Can Carthage Rise Again?

An influx of Hispanic residents and a new strategic plan could help revive a neighborhood known mostly for being home to the Hamilton County Fairgrounds and ”the big Indian sign.”

Illustration by Celia Krampien

The ancient city of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was the chief rival of the Roman empire. Well, it was until Roman soldiers burned it to the ground, enslaved its people, and claimed all of its territory along the Mediterranean Sea.

When the city of Cincinnati took over its neighboring town of Carthage in 1911, the transition was, undoubtedly, far less momentous and far more peaceful. The merger created one of the city’s northernmost communities, a place that has become popularly known as the home of the Hamilton County Fairgrounds and of a landmark 50-foot-high, politically incorrect sign whose long-ago owner, Cherokee Motors, advertised its place of business with the slogan, “Where Paddock meets Vine, at the big Indian sign.” But head south on Vine Street, and you’ll enter a largely forgotten neighborhood whose population has undergone one of the most dramatic transformations in the city over the past 20 years.

The Hispanic population in this little enclave has grown faster than in any other Cincinnati neighborhood, surging from a mere 41 families in 2000 to well over 300 today. Michael Maloney is an independent researcher who has tracked city demographics for decades, compiling a series of in-depth reports called The Social Areas of Cincinnati that are used by city planners and local advocacy groups. In the first decade of the 21st century alone, he says, the Hispanic population in Carthage grew by 685 percent. Nearly 20 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are Hispanic, by far the largest proportion in Cincinnati.

That growth has meant a near-complete transformation of the once primarily Appalachian neighborhood. Now, visitors to Carthage are greeted with welcome signs in both English and Spanish, and can shop at the El Valle Verde market or dine on tostadas de ceviches at the taqueria next door. The community’s heart revolves around San Carlos Borromeo, a Catholic church at the corner of Fairpark and West Seymour where Father Rodolfo Coaquira presides over five Masses a week in Spanish as well as daily morning services in English.

On a Sunday morning in January, the small church parking lot and the streets surrounding it are filled. Outside, the temperature is 28 degrees. Inside, the temperature is, well, 28 degrees. The cavernous 125-year-old building has no heat, since the furnace no longer functions and there’s no money to fix it. Despite the chill, more than 300 people attend the 11:30 Spanish-language Mass, bundled up in their coats, hats, and gloves. Churchgoers will soon swelter in the summer heat, as San Carlos Borromeo has no air-conditioning, either, and the old stained-glass windows allow only occasional breezes.

Joseph Nava, president of the Carthage Civic League and a longtime leader of Cincinnati’s Hispanic community, is at the January Mass. His family moved from Mexico City when he was a child, and he came to Cincinnati via Chicago, where he worked for the federal government in various capacities. Now, in a late-life career change, Nava is a practicing attorney with an office in the heart of Carthage on Vine Street.

He recalls Cincinnati’s Latino community seeking a church home in the 1990s, petitioning the archbishop to identify a place of worship for a populace that’s traditionally very religious and very Catholic. At the time, the archdiocese was in the process of closing the church in Carthage, then called St. Charles Borromeo, because of weak attendance. “We were given that church and the former school [across the street],” Nava says. “That was the spark that brought people together.”

The church became the center of the Catholic Hispanic faith community, especially its social life. The school housed the Su Casa Hispanic Center, a main provider of social services to the Hispanic community in Greater Cincinnati. Su Casa has since moved to Bond Hill, but the old school is still used for health fairs and other community events. And the church—even with no heat, no air-conditioning, a leaky roof, and little parking—remains a community hub. “It’s a home away from home,” says Fr. Louis Gasparini, director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “The church is the center of their social activities.”

A block away, business district merchants along Vine Street could use a little of that energy. The street has suffered from disinvestment and neglect, but there is life—a pottery shop, a mom-and-pop chili parlor, a neighborhood saloon. Used car lots are frequent here, as are other car-related shops that would probably love to benefit from the “big Indian sign” pointing customers to their places of business. But the sign is just outside Carthage’s central business district, as it’s famously located “where Paddock meets Vine.” Actually, in one of those maddening Cincinnati wayfinding quirks, it’s “where Paddock seamlessly transitions into Vine,” but that doesn’t make for a catchy slogan.

The business district’s core is less than a mile in length along Vine, from 69th to 77th streets; vehicle traffic isn’t heavy, which leaves the area naturally pedestrian friendly. But the “Main Street” feel ends around 75th Street; north of that are gas stations and car dealers like MotorTime Auto Sales, the big sign’s latest beneficiary.

The plan is only a start. It doesn’t come with money or a team of experts to put it into play. More hard work lies ahead, with specific milestones set.

At the end of last year, a committee of a couple dozen residents and business owners worked with city planners to draft a strategy for injecting life into the business district. What they came up with was a plan that other forgotten neighborhoods also desire: a compact, walkable business district with a variety of shops that can serve the neighborhood and even become a destination for those who live farther away, backed with an increase in home ownership. Robert Hartlaub owned a tax preparation business in Carthage for about 40 years, and he and his wife have lived there for 18 years. “The business district is the window to the community,” he says. “We’re not looking to be a Hyde Park or Oakley or anything like that. But we have a lot of potential.”

Drafted last November, the Neighborhood Business District Strategy Plan sets a goal of improving housing, attracting young families and first-time homebuyers, and giving them more reasons to frequent the business district. “The focus is to invite younger Cincinnatians and people from outside who want to move into Cincinnati, who maybe don’t qualify for the suburban $200,000-plus homes but who would like to live in a decent, nice, relatively new home here in Carthage,” Nava says.

Many of the neighborhood’s homes date to the early 20th century and need work, but they’re opportunities for enterprising rehabbers. The Mills at Carthage developed approximately 60 single-family homes between 2002 and 2005. They sold for about $160,000 each when they were new but, perhaps because of their location and continued fallout from the 2008 housing crisis, have not appreciated in value, with one recently selling for $135,000.

Neighborhood leaders identify other challenges in attracting new homeowners, including crime, a lack of cleanliness, no neighborhood elementary school, and no destination attractions. On the other hand, 35 percent of Carthage’s land is used for parks and recreation, including Seymour Nature Preserve, Caldwell Nature Preserve, Caldwell Park Playground, and the Hamilton County Fairgrounds.

That last parcel is a big wild card in any future plan for Carthage. An agricultural fair has been held at this site on a regular basis since 1853, when Carthage was indeed farmland far from Cincinnati’s noise and bustle. Today, of course, the land is surrounded by industry, freight rail lines, and I-75, and the activity there is largely limited to one event a year, the week-long Hamilton County Fair in August.

The neighborhood plan acknowledges that the fair “will probably remain here for the foreseeable future” but also notes that, should it move, 37 acres would become available for development—instantly making it one of the largest greenfield sites in the city of Cincinnati. Carthage leaders suggest it would be a good site for a mixed-used development of office, retail, and residences to coordinate with, not compete with, the nearby Vine Street business district. According to the strategic plan, investment in the main business district should be focused on the three highest-profile Vine Street intersections—at Seymour Avenue, at North Bend Road, and where it merges with Paddock Road.

The plan is only a start. It doesn’t come with money or a team of experts to put it into play. More hard work lies ahead, with specific goals set for milestones between six months and 10 years: expanding the Carthage Civic League, one of Cincinnati’s oldest community councils; getting property owners on board to fix up their buildings; working with city planners on new zoning regulations; finding funds for streetscape and facade improvements; promoting the community to real estate agents; and tracking progress. Much of that work will fall to volunteers such as the Civic League leaders and to a growing population of families hailing from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, and Colombia who gather in a century-old church with no heat and no AC, but plenty of life.

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