Camp Washington

Residents, old and new, find a home and livelihood in welcoming Camp Washington

Joyce Smith has spent all but a handful of her 80 years in Camp Washington.


“Since [my mom] brought me home from the hospital, this is where I’ve been,” she says.


Her family moved to the neighborhood from nearby South Fairmount in the 1930s after the tragedy of losing a child (partially due to damage in their apartment from a flood). Her father worked at Aluminum Industries in South Fairmount; her mother stayed home to raise their seven daughters.


Camp Washington was a great place to grow up, Smith says, and she rarely left the neighborhood. There was no reason to leave. Camp Washington had everything they needed.


Smith remembers picnics with her mother in the large public park with a shelter, a pool, and a fountain — near to where Valley Park now stands — and shopping for penny candy and ice cream with her sisters.


When Smith was a child, Camp Washington had a bakery, a small grocery store, a pharmacy, and even a bowling alley and movie theater. (It was $.25 a show, she remembers.) There was a neighborhood school, a library, and a post office.


When she got married, Smith left for a few years and lived nearby in Price Hill. But when her mother fell ill and required live-in care, she and her husband decided to move back to Camp to help.


“We couldn’t afford a nursing home,” she explains. “And no one else had room for her though she wouldn’t have wanted that anyway.”


“So my husband said, ‘Well, if you sell me the house, you don’t need to go anywhere.’ So we bought the house and we’ve been there ever since.’”


Her husband bought the family home on Avon Place from her father around January of 1970.


Joyce worked for 38 years at Southern Leather Company in Saint Bernard and her husband was a printer by trade. The Smiths have raised two children in Camp Washington. Now long retired, they enjoy traveling south by RV, when they can, and hosting family holidays for their children and their families.


While there are some long-term neighbors who see changes in Camp Washington with skepticism, Smith says she welcomes it.


“I know change is hard and there are some changes I don’t like, but I roll with it,” she explains. “Especially if it’s for the good.”


She’s especially thankful the community leaders are working hard to protect the single-family homes so new residents can move in. But what she misses most about the “old” neighborhood is the ability to walk to the library and the post office. And she misses seeing so many kids around. (Youth are the smallest demographic age group in Camp Washington today.)


Some change is certainly good, she says. She doesn’t miss the smell and chaos of the stockyards, for example, remembering the crowds of trucks full of live animals for the slaughter that came every Sunday night and left again every Monday morning.


Smith calls Camp Washington “a forgotten neighborhood,” similar to neighboring South and North Fairmount, Lower Price Hill, South Cumminsville, and Millvale. Many of the things that made them livable 80 years ago have been lost to time, disinvestment, and “progress.” These forgotten neighborhoods have lost a lot, including many of the amenities that would make aging in place more comfortable and enjoyable for people like Smith.


But there are still people there, she says. They are still a neighborhood.


“I would not hesitate to knock on anybody’s door at 2am in the morning if I needed help,” she says.


“We’ve got our problems, but where can you go where they don’t?”


Finding a place in a new, old community


Joyce Smith is one of the many Camp Washington residents who held fast and stayed put while their neighborhood changed around them and their children left to pursue education, jobs, and better housing opportunities elsewhere.


But, in an interesting twist, the neighborhood is drawing some people back.


For younger Cincinnatians or those who grew up in a car-centric, sprawling suburban America, a place like Camp Washington offers the opportunity to buy into a slice of the America of the past. It’s a place where friendly neighbors, corner bars, community coffeeshops, and public greenspace are just a short walk away.


Natalie Grilli is one of these newer residents. She moved into the Machine Flats on Colerain Avenue in 2015.


Grilli was looking for an urban loft lifestyle. Camp was near to her photography studio in Westwood and was more affordable than other urban neighborhoods. Plus, Grilli is a portrait photographer by trade and fell in quickly with the burgeoning arts community in Camp.


The mixed industrial landscape of Camp Washington feels familiar to Grilli. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a small industrial city in Northeastern Ohio.


Grilli’s husband, Paul, is from Youngstown, as well and he has similar steel-town family roots. (Paul has long documented Rust Belt industry and decay through his photography blog, The Rust Jungle.)


“It feels like home,” she explains. “My father worked in the steel mills. [My husband’s family] came over from Italy to work. We lived in an industrial steel town.”


After a few years at the Machine Lofts, it was one particular house in the neighborhood that sparked Grilli’s interest in buying a home there — a darling cape cod that the Camp Washington Community Board was selling for $10,000.


The sale didn’t work out for them. Someone else got to it before they got their things in order to buy it. But they looked at another house. Then another. Then they found their “perfect house” through word-of-mouth, between neighbors. It was move-in ready and big enough for their growing family. (They welcomed a daughter eight months ago.)


Grilli does not take this house or the neighborhood for granted. She knows these opportunities don’t exist everywhere.


Her husband has a great job, she says, but she’s a self-employed photographer. (She did teach as an adjunct professor at Miami University before COVID-19 changed class offerings.) It would be hard to find this “perfect match” anywhere else, let alone be able to afford it.


“Here, we’re able to live within our means in a great house,” she says. “We’ve lived in it for two years and now we know the whole neighborhood.”


The Welcome Project


Hospitality is built into the fabric of Camp Washington and, at The Welcome Project, this hospitality is extended in real time.


The Welcome Project is a program of nonprofit Wave Pool. It’s a “social enterprise run by and for refugee and immigrant artists and makers in Cincinnati.”


The storefront community space on Colerain Avenue, south of Hopple Street, is part grocery store, part artisan boutique, part teaching kitchen, and part art gallery. It’s a place where people from across the globe can meet face-to-face, across the dinner table or side-to-side in an art class.


Erika Allen is the program director of The Welcome Project.


Like many of the people who walk through the door, Allen has her own story about how she found Camp Washington and what the neighborhood (and the project) has meant to her.


Allen is a fairly new resident of Camp Washington. She moved from Northern Kentucky in 2018 and lives just a few blocks away from The Welcome Project.


It was through her connections at The Art Academy of Cincinnati, where she was a student, that she learned about Camp Washington and the nonprofit Wave Pool. By the time she moved to the neighborhood, she was already volunteering. She’s now the director, and the first person a visitor sees when they walk in the door.


In a way, Allen says she feels she was always meant for this place.


Allen was born in Guatemala and raised by her grandmother and aunt while her mother worked as a nanny in the US. Her mother came back and forth from the States, helping support Allen from abroad, and then brought Allen to live here when she was about fifteen years old. She traveled back and forth after that, attending law school in Guatemala and building a career in the US. She married her first husband and had three children.


A few years ago, after raising her family — including years supporting them as a single mother — her (now) husband encouraged her to go back to school to study photography, which was something she’d always loved. That’s how she ended up at the Art Academy and, eventually, in Camp Washington.


Now her life and passions have come full-circle as she helps curate The Welcome Project, a place for immigrants, refugees, and other friendly Cincinnatians to meet together to share their stories, their native food, and their art.


“I’ve always wanted to help people,” she says. “I think that’s something that doesn’t change over time.”


“I consider myself fortunate and privileged within my own community to be able to do the things I’m doing,” she explains. “I’d like to use that privilege to help others.”


She understands the immigrant experience. She also knows about being a single parent, being an entrepreneur, being a non-traditional college student, and feeling unwelcome in her own neighborhood. (She moved to Camp Washington after the 2016 presidential election because of the tension it created where she was living.)


Many of The Welcome Project’s big plans for 2020 programming — like in-person events, social dinners, and art classes — have been put on hold because of COVID restrictions.


And this tension of somehow moving forward in the middle of pandemic is especially poignant for Allen, who graduated with the class of 2020 but wasn’t able to walk in a ceremony.


“It feels unfinished,” she says, “like maybe it never really happened.”


But The Welcome Project storefront is still open for walk-in browsing at the grocery or boutique shop, and those interested can still engage with the program through their popular Welcome Table Boxes—boxed meals prepared by local immigrant chefs.


In response to the pandemic, The Welcome Project has also adapted their offerings of food and dry goods, and now has items for sale and for free for neighbors, and also local musicians and artists made particularly vulnerable by the crisis.


Even though 2020 has brought some disappointments, it’s also bringing in a new onslaught of neighbors through their doors. Allen says more people stop in all the time just to see what they have available from local vendors and artisans.


Allen has personally benefited from The Welcome Project, as well. A few years ago, they began offering pottery classes and she sat in as a student. She’d never taken much time to explore pottery as a medium before. She’d always been a photographer. But she had recently undergone a traumatic medical procedure and pottery became a healing, creative outlet for her.


Now, pottery is her medium of choice for her own art.


“My need for community and my art came together here,” she explains. “It’s so inviting and open to ideas. It’s so welcoming.”

The On The Ground: Camp Washington feature series is made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.