Some people welcome change; others are wary of it.
Both residents and onlookers have declared a “renaissance” on the horizon in Camp Washington. But even the suggestion that the neighborhood is on the cusp of this sort of change can bring mixed feelings among residents and leaders. With every step forward, there is the potential that others will be left behind.
What does “progress” look like in Camp Washington? It means moving forward. And it means moving forward together.
Knowing when to build, when to walk away
Paul Rudemiller’s name is tossed around a lot in Camp Washington. Any story of the neighborhood’s progress over the past forty years will eventually make mention of him.
Rudemiller was a college student in the 1970s when he was recruited to work in Camp Washington during his field placement. He was studying social work and, rather than work in a more clinical office setting, he wanted to work on the ground in a community.
In June 1975, he was part of the beginning of the Camp Washington Community Board and spent many years as the executive director of the organization. He lived in Camp Washington for the first few years of the board’s existence.
Rudemiller is credited with, among other things, brokering the deal to take over management of the local FOP bingo hall in the 1980s.
The Community Board had been volunteering at the weekly event to raise funds for the organization. At first, it brought in $20,000 annually. A few years later, when they were offered the opportunity to take over and expand the operation, the $20,000 grew to $200,000, annually.
“That’s really what propelled us to do a lot of neat things in the 1990s and 2000s,” Rudemiller explains.
“We knew that since we weren’t a big neighborhood, population wise — even though there were a lot of businesses producing tax revenue — we didn’t have a lot of votes down there [in the city]. So if we wanted to renovate the neighborhood, if we were going to change the neighborhood, we were going to have to do it on our own.”
“One thing we had that many other development corporations didn’t was a source of unrestricted funds,” he says.
In addition to this funding source, Camp Washington developed a good rapport with the city. When they took on a project, the city knew it would be successful. This also helped them forge a lending relationship with a local bank that was willing to supplement the neighborhood’s own resources.
“After a while, we found out we were better working for our money than begging for it.”
Rudemiller says that Camp Washington was already a lower income neighborhood, so they weren’t interested in outside developers building income-restricted housing. They wanted to build a more economically diverse neighborhood and, without having to depend on grant money and outside investment, they had that freedom.
“What we were looking for was people who wanted to live [in Camp]. If a doctor wants to come and buy one of our houses, I’d sure like to sell it to them. Why? Because the kids growing up down there [in Camp Washington] would see an example of what they could be someday besides being a clerk at a grocery store or working at a fast food restaurant.”
In addition to fostering a more economically diverse community, Rudemiller also watched the neighborhood push through the growing pains of racial integration. He said Camp Washington welcomed its first African American family in — if he remembers correctly — around 1988.
A few “cowardly,” anonymous residents responded with acts of racism against the new family. But he watched the bulk of this historically poor, white, Appalachian neighborhood rally together to support their new neighbors and clean up the mess, pay for repairs, and welcome them as friends.
He says the goal of the development corporation was always “to provide stability in the presence of change.” And change, he says, is inevitable. He thinks they weathered it alright.
A few years ago, Rudimiller felt like the neighborhood had “gotten over the hump” and reached a point of stability. He sensed the tides were shifting in the neighborhood again, and he thought it might be time to make a plan for his retirement. He stepped down three years ago.
“Our work was paying in dividends,” he says.
It was time to let someone else take the reigns.
Rudimiller is now 67 years old and the Camp Washington Community Board is under new leadership. He is around the neighborhood less and less. For the next year, he has volunteered to manage the Mad Max Bingo hall. But, after that, he’s moving on.
“My time there is over,” he says.
“I worked there 42 years and I know that when you leave a place, you’ve got to actually leave. If you don’t, it makes it difficult for the people coming after you.”
New energy, new expertise
Twelve years ago, Robbe Bluestein says he and his wife sold or gave away 70% of their possessions and moved from a home in Warren County to an apartment in Camp Washington. They were looking for something new and fell in love with the neighborhood.
Bluestein is 72 and retired, but he didn’t move to the city to slow down. He has too much energy to sit out on community life.
He is one of the new generation of leaders who’ve taken charge in the past few years. He is the current president of the community council and has a long history of community service.
Bluestein is a Vietnam veteran (he was wounded in action in 1968). After his service, he went to college and then spent the next few years as a school counselor in Over-the-Rhine. He spent the next 42 years in corporate sales, working for companies like Service Merchandise, but never stopped serving in his community. In addition to his volunteering in Camp Washington, he volunteers as an advocate for juveniles in the justice system.
This varied work and life experience gives Bluestein a unique skill set for the job.
He isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions and ruffle some feathers. After so many years working in sales, he’s developed a pretty thick skin.
“Very few things hurt my feelings anymore,” he explains.
As the council president, his job is to advocate for the best interests of his neighbors and he has a lot of ideas for how to engage old and new (and former) residents, how to support vulnerable neighbors, and how to honor the history of Camp Washington.
“We are the sum of our experience,” he explains. “We can’t ignore the history of our community.”
Bluestein is a hard worker, but he doesn’t want to work alone. His leadership style plays to his strengths and defers in his weakness. He’s self aware and not afraid to tell you what he can do and what he can’t.
“I want to cooperate with all the branches of the neighborhood to get things done,” he explains. “I don’t want to be an army of one.”
He says there must be a sense of ownership among all residents. To this end, Bluestein is spearheading a door-to-door voting drive to encourage Camp Washington residents to update their voter registration and, if necessary, request their mail-in ballot.
“Voting — unless you’re a felon and in prison — is one of the only absolute rights you’ve got every day of the week,” he says.
He wants to remove any barriers residents may have to engaging in their community — locally and nationally — and he wants to invite them to be a part of the community council. This, he says, is how the neighborhood moves forward. Everyone must play a part.
Bluestein says there’s “no quick fix” for Camp Washington’s future, but that everyone seems very optimistic. And he is happy to see the rise of the fine arts and maker culture in the neighborhood because, he says, “creativity will go a long way.”
As for honoring the past, he is thankful for the work of the community board and its stabilization of single-family homes in the neighborhood. Without that, he says, there would have been no people left for him to fight for.
Now, he says, it’s time to activate for the residents’ collective voice. And it’s time to move forward into bigger things — market-rate housing, an entertainment district, shopping, restaurants, and more.
Camp Washington is a forgotten neighborhood, he explains. But it won’t be forever.
“I love this community not only for what it is but for what it can be. And the people make the community what it is.”
Six months, a new chance
Tucked into a corner of Camp Washington, between I-75 and the public Valley Park, is River City Correctional Center. Here, on any given day, up to 220 residents are engaged in a life-changing rehabilitation program.
River City was built as a last-stop alternative to prison time for non-violent offenders. It opened in 1998 on the same grounds as the city’s historic Work House correctional facility. Unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t look like a jail. It’s not a jail.
River City is one of two alternative rehabilitation programs in Hamilton County. Residents are referred to the program by the judge who handles their conviction. They stay for up to six months, during which they participate in a three-tiered rehabilitation program.
Executive Director Lisa Titus has been with River City since before it opened. When she began her college studies in health administration, she planned on working in public health, maybe as a hospital administrator. But her career took her in another direction.
“It seemed like the jobs I was landing were all in the social services, so I thought maybe since I was in the field and I liked it, I should see what doors would open.”
Titus began her tenure with River City as an administrative aid, helping plan for the initial opening of the facility. She was an administrative director when River City opened, then she transitioned into a department director role twelve years later. She became the executive director in 2013.
“I’ve always had a helping nature. It’s rewarding when I’m out and see people who’ve completed the program and they’ll approach me to say ‘Thanks,” she says. “It’s rewarding when we make a difference with as many of those people as possible.”
When residents arrive at River City, she says, the first step in their treatment is a risk assessment that gauges their needs and vulnerabilities in relationship to their conviction. It asks what factors contribute to their criminal behavior and what work needs to be done to give them the best chance of success when they leave.
From that point on, they receive individualized treatment.
Some residents take parenting or life skills classes. Some receive substance abuse counseling. Others engage in job training in one of their vocational programs.
Titus says River City has awarded 1,179 GEDs since 1999, and the occasion of their graduation is always hailed as a major accomplishment for the residents. For all residents, a basic education is crucial to their success upon exiting the program.
“If they get good treatment, have at least a high school diploma [or GED], and have an opportunity to go out and find employment, they will be more likely to succeed and we can reduce recidivism.”
What is success? Basically, success means leaving the program, integrating into society, and never coming back.
This integration is key, as well. By the time the residents enter the final phase of the program — re-entry — they are spending more time outside of the facility volunteering in the Camp Washington neighborhood in the urban farm next door or the nearby community garden. Others may be busy gaining work experience with nearby businesses like Springdot and Reliable Castings.
Before COVID-19, for 22 years, River City sponsored a large community picnic, helping build rapport between the facility and its neighbors. It was a great way to foster a positive relationship with the community.
“When I first started here, my boss and I attended a lot of the Camp Washington Community Council meetings and our goal was to be a good neighbor.”
“We want to blend in and not be a distraction and do whatever we can do to help the community flourish.”
Opportunity and progress
What does success look like for Camp Washington? Where will “progress” take the neighborhood next?
For his part, Paul Rudemiller is reticent to provide too many of his own opinions about the future. He says his opinion shouldn’t matter as the neighborhood looks ahead.
“Some people want to look at the way things have always been done or ‘the good old days,’” he says. “But there were never really ‘good old days.’ There were always struggles.”
“You have to look forward,” he says.
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.