Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
The people and neighborhoods of our region have fascinating stories to tell, and WVXU is committed to telling them. Round the Corner is our community storytelling initiative, shining a light on the people, businesses, history, and events that make Greater Cincinnati such a fascinating place to live, work, and raise a family. Stories will air on 91.7 WVXU and 88.5 WMUB, and stream on, the WVXU mobile app, and on your smart speaker.

The Mill Creek is rebounding. Camp Washington residents hope more of their environment follows

A view of the Mill Creek from Mill Creek Road between Camp Washington and Millvale
Nick Swartsell
A view of the Mill Creek from Mill Creek Road between Camp Washington and Millvale.

WVXU's Round the Cornerseries takes you into the heart of Greater Cincinnati's communities. This time, we're getting to know Camp Washington. WVXU's Nick Swartsell explores efforts to address the environmental issues the community has faced.

Shawn Tyler first visited the Mill Creek as a child in the 1980s. The waterway running through Camp Washington and other central Cincinnati neighborhoods wasn't exactly thriving at the time.

"That was the first time I'd ever seen pollution," he says. "The water was orange in places. There was so much trash. I saw refrigerators that were on the sides of the bank. Cars that were on the sides of the bank."

But he revisited the part of the creek flowing through Camp Washington four years ago and was shocked by what he saw. Clear water, thriving plant life, a diverse array of birds — and lots and lots of fish. Tyler says he's fishing on the creek almost every day now, catching bass, carp and rarer species and then immediately releasing them back into the creek.

A lot of folks in Camp Washington are hoping that rebound extends to other environmental issues the neighborhood faces — and some local groups are working to make that happen.

The decrease in pollution in the Mill Creek has allowed plant life and insects to grow stronger, feeding fish that in turn feed birds — including blue herons and bald eagles that are regularly spotted along the creek. Tyler says it's a remarkable transformation.

RELATED: Camp Washington's art community is weird, wild and growing

"I would have never thought in my lifetime for real that I would ever catch a six-pound striped bass or a three-pound small-mouth bass," he says. "I would have never, ever thought I would have caught a 35-pound carp. I catch sauger out of that creek on the regular. Sauger! That’s a fish that requires high oxygen levels."

Shawn Tyler on the banks of the Mill Creek with a rare catfish. Tyler photographs and quickly releases all of his Mill Creek catches.
Shawn Tyler on the banks of the Mill Creek with a rare catfish. Tyler photographs and quickly releases all of his Mill Creek catches.

It's not just the fishing. For him, the Mill Creek is deeply therapeutic.

"When I get upset, I go to the creek," he says. "Not even to fish — I go for peace of mind."

Challenges remain

Advocates hope others in Camp Washington and surrounding neighborhoods are able to reap similar benefits as the area recovers from a past clouded by industrial pollution and other environmental challenges.

Beginning in the early 1800s, the city used the creek as basically an open sewer. While that practice faded as the city's sewage system evolved, heavy industry in places like Camp Washington introduced a huge variety of pollutants to the creek — and into the surrounding air. By the end of the 20th Century, the environmental damage done to the area was well known. In 1997, conservation group American Rivers named the Mill Creek the nation's most endangered urban stream.

Mill Creek Alliance Executive Director Dave Schmitt stands on the big yellow bridge over the Mill Creek between Camp Washington and Millvale. He says the Alliance has big visions for the future of the creek, including a public landing nearby where people could launch canoes or kayaks. The group is also working with advocacy group Tri-State Trails to envision an eventual bike path along the waterway.

He says that environmental progress can improve health outcomes and spur development that could help residents — if they're a part of the process from the beginning.

Schmitt says Camp Washington has borne the brunt of decades of environmental neglect and degradation. But in the last two decades, there have been big improvements, with more on the way.

"Camp Washington was the center of the meatpacking industry at one time," he says. "Going back many decades, that was certainly contributing a whole lot of nasty material to the stream. Happily, I can say that that and other kinds of industrial discharges are definitely not the biggest problem anymore."

RELATED: Camp Washington was vibrant before I-75 came through. Can it be that way again?

Schmitt says the creek is much cleaner now, but some challenges still remain mostly due to occasional sewage overflows from the Metropolitan Sewer District. That dynamic was starkly illustrated when an MSD treatment plant on the creek lost power earlier this year, causing the stream to back up with sewage. But for the most part, the waterway meets federal pollution standards.

"On most given days, the Mill Creek meets secondary contact standards, which means it's safe for fishing, paddling wading, things like that," he says. "Except for the couple of days after a big rainstorm."

Beyond the Mill Creek, other groups are working to engage Camp Washington residents on environmental issues they'd like to see addressed. Last year, Groundwork Ohio River Valley in conjunction with the city's Office of Environment and Sustainability and regional environmental group Green Umbrella conducted an input session to hear from residents of Camp Washington and other communities.

They found residents in Camp Washington specifically are very worried about air quality, green space and noise pollution. City data suggests their concerns are well-grounded. A set of data the city calls a climate equity indicator says Camp Washington has extreme exposure to pollution from traffic and industry that can cause respiratory illness. It also ranks among the lowest among Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods when it comes to green space and tree coverage.

Groundworks Community and Climate Resilience Program Director Kelsey Hawkins-Johnson says efforts to engage residents in Camp Washington are a first step toward alleviating some of the environmental burden on the neighborhood.

"I think it's important to see Camp Washington as a neighborhood that can have these amenities," she says. "That can have green space and street trees; that can be safe; that can have air that is breathable. Because I feel like when people travel through these neighborhoods, they just go in and out and don't think about actually living there."

RELATED: Camp Washington is a zoning mashup. Community leaders want to fix that

Groundwork hopes to complete more work with residents in the community in the future. In the meantime, Mill Creek fisherman Tyler says he hopes groups like Mill Creek Alliance and Groundwork keep up the work they're doing. He volunteers with the former whenever he can and says he hopes the organization expands.

"If it keeps going in the direction it's going, it can only get better and better," he says. "The fishing is on point. Now it needs to stay like that. And it needs some more cleaning."

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.