Camp Washington blossomed as a hub of Cincinnati's pork industry at the turn of the 20th century. Its proximity to rail and waterways made it a strategic place to build a business and its proximity to employment opportunities made it a convenient place to make a home.
Still today, the tiny neighborhood is a microcosm of Cincinnati history and culture, with a dash each of chili, steel, beer, sausage, Greek and German and Italian immigrants, the Mill Creek, railways, and artist/maker culture all packed into its modest 1.22 square miles.
If Cincinnati is a city of neighborhoods, it’s possible that Camp Washington is one of the most truly “Cincinnati” neighborhoods of them all.
80 years, 7 days, 24 hours
On the most prominent corner in the neighborhood stands Camp Washington Chili — a Cincinnati icon. For outsiders, this might be the part of the neighborhood they know best.
Now, they're celebrating their 80th year of business.
Maria Papakirk is a third generation owner of Camp Washington Chili. Her great uncle opened the restaurant in 1940 and her father joined the business soon thereafter, when he emigrated from Greece. She took over five or six years ago when her aging father was ready to pass on the business.
When Camp Washington Chili opened, Papakirk says, the neighborhood was a heavy industrial district with a significant number of bars along the business corridor and a few pockets of single-family homes. The 24-hr chili parlor was the perfect spot for catching third shift workers and late night drinkers on their way home.
But that was 80 years ago. And, just like other first-ring neighborhoods like West End and Walnut Hills, the installation of interstate highways changed Camp Washington. Among other things, residential districts were cleared to make way for the highway and pedestrian pathways were cut off, changing the fabric of these neighborhoods.
Then, twenty years ago, the business district was sacrificed to widen Hopple Street. That’s when the original Camp Washington Chili building was demolished and the restaurant moved into its new building, just a few feet away from the old.
“It’s good and bad in a way,” Papakirk says. “A lot of the old has been torn down to make way for the new. We love this new modern building but there were so many houses and little bars with character that lined the street and now it’s parking lots and fast food and gas stations.”
“But at the same time,” she admits, “it’s cleaner, it looks safer, and it’s brightly lit.”
Just like in 1940, the bulk of Camp Washington Chili’s customers come from nearby manufacturing facilities or from downtown. But Papakirk has also seen an increase in out-of-town visitors.
Before adjusting their hours in response to the COVID pandemic and closing a few days a week, Saturdays were her favorite days at work. That’s when people from all over the country tend to stop in on their way downtown or to the nearby American Sign Museum. They come looking for an authentic Cincinnati chili experience. Camp Washington Chili is one of the very first chili parlors. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.
Now, Papakirk says, the Camp Washington neighborhood is in transition again.
While nearby companies like Meyer Tools and Queen City Steel Treating have been a source of economic stability in the neighborhood for years, smaller businesses like coffee shops have been popping up around the community. Younger people are buying houses and artists are moving their studios in to the neighborhood.
She’s not surprised.
There’s a lot of history in the neighborhood, she says, reminiscing about cultural traditions like the annual ravioli dinner at Sacred Heart Church and about other neighborhood institutions like Queen City Sausage and SpringDot, a printing company started by a Hungarian immigrant in 1904.
Papakirk says it’s a great place — a smart place — to operate a business.
“This is central to everything,” she says. “You can get anywhere in 10 minutes from Camp Washington.”
Beyond Hopple Street
At first glance, Hopple Street in Camp Washington is just a highway interchange. The neighborhood has a handful of popular attractions like Camp Washington Chili — reasons to stop and stay for a while — but it’s not usually a final destination.
Blink, and it’s gone.
But it would be a mistake to stick to the quick few blocks of gas stations and fast food establishments that cater to travelers off the interstate. It would be a mistake to miss Camp Washington the neighborhood.
Travel a block in any direction and the neighborhood suddenly shows itself, both for good and ill. (Most neighborhoods are like that.)
As far as Cincinnati neighborhoods go, Camp Washington is small and the rail yards alone occupy a third of the land space. Another quarter of the land is zoned industrial. And only 3% of the neighborhood is residential, with both single- and multi-family homes.
100 years ago, the population in Camp Washington topped off around 12,000. Today, there are only 1,300 or so people living in the neighborhood.
Some left when the Great Depression reduced manufacturing and job opportunities. Many left for new housing opportunities after the second World War. Better schools and jobs drew others away at the end of the 20th century.
Camp Washington is a working-class neighborhood. And even though its population is small, unlike so many other Rust Belt industrial towns, it never stopped actually working. It’s a neighborhood of makers and builders and, especially today, artists.
There are still thousands of jobs in the neighborhood, far more jobs than residents. (There were about 3,600 people employed in the area in 2014.) It's believed that, at one point, Camp Washington’s manufacturing industry supplied 42% of the city's income tax earnings. It has been called an “industrial powerhouse.”
But the “rust” of post-industrialism and the effects of urban disinvestment do show in places. The neighborhood has its share of vacancy, unemployment, addiction, and (mostly petty) crime. It is a food desert. And its neighborhood elementary school is struggling.
Reverend Dr. Aaron Maurice Saari has gotten to know this part of the neighborhood well.
Saari is 18 months into his job as pastor of Washington United Church of Christ. And he spends more time confronting issues of suicide, addiction, homelessness, hunger, and mental health than he does preparing his sermons. A recovering addict himself, with his own mental health battles, he knew what he was getting into when he took the job.
He chose Camp Washington.
Saari has completed advanced studies in the concept of “Beloved Community” as envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Saari wants the ministry of Washington UCC to be an embodiment of King’s vision for social justice, equity, and love for one’s neighbor.
This is why Washington UCC was such a perfect fit for him. Over the past fifty years, the mission of the church has shifted from a worshiping community to a serving community.
The church provides free meals, multiple times a week, plus Sunday breakfast. They have big Thanksgiving and Christmas events. There is a free store across the street that provides clothes and groceries and household goods to those who need them. And they have an afterschool program and summer camp that serve kids from the neighborhood and those nearby.
“Normally this church would be filled with kids today,” he says.
Many of their programs are on hold because of COVID, which Saari says is heartbreaking.
“We get them for only a few hours a week or a limited time during the summer and I’m terrified of what they’re doing and where they are now since they’re not here or at school.”
He knows that some of the residents of Camp Washington feel trapped — trapped in poverty or addiction, trapped in a bad school or a dead-end job. He’s proud to be a part of the Camp Washington community and he feels good about where it’s headed, but he wants to make sure it becomes a neighborhood where everyone thrives.
“Our goal is to try and be a constant in the lives of these kids,” he says, “to let them know that they’re loved and that they matter and that they can get out of this neighborhood if they want to get out of this neighborhood.”
For now, he wants to keep them fed. And he has a lot of help.
Serving the community in this capacity is a lot of work for a small church. Of its few members — the church only has about twenty — most don’t live in the neighborhood anymore. But, in addition to its members, the church has volunteers that come from across the city to serve the community and Saari says the church wouldn’t have survived without these loyal volunteers (and neither would some residents).
This shift in the church’s focus happened about fifty years ago. Members had moved out of town. Attendance had dwindled. The community had changed and the church could not sustain itself.
“There was a sense that the church wasn’t connected with the neighborhood,” he explains.
Washington UCC had been in Camp Washington since 1872, but they were preparing to close for good. Then, a local pastor offered a different suggestion: they had to have a new vision, a new mission.
The neighborhood became their mission.
Rebuilding what’s been lost
Nineteen years ago, the Camp Washington Community Board hired Joe Gorman as a community organizer. He was familiar with the neighborhood — his first introduction to Camp Washington was as a young man playing music in a bar on Hopple Street — and he had years of experience organizing elsewhere.
It was around the year 2000 and, though the neighborhood had lost some of its urban infrastructure, he could see an opportunity to rebuild it. He wanted to engage the residents and businesses in working together to reactivate what was still there.
One of Camp Washington Community Board’s goals was to save threatened single-family houses and apartment buildings so the neighborhood remained a livable community — a place worth investing and staying put.
There was a high incidence of vacancy and blight, so the Community Board took advantage of nuisance abatement laws, suing for ownership of nuisance properties. They then paid the cost of remediating the blight and restoring the buildings, selling them to new owners who would live in the neighborhood.
To date, they’ve stabilized 52 single-family homes and three apartment buildings. And they’ve paid for much of it themselves, with proceeds from a neighborhood bingo hall — Mad Max Bingo.
In the 1990s, the Camp Washington Community Board brokered a deal to purchase an old Fraternal Order of Police bingo hall and has been using it as a community fundraiser ever since. Not only has Mad Max Bingo — which is now located in nearby Cheviot--funded these property stabilization projects, but also other community projects and nonprofits.
“It’s how we’ve been able to stabilize housing and residents,” Gorman explains.
This financial independence has enabled the community to be creative and innovative as they move forward. And it’s helped them keep outside influence at bay. They can control the speed and scope of their progress.
The goal of the Community Board — together with its partnering Community Council and Business Association — was never to reinvent the neighborhood, but to let it evolve to meet the needs of today’s residents.
“Before I-75 was built,” he explains, “people would walk to work or take the streetcar or the bus. They were able to leave work, eat at a bar or restaurant, and come home all within a few blocks.”
It’s a truly mixed-use neighborhood, he says. And though that lifestyle may not have been attractive thirty years ago, it is now.
The nature of local industry has changed: There is no longer the stench of thousands of cattle and pigs beings slaughtered daily along Spring Grove Avenue, for example. But a new generation of workers and makers and artists is retrofitting the old industrial neighborhood for modern use.
“It’s been cool seeing the evolution of the neighborhood from the urban Appalachian, predominantly poor white, population that came here to work at the manufacturing factories,” he says.
“That generation is dying out and their kids are gone. But we're seeing a new group of younger people moving into Camp.”
The energy and creativity of these new residents — together with the support and resources of the old — is putting more of the missing pieces back together in Camp Washington.
A variety of community-forged initiatives are addressing food access, beautification, health and wellness, employment, and housing. In the time Gorman has been working in the neighborhood, he’s seen an urban farm project take shape. He’s helped put a tree canopy plan together. And he’s seen the Camp Washington Community School — a GED and afterschool tutoring center — move toward creating an employment pipeline to local businesses.
It’s not a new neighborhood, but more like a grown up version of itself. It’s a place where artists, makers, working-class homeowners, and local businesses are actually working together.
"The nature of the companies and businesses [in Camp Washington is] that many of them are located right next to houses,” Gorman says. “You have that direct linkage between residents and businesses.”
He calls it a “symbiotic” relationship, and he says it doesn’t exist in every neighborhood. What Camp Washington has is rare and valuable — something worth protecting and sharing.
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.