The Life and Times of Frank Principe

This is the fourth and final installment in this yearlong spotlight on Frank Principe, the man known as “Mr. Maspeth” and the Juniper Park Civic Association's “Man of the Century.” This package of stories was “commissioned” in time for Frank's 90th birthday, which he celebrated last December 5. Now 90, Frank remains the chairman of Community Board 5, a body of 50 volunteers who look out for the interests of the community. The job should come easy to Frank; he's been looking after the community since he left college as a young man. He lives across from Maurice Park, which he was responsible for creating. The park's been a labor of love that he still nurtures today. Recently, the children's playground was named after his wife Virginia, who died in 1996. Frank hopes that one-day the entire park will be named after him. No one has a greater claim to that honor than Frank, who personally sees to it that the grass is maintained, graffiti is removed and damage from vandals repaired. Whether working at the community board or fixing a section of Maurice Park, Frank has always been active as a volunteer in his community. This installment will examine some of his civic achievements. The story begins with Frank at a time of great personal tragedy, which he overcame and rose above, and proceeds through today with some of the battles he wages daily on the community board and elsewhere to protect the community he loves, the one he calls home, Maspeth.

The year was 1947 and Frank Principe was going through the “worst time of (his) life.” His larger-than-life father, Louis, had died three years before and now, his wife, Frances, the mother of his two children who he had married in 1934, was also dead. Only the year before, Frank had embarked on a new business venture, the startup of the cement company, Principe-Danna Inc., he would eventually own and operate for more than 40 years. While the business over the years was to grow and prosper under Frank's guidance, those early times were difficult ones and Frank often thought the business would go under or would succumb to pressure from organized crime. The new business was a departure for Frank, who wanted to get out on his own instead of working for other people. Frank had a civil engineering degree from Cornell University, and, just prior to World War II and during the war, he had worked for various construction firms and the government. He had only recently helped construct the Alcoa aluminum plant in Maspeth as part of the war effort, a massive top secret undertaking that helped win the war.

“Those were hard times for me,” recalls Frank in the basement of his Maspeth home, where once he had worried that mob hit men might target him or his family. Frank says that when his wife died, he was in debt having sunk his savings into the business and being left with two small children to raise on his own. It was a time that tested his faith, but Frank said he had no choice but to get over the terrible grief he felt after the loss of both his wife and father in such a short time and get on with his life. “Here I was left all alone with two kids in this large home shuttling back and forth to work,” he said. “I had to overcome everything or go into oblivion.”

Frank considers himself lucky. Where hard work failed him, fortune would always shine on him, he says. And his family also stuck by him, encouraging him to remarry and find a new mother for his children. Not long after Frances' death, an aunt introduced him to the woman who would become his second wife, Virginia. She had always been a distant acquaintance of the family and someone who he had a passing brush with as an infant. His mother, also named Virginia, told him the story of how she borrowed Virginia's diaper from Virginia's mom when his diaper was soiled in an East New York church, near where Frank was born. “It was a coincidence, but I like to say I was after her even then,” Frank joked.

Frank said he and Virginia became friends fast, but the job of introducing her to his children was a delicate matter. Frank says he eased Virginia into the family over the course of their two-year courtship. Frank would insist that his responsibility to his children would always come first, taking them and Virginia on a “long chain of Sundays” to parks and museums so his son, Lee, and daughter, Virginia Elaine, would become accustomed to the new woman in his life. In January 1950, Frank married Virginia, “squeezing the bankbook” for a honeymoon in Bermuda. Virginia, he says, became the “perfect wife and mother.” His wife later adopted his children as her own, helping with their education and making sure they would grow into productive, healthy adults.

Virginia, he says, worked at the telephone company, became involved in the St. Stanislaus's mother's club and bowling league, and would help Frank preserve Maurice Park over the years.

Frank's early forays into community work began in the mid-1930s after he had moved into The Gables, the apartment building he and his father built on the Ridgewood Plateau. As president of the civic association which he formed, Frank became involved in all things affecting his new neighborhood after a childhood of growing up in Brooklyn. Those things included matters regarding sanitation, police, transportation and sewers, things he still concerns himself with as community board chairman. Early on, Frank remembers he was instrumental in getting a trolley line to pass by the Gables, his tenants' only “connection with the outside world,” as he called it. Later, when city officials began building the Long Island Expressway and the “Queens Midtown Highway,” Frank made sure the residents of his community were not cut off and isolated from the shops along Grand Avenue. When those same city officials forgot about building a pedestrian walkway over the highway, near Hamilton Avenue, something Frank had lobbied for, Frank says he went to visit the construction planners. He tells the story that when those planners went to lunch, Frank quickly leaned over the plans and drew two lines on the drawings, creating a footbridge over the roadway. “I thought I'd get put in jail,” Frank recalls fondly. “But nothing happened to me. And we got the pedestrian bridge.”

Frank also lobbied Borough Hall for a sewer system in Maspeth that would forever stop the constant flooding problems that plagued the area. “This was before the days of community boards,” Frank said. When Frank moved on to other projects, he says wistfully that the Ridgewood Plateau Civic Association “died” in the 1970's.

During the period leading to the 70s, Frank concentrated on his business, laying foundations all over the city, and, as usual, playing a prominent role in how his industry developed in the city. He traveled extensively promoting, lecturing, instructing, and writing on the proper use of concrete. He was a leader in the National Ready Mix Concrete Association and founded the New York City Concrete Producers Inc. He was voted the concrete industry's “man of the year” several times.

In the back of his mind, Frank remembered what happened to the old Alcoa Plant he built during the war and regretfully saw that the property was allowed to lay dormant and decay. Frank always thought the area where the Alcoa plant used to be would make an excellent location for a host of manufacturing concerns that could provide jobs to the many working class people moving into Maspeth and surrounding areas. He filed it away.

It was in the late 70s that Frank, now a successful concrete manufacturer, laid the groundwork for the West Maspeth In-place Industrial Park. With the help of other community board members Henry Erhardt, Joanneen Coppinger, and then Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, Frank established the new local development corporation that would nurture the development of industry in the park and make sure things like roads and sewers got built. Frank, of course, became the president and remains its head today. Establishing his headquarters inside a trailer in a side road off of Rust Street, Frank would use the site as his “command center” in which to launch other campaigns that would arise in the future.

Some of those campaigns included fights against a homeless shelter in Maspeth, against the so-called Montauk Option, which would have sent LIRR passenger trains rocketing through the community and the industrial park, and the battle to stop the construction of a city sludge plant at the old Phillips-Dodge plant in the industrial park. Frank always feared the incursion of government entities into “his” industrial park because they would take space away from private concerns that created jobs and local tax revenues. In all three battles, Frank was on the winning side, defeating these city-initiated projects that he believed would threaten the entire community or parts of it.

Frank is particularly proud of his role in the fight against the sludge plant. He feels that if it were built, the plant today would be spewing unhealthful toxins into the community. His ferociousness was also partly based on his belief that the city, whenever it wanted to build something undesirable, would put it in Maspeth because the people never complain. “Maspeth is always a dumping ground,” Frank asserted.

Frank says that when he first heard about a sludge plant being built he was suspicious, but bided his time. He joined the citizens advisory committee overseeing the planning for the project and he read all he could about it. From his previous battles fighting the city administration, Frank said the key to winning was knowing where to apply the pressure. Frank said he saw slides that showed the plant's main byproduct: black dust, which would be released over the community. He even took trips to other sludge plants upstate and in Maryland and spoke to the townspeople. He spent the night knocking on doors. The feedback was negative. Then he read about a potentially toxic chemical that would be released into the air: aspergillis. After learning about this and the deadly effects it could have on asthmatics and others with respiratory ailments, Frank decided the public needed to know what it was in for. He decided to blow the whistle and get the word out.

From his trailer headquarters, Frank masterminded the opposition to the plant, raising $50,000 and sending out letters to 300,000 people within a five mile radius of the proposed sludge site that included Brooklyn neighborhoods that would have been affected. He even got a billboard erected advertising that there was a “killer coming to town.” He collected the donations from thousands of concerned local residents and he organized protest rallies, particularly one at Martin Luther High School, that drew hundreds and all the local elected officials. “I pulled all the tricks I knew,” said Frank. “The Maspeth people rallied. For once, they all came out.”

When David Dinkins was elected mayor, Frank kept up the pressure, eventually forcing Dinkins to save face by backing out of the deal with the contractor. He found a “political” solution, says Frank and the sludge plant was not built. For his efforts, Frank became a hero.

As a member of Community Board 5, Frank, who is serving his 19th year on the board, again played leading roles for years making his industrial park the top capital budget project slated for city funding dollars. He had a reputation as a smart, level-headed board member who, by 1995, had risen to become its chairman, after then-chair Paul Kerzner resigned in the middle of his term to take care of his health. It was a time of factionalism and shifting alliances, Frank's ascendancy represented the end of Ridgewood's domination of the board, but his election and continual reelection over the next five years meant that he is a man who is respected, trusted by all sides, and fair.

One issue that divided the board, turning it into a “battleground,” was the construction of a hockey rink in Juniper Park. Instead of letting board members pick each other apart over it, Frank says he was active in finding a solution everyone could live with. Employing his civil engineering skills and expertise from the business world, Frank set out to find an appropriate site for the rink.

As the squabbling dragged on, Parks Commissioner, Henry Stern, was invited to a meeting, saying he was growing increasingly unhappy that the board could not make a decision and threatened to pull the project completely. No one wanted that. As chairman, Frank's job was to keep the discussion going without it descending into name-calling, but emotions ran high and it was sometimes difficult for the octogenarian to maintain order. When it came time for a vote, Frank voted with Stern and the park's department's plan, even over his own plan, which did not win support. Frank, thought to be allied with the JPCA, Stern's ardent nemesis, shocked many, although it was also viewed as a gutsy move. Frank says he voted with Stern because “I saw how determined he was. He could have stalled the rink indefinitely.”

One controversial issue Frank presided over was whether or not to allow an Italian street festival on Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood. Because of his work defeating the sludge plant, Frank had been honored as their “man of the year” by the Italian Americans of Brooklyn and Queens. Frank always remembered from his early days of working in Ridgewood with his father that the Germans, who predominantly lived there, always resented the Italian presence in “their” neighborhood. It was another divided vote, but Frank wound up breaking the tie in favor of the Italian festival.

In the last several months, another issue has racked the board: the construction of a 900-pupil school on Grand Avenue, the privately owned site which has also been proposed for a Staples stationary store. Frank is opposed, saying it will wreak havoc in the neighborhood for residents and local businesses alike. Frank indeed has strong feelings about the Board of Education in general, which goes back to his overall distrust of government. He says the system is doing a “lousy job” of teaching children. “The Board of Ed is living in the dark ages,” he says.

Whatever the issue, Frank conducts the meetings with respect toward everyone, allowing everyone a chance to speak as long as they remain civil and adhere to parliamentary procedure. “I encourage dialogue,” Frank says. “And during meetings, I follow the by-laws and charter.” Despite the long hours, Frank takes his job seriously to the point that he attends just about all of the board's many committee meetings and testifies at hearings on behalf of the board at City Hall. So he has little patience for board members who are absent.

Frank believes that he has ended the factionalism on the board that at one time threatened to tear it apart. In June, Frank was once again reelected, but Frank doesn't know how many more terms he will serve. He's contemplating making this his last year at the helm, but that remains to be seen.

At 90, Frank has the luxury and experience to wax philosophic about what he sees around him. Some of what he sees, he doesn't like: like vandalism and graffiti. He also doesn't like it when kids are disrespectful to their elders or don't respect the property of others. He sees some of this bad behavior as a reflection of the behavior kids see around them, like when public officials do bad things and then lie about it. He worries about the “direction our society is going.” As a result, Frank, who doesn't belong to any political party, gives money to several charities that foster education for young people coupled with a patriotic vision.

If youths have changed, it's because many of them do not have what he had as a boy: a father and mother to look up to. “They somehow have got to be exposed to someone or something who they can listen to,” he said. “Many kids today lack the guidance and sense of values that come from parents.”

Despite the country's warts, Frank at heart remains a patriot. “I love this country,” he says. “I love what it's created.”

He gets up and escorts a reporter outside to the park across from his house, the one he got built, and the one with his wife's name on the playground. He points to a patch of ground near the playground where the contractor did a shoddy job. After three years of careful nurturing, Franks says grass is finally growing. He used his own money ($25,000 worth) and eight truckloads of dirt to replace the soil left there by the contractor.

Frank has other plans too. The mind remains active, the planning never ceases. He's a man who cares. At 91, he remains vigilant, moving on, eyeing his next project.

Author's note:
When I began this assignment, I had no idea how involved it would become. After meeting with Frank the first time, I realized that I could never do that man justice in one story. Little did I know at the time that I would write four. I just hope I captured a little part of the man who continues to give to his community. He is a truly great man and it was a pleasure and a privilege to have been given the chance to write about him and his times.