In the ’80s and ’90s, if you wanted something done in the Behind the Rocks neighborhood, you’d call Rosa Morales.
“Miss Rosa” made a name for herself holding politicians accountable, advocating for green spaces and the people who utilized them — without her, Alexander Goldfarb Memorial Park, near her home on Grafton Street, would still be a trash-filled ravine. It took the 82-year-old half a decade of calls and testimony to city officials to see that project through.
“People need to care because it’s where they live,” Morales said recently. “I used to call whenever I saw a mess, even if it was nowhere near my home. It’s still my city.”
On Thursday, Morales was recognized by the Maple Avenue Revitalization Group for her decades of service.
The accolade was presented by Hyacinth Yennie, the group’s director and a neighborhood activist cut from the same cloth.
“I’m not sure how many people have appreciated what she’s done over the years, but I wanted to let her know that we appreciate what she’s done,” Yennie said. “She worked so hard to improve the neighborhood, and it saddens me that she’s not able to do as much as she used to.”
She hopes the newfound attention around Morales will catalyze a new generation of active citizens.
“I know people are busy with their lives, but we all can take ownership of where we live,” Yennie said. “That’s what Rosa did, and it made a big difference in her neighborhood.”
Yennie isn’t alone in singing the Puerto Rico native’s praises. Ask any Hartford notable from the golden years of Morales’ civic involvement.
“If we had a Rosa Morales on every block, we would have the best city in the world,” said former mayor Eddie Perez, a longtime friend and frequent collaborator. “Not only is she very active in neighborhood policy and development issues, but she pitches in herself, walking around and picking up garbage.”
Perez first crossed paths with Morales with her work through the Hartford Areas Rally Together. But she kept in close contact with him as he moved from community organizer to the top seat at city hall.
“She kept the pressure on, no matter what hat I wore,” Perez said. “She was gentle, honest, and hard to say ‘no’ to. She was always demanding more, not for herself, but for others.”
Yennie’s award to Morales is far from her first accolade. She’s built up an impressive trophy case, with honors from city hall, the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, and Knox Inc.
Ron Pitts, the executive director of Knox Inc., had an active, working relationship with Morales, especially when it came to defending the city’s green space. Morales would visit Pitts and his employees regularly, bearing hard candy and bananas, treats to help them get through the workday.
She’d help the team water the flower beds in Goldfarb Park, gently giving them direction.
“It always felt like we were doing it for her, because she was the queen of that park,” Pitts joked. “For the longest time, she was amazing at taking it upon herself to keep her hood clean and pushing others to do the same thing.
“She embodied the idea that you can’t rely on the city to do it; you have to go out and do at least your share.”
In 1996, Courant columnist Tom Condon named her one of the year’s heroes for her efforts to help former residents of the demolished Charter Oak Terrace housing projects get acclimated to their new neighborhood.
“She’s not afraid to speak out and call it the way it is, and we have very few people like that in the city,” said Mike McGarry, a former city councilman. “You need the guts to do it, and the knowledge to complain correctly; not just to complain, but to pick out the important details. She’s done that very well.”
Even now, years after she’s relaxed her activism efforts, Morales still carries weight.
Her son, Vicente Ithier, said that after weeks of calling the city, asking them to pick up a sofa discarded on Grafton Street, he let slip that he was calling on Rosa Morales’ behalf.
The couch was gone by the end of the day.
“She taught me to get involved, about how important it is to give back,” Ithier said. “For me, it’s just as meaningful that she provided a great example for others.”
Ithier joked that every time he visits his mother, he’s forced to “go into DPW mode” and help her pick up litter on their walks around the neighborhood.
That effort isn't lost on state Rep. Matt Ritter, who Morales once babysat.
“Rosa is a great example of the impact that one person can have,” Ritter said. “There are a lot of ways to contribute to public life, some involve ballots, others don’t.
“But the biggest impacts to the city are people who have big hearts and the discipline to keep calling city hall to get things done,” he added. “Those are the people who embody what it means to be a caring citizen.”