Camp Washington is a little rough around the edges. That’s obvious from a casual drive-by perspective.
But what if this disenfranchised, low-income neighborhood isn’t as “poor” as it seems?
The neighborhood is gritty and quirky. And the running themes throughout Camp Washington are opportunity and productivity. Residents who are willing to dig in and invest themselves will see the fruit of their investments.
It’s a place where there are still opportunities for ownership and entrepreneurship. It’s a place where relational capital and creativity go a long way.
This post-industrial Cincinnati neighborhood has weathered some difficult years. But the neighborhood, collectively, already has everything it needs to survive and thrive for another hundred.
Ownership and hospitality
When Tony Ferrari spotted the large, vacant house on Colerain Ave., he knew it was the right one.
A Cincinnatian by birth, he was living in LA at the time but was planning a move back home with his brother, Austin, to start some business ventures in their hometown.
At the time, the plan was to buy the home to live in and use the adjacent vacant parcels for an outdoor café staged in an Airstream trailer. After a nightmare of red tape and logistical snafus, the business plan changed and the home became the café.
But, the neighborhood still became their home.
Ferrari and his brother both live in the neighborhood now, where they operate Mom ‘n ‘em, an airy, California-cool coffee shop and wine bistro. (It is one of a few Ferrari Bros. branded family businesses around town.)
They wanted the café to be a place where business was relational, not transactional.
Ferrari says Camp Washington is exactly what he was looking for, a place to dig in and become a fixture of the neighborhood, a place where he can live, work, and hang out all within walking distance.
The neighborhood is unique, he says. Just like family.
Fruitful, profitable, sustainable
The two acres of the urban farm rest on the former grounds of the old Cincinnati Work House.
Mom ‘n ‘em is north of Hopple St. near the part of the neighborhood that welcomes visitors with a quirky “Campy Washington” mural of George Washington in a theatrical costume — a nod to the local costume shop — along with cows repping the neighborhood’s past as a stockyard and meat processing hub.
The feel of this northern half of the neighborhood — together with the Western corridor along Spring Grove Avenue — still harkens to its industrial past. Many of the large industrial facilities are still in operation, providing thousands of jobs for Cincinnatians, and many have been retrofitted for new tenants like the American Sign Museum and the Machine Flats apartments.
Some buildings, like the historic Crosley Building are vacant and blighted after a series of missed opportunities for redevelopment.
But, this northern half of the neighborhood also holds some of its greatest resources — the community center, community pool, a large public park, a community garden, and the Camp Washington Urban Farm.
The two acres of the urban farm rest on the former grounds of the old Cincinnati Work House, a monstrous architectural gem that was used as a correctional and rehabilitation facility for crimes like drunkenness and disorderly conduct until it was condemned and demolished in the late 20th Century.
The Camp Washington Urban Farm project was started by the Community Board to address two big issues—vacancy and food insecurity.
When the project began, the goal was to use the large vacant lot to secure farm to table food access for Camp Washington residents and neighbors. But, as it turns out, its two acres have been difficult to manage; the project has had fruitful seasons and difficult ones.
The current project manager, Chris Smyth, was hired last year in the hope that he can create a more sustainable model for the farm.
After a number of years working in community development in nearby East Price Hill, Smyth became interested in permaculture and urban farming. He studied multiple cooperative plant ecosystems around the world and came home to Cincinnati to start The Common Orchard Project, a nonprofit that designs and plants productive fruit orchards across the country.
In addition to hosting one of Smyth’s orchard sites, the Camp Washington Urban Farm will, over time, look less like a small commercial farm and more like a perennial farm of edible and medicinal plants and fruit trees. There will also be cooperative farming and educational opportunities for residents and volunteers, as well as community composting facilities.
Smyth sees the urban farm as an opportunity to model best homesteading practices for other small, urban lots across the city where residents just need the right tools to make the most of the small bit of land at their disposal. The project is now a happy marriage between urban farming and proactive community asset management.
Community and recovery
Just a few blocks away on Bates Avenue, Mimi Rook manages a community garden. The project fell into her lap more than ten years ago when the Camp Washington Community Board received a small grant to develop the vacant lot into a community gardening space. She had a knack for gardening and agreed to take on the project.
Rook has been a resident of Camp since 1991, when she and her husband moved from Finneytown to a rental on Avon Place. Within a week of their arrival, they felt at home on their small street of blue-collar workers, artisans, and backyard gardeners.
They moved for affordable rent; they stayed for the community.
When Rook’s husband died in 2013, her neighbors were the first people she called. They stayed with her until the authorities arrived to take his body. They supported her through her grief. The nearby church, Washington United Church of Christ, hosted his memorial service free of charge, no questions asked.
Rook says this kind of “in your business” community life is second nature in Camp Washington. People really know each other, she says. And there are no secrets in such a small, dense neighborhood.
“All of it’s hanging out here, the good laundry and the bad,” she says. “And there’s a lot of bad laundry in Camp Washington.”
Rook doesn’t mince words about the mixed bag of her urban community.
“It’s Mayberry R.F.D. — on heroin,” she (sort of) jokes.
Rook understands the severity of addiction and its effect on a community. Her husband was a recovering addict who worked as an addiction counselor. He died clean, but she saw firsthand his long, hard road to recovery. And she takes addiction very seriously.
She works at the River City Correctional Center in the kitchen and says the residents — who are all non-violent felons, many with chemical dependency issues — enjoy working in the kitchen, working outside, working with their hands, and building things.
She believes that Camp Washington, with its proximity to the city, its access to employment opportunities, and its close-knit and supportive residents, could be a safe haven for people struggling through their recovery. It offers creative outlets, training, and potential job opportunities for after completion of a rehabilitation program at River City or elsewhere.
The community garden plays a role in recovery. So does the urban farm. Both host resident volunteers from River City. (The facility also has Culinary Arts and Maintenance Assistant training programs with the goals of job skills training and rehabilitation.)
In addition to cultivating the community garden, Rook has other big plans. She dreams of creating a residency program based on the concept of a “protected environment” for those in recovery. Every hour and dollar she invests in renovating her own home is with this dream in mind — a safe place to land after completing a treatment program.
She says Camp Washington is the perfect place. It is a place where people know each other — actually know each other — and this kind of proximity and vulnerability is the only road to recovery.
Art space, gathering space, creative culture
On the other side of the neighborhood, south of Hopple Street, the landscape looks less industrial and more mixed urban/residential. There are blocks of urban infrastructure visible, with more community representation and community spaces dotting the storefronts.
Churches, Sunny Blu Coffeehouse, art studios, a hardware store, and an innovative “social sculpture park” called CampSITE dot the district. Along with artist-curated popup events and gallery openings, these community touchpoints are great assets in a neighborhood that lost many of its gathering places with the dismantling of its Hopple Street business district.
The Camp Washington neighborhood has seen an artistic renaissance in recent years. Arts nonprofit Wave Pool has been a major player in this renaissance, activating community spaces and inviting creative and innovative ideas to the neighborhood.
When Cal Cullen and her husband, Skip, moved to Camp they were looking for the perfect artists’ home. In Camp Washington, they found all the things that have attracted artists and makers for decades — proximity to the city’s cultural hubs, affordability, and a flexible live/work and gallery space.
They bought the vacant firehouse on Colerain Ave for themselves. But, soon after moving in and getting to know the neighborhood, they decided to turn the building into a resource for the community and established the nonprofit Wave Pool.
Cullen calls Camp Washington “an island of creativity and freedom that feels rich with potential.”
She continues, “The neighborhood is one of make-do people who are historically underserved, living between a highway and a railroad, equally diverse and supportive of one another.”
Now in its sixth year, Cullen says Wave Pool aims to harness the creative energy of the artist community to turn deficits into assets. One of their core values is “optimism,” and a trust in the abundance of community assets.
She says all the pieces necessary to ensure Camp Washington’s brighter future are already in place. This sentiment resonates with residents of the neighborhood, where their deep investment of time and talents and commitment to each other has always kept the community alive.