Camp Washington was vibrant before I-75 came through. Can it be that way again?
WVXU's Round the Corner series takes you into the heart of Greater Cincinnati's communities. This time, we're getting to know Camp Washington. WVXU's Nick Swartsell talks with a former resident about the impact the construction of I-75 had on the neighborhood.
The small brick house at 1311 Arlington Street in Camp Washington has seen better days. Its windows are boarded up, the glass in them broken. The porch sags. Someone has painted a fire inside the living room fireplace. But otherwise, the house is empty except for chips of peeling paint and bits of trash.
Bob Story is in the front yard fascinated by a hole in the ground where a tree used to be. He lived in this house for decades. Like just about every square foot of the property, he has a memory about this spot.
"1958, Arbor Day," he remembers. "I brought a tree home from school. I wanted to plant it, but Mom said, 'No, we're not planting that tree.' My Dad looked at Mom and said, 'Ruth, let him plant it. It'll die anyway.' We planted it right there in that spot. I'm surprised that that hole is sunk in, but it took off there. It took off like the mighty oak it was."
The neighborhood around Story's old house is much different than the one he grew up in. The Camp Washington of the 1950s and '60s was a place full of factories to work in, with families in small houses lining the streets. The gradual decline of industry here and the highway that came through in the 1960s changed that. Camp Washington is still a proud and productive neighborhood. But Story says it's a shadow of what it used to be.
"You could actually be born in this neighborhood, work and retire in this neighborhood and never own a car," Story says. "You had everything you needed; employment. You had buses that went by. You had anything, everything that you ever wanted. And friendship? You couldn't be in a better neighborhood."
The way Story tells it, Camp Washington was a place where everyone knew everyone. If you did something foolish as a kid, your parents were bound to hear about it pretty quickly. Likely from the neighbors, who might be Italian or German immigrants assimilating alongside migrants from Appalachia.
The construction of I-75 was 'devastating'
Story grew up and took a job at a factory just steps away from his house. He advanced in his career, became a union representative and eventually retired. But as the years went on, jobs like his became more and more scarce, and more and more of the homes around him fell empty. The highway I-75 came through, businesses began trickling out, and people followed suit.
Story remembers the houses vacated for the coming highway and how the Cincinnati Fire Department set them ablaze to train new firefighters. He and his neighbors would gather on a nearby hillside and watch the houses burn. It was a sign of the downturn to come.
"I noticed it changing as soon as I-75 came in," he says, "They had... back on Colerain Avenue, where 75 is now, it went all the way to Northside. They tore all those houses down. That's when the neighborhood started going downhill. It was devastating, I'll say that."
University of Cincinnati Center for the City Director Dr. Anne Delano Steinert says the highway severely cut off Camp Washington from the rest of Cincinnati.
"When you look at maps from the 19th and early 20th century, Camp Washington is really connected. It has the Mill Creek on one side, but it flowed into the rest of the city pretty seamlessly until the highway really isolated it. And so our experience of Camp Washington today is very different than this neighborhood integrated into the city that we would have known."
The results of that isolation can be seen in Camp Washington's population today. The year Story was born, 1950, there were almost 8,000 people living in the neighborhood. There are currently only about 1,200 people there, though the neighborhood is seeing a significant revival and some community leaders envision a time when Camp Washington will again be a place full of people enjoying a connected, vibrant community.
Officials' hope for the future
Camp Washington Business Association President Matt Wagner says he takes hope from recent new industrial facilities or expansions as well as the neighborhood's burgeoning arts community.
"I envision a very walkable community," he says. "I see a lot of bikes being used. I see hopefully more folks coming here as a destination, maybe before a soccer game or before the Bengals game."
He lists several recent newly constructed commercial buildings, including a Rhinegeist Brewery facility and the new Powell Valves building. "I think that's going to really help the revitalization and of course open the doors to that live/work community, which is really what we want to see."
But that's still a work in progress. As Story stands in his former front yard clutching pictures of his family in the now-vacant house they once loved, he reflects on a lost sense of community he and other former Camp Washington residents feel. These days, he lives in a sprawling subdivision in Northern Kentucky where he only knows a couple of his neighbors — a far cry from the connections he had in his Camp Washington days.
"Where I live right now, I know two people — there's 1,200 residents," he says. "I know two."