GRAVOIS PARK – Rita Ford moved into the 3500 block of Nebraska Avenue and discovered it didn’t have a block captain. She volunteered for that position and formed a neighborhood organization for that block, which became the Gravois Park Block Link Neighborhood Association in 1999.
Until she stepped down in February 2017, she was known for making friends and scouring alleys for eyesores to eliminate.
Her reputation was so great that everybody from the mayor to current and former aldermen to numerous community leaders and people who knew her turned out Tuesday for the dedication of the Rita Ford Community Center.
Situated in the former Jefferson Bank Savings & Loan Association Building at 3353 California Ave., the center will serve as the home of the Gravois Park Block Link Neighborhood Association and will open its doors to nonprofit organizations.
The neighborhood group acquired the building from the city’s Land Reutilization Authority in 2006. After Ford died in May 2018, members of the group decided to name it for her. In the view of Mayor Lyda Krewson, that was a major honor.
“Rita would be so proud that all of you have come here tonight to remember her,” Krewson told those outside the building, near the sign proclaiming that it was the Rita Ford Community Center.
In a window was a painting of Ford.
“She was dynamic, she was always moving, always planning, and I loved her,” said Barb Potts, a city neighborhood improvement specialist who worked closely with Ford. “I miss her. I think about her almost every day.”
Dale Sweet, the longtime secretary of the Gravois Park Block Link Association, said Ford had moved to the neighborhood because of its diversity.
“She was drawn by our historic brick architecture, she was drawn by St. Louis. And when she showed up on that block, she realized that there was not a block captain on her block; she immediately signed up,” Sweet said. From that grew the Gravois Park organization.
During Tuesday’s event, a room in the building was dedicated as the Dale E. Sweet Meeting Room, in honor of Sweet.
Former 20th Ward Alderman Craig Schmid said that Ford had had to be nudged to turn the group for her block into one for the entire neighborhood.
“We kept telling her that she needed to get the big pictures,” he said.
“Rita was caring and feeling at the same time. She didn’t suffer fools well, and she always had a heart for the neighborhood,” said Schmid, who represented most of Gravois Park.
Former 9th Ward Alderman Ken Ortmann, who represented a small part of Gravois Park, also praised Ford.
“She was definitely an organizer, the kind of community person that you want on your side,” Ortmann said. He spoke of Ford’s organizing a protest at the Civil Courts Building downtown against judges who gave insufficient sentences.
“She was dedicated to the community, and she put her foot on the throat of the politicians to make sure that (she) got what they needed to be done,” said Stephen Conway, Krewson’s chief of staff.
Among the others who came were members of Ford’s family, 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer, Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly, and former state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford.
The boundaries of the neighborhood are generally Chippewa Street, Jefferson Avenue, Cherokee Street, Gravois Avenue and Grand Boulevard. The center is not strictly within those boundaries, but it’s just across Cherokee.