley in his recycled kitchen steel glory as a piece of art by Jeffrey Forster.

Why did you decide to revive MMitA? What convinced you that it was the right time?

Ten years just felt right. It’s like a time capsule. A lot can happen in ten years, and we’ve always wanted to circle back. It was such a positive thing for our family and for Wheeling, and we wanted to revisit it.

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How has the community responded since announcing the return of MMitA?

I knew it was going to be well received, but I was not ready for the response. I’ve even had students, who would have been toddlers when the project first ran, come up to me during school and express their and their families’ excitement about the reboot.

  • Louis McKinley has been helping with check-in for the MMitA project.

What are your goals with MMitA this time around? What’s the same, what’s different? 

In 2014, we took over 1,100 photos. Our goal this time around is to match or beat those numbers. We want as many people as possible to participate.

Reflecting on the changes you’ve witnessed in Wheeling over the past decade, how do you see MMitA fitting into the broader narrative of community revitalization?

We are really looking forward to the second-timers. Meet Me in the Alley is a representation of growth. People and cities don’t stay stagnant. We want to witness, through this project, how individuals have grown and changed, and how the City has grown and changed.

In what ways do you believe projects like this contribute to fostering a sense of community and belonging in Wheeling?

I bet you can think of at least two people who have had a black + white photo of themselves in the Alley as their profile picture. While they may have liked that photo of themselves, the thing that probably made them choose to use it was the connection to the project. Having your photo as part of the Meet Me in the Alley photography project made it feel like you were part of something. It wasn’t just a picture, it was an “Alley picture.” Some people have had that same photo for a full ten years now. We are happy to provide a replacement for them.

Beyond MMitA, are there any other community projects or initiatives you’re involved in or excited about? How do you see these various efforts intersecting and complementing each other?

We are huge supporters of Wheeling Heritage’s Show of Hands. Meet Me in the Alley was actually part of the very first Show of Hands. While we didn’t win, we were still a beneficiary of both the community support and Orrick’s generosity. It’s incredible to attend and listen to business owners pitch ideas to a crowd full of people who care. The event is unlike anything else.

McKinley was one of the finalists in the very first Show of Hands event (pictured from left: Ken Peralta, Will Turani, Danny Swan, Matt Welsch, McKinley, Patricia Croft, and Andy Croft.)

When Will You Meet the McKinleys in the Alley?

If you weren’t already convinced that you needed to visit The Alley before reading this, I’m sure you are now. The beauty of this project is that it’s easy for anyone to participate. Here is their latest open call schedule:

  • Sunday, June 2, 1 – 3 p.m.
  • Wednesday, June 5, 7 – 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, June 9m 1 – 3 p.m.
  • Wednesday, June 12, 7 – 8 p.m.
  • Monday, June 17, 7 – 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, June 30, 1 – 3 p.m.

To participate, all you need to do is show up and be ready to smile! Before taking your photo, each individual must complete a model release form. This can be done in advance online by clicking here

You can stay up-to-date with this project by subscribing to the Meet Me in the Alley newsletter. By signing up to receive updates, you’ll be the first to know about upcoming open call dates, highlights of noteworthy events, updates on cancellations or schedule changes, and invitations to in-person galleries and events related to the project. You can sign up by visiting wildandwanderful.myflodesk.com/whgalleyproject

Bennett will share alley photos on social media throughout the project. You can follow along at whgalleyproject on Instagram and Bennett McKinley Photography on Facebook.

• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.