On September 16th our community will come together to honor a great man. A man who dedicated his life towards the greater good. A life that was built on helping others while advancing the interests and growth of his beloved town of Maspeth. We were indeed fortunate to have Francis J. Principe on this earth for 94 plus years. The story of his life should be told over and over as a model for future generations. Now his name will now live on in the park that he helped create. Maurice Park will be renamed Principe Park has a fitting tribute to “Mr. Maspeth.” The Juniper Park Civic Association honors the memory and life of Frank with the story of his life. The following is a condensed version of Paul Toomey’s four-part article on the Life & Times of Frank Principe that was printed in the Juniper Berry in 1999. It has been edited by Assistant Editor, Lorraine Sciulli, with a view of emphasizing years of growth as a young man to the great civic leader of Maspeth. This version attempts to illustrate Frank’s quest to earmark a tract of land in Maspeth for use as a park and his journey to becoming known as “Mr. Maspeth.” We have tried to capture the essence of this great leader as our community honors him by renaming Maurice Park, Frank Principe Park.
The Life & Times of Frank Principe
By Paul Toomey
Measuring success in someone's life is not always an easy task. But in the case of Frank Principe, success can be measured in any number of ways. To Frank himself, success in life can be measured by the devotion one has to one's community. By that yardstick, Frank indeed has been a roaring, ebullient, resourceful, resounding success who has devoted and continues to devote his life to the place where he lives, Maspeth.
Given all that, Frank was an interesting guy whose life has been colorful, intersecting as it did with several personages of history including Benito Mussolini, Robert Moses, Fiorello LaGuardia, Pope Leo, and others. Businessman, builder, father, community leader, raconteur, visionary, and politician in his own right, Principe deserves thanks and a tribute.
Other segments will deal with the life he started in Maspeth, his effort to build the “Ridgewood Plateau” and Maurice Park, the start of his own concrete company and his fight to keep it out of the hands of organized crime, his contribution to the war effort, and various community projects he took on over the years to make his community the best place for families and businesses alike. Here goes…
Frank Principe’s father, Louis, had come to the United States at the age of 19 from a small town in Italy near Abruzzi seeking the good life. The roads, he knew, were not, all paved with gold, but at least they were paved. The beckoning land offered, at the very least, the chance to make something of himself. His own country was poor and did not, seem to offer a young, ambitious man many opportunities. Coming to America with only a third grade education, $1.75 in his pocket, and no knowledge of the English language, Louis Principe seemed totally unprepared to face the dangers and challenges of the New World. In fact, shortly after he landed in 1903 and settled into the bureeonine Italian community of East New York, Brooklyn, Louis took a job in a bakery and promptly managed to cut off his left forefinger in a dough mixing machine.
But Louis remained undaunted by his stroke of bad luck and Frank will say or his rather that he was a pioneer with a pioneer's spirit. Affable. good-natured and honest, Louis lived in a rooming house in back of the bakery in which he worked with several other Italian immigrants. After the accident, he decided against a career, in baking and turned to the only other thing a young man with a strong back and no education could do: bricklaying and a chance to get, in an the ground floor, so to speak, of the construction trade.
The city was in the process of installing sewers and grates, and part of that project was the laying, of brick to secure them into the street. Louis joined a work crew that laid the bricks.
A hard-worker, Louis caught the eye of the foreman who proposed that Louis organize his own work crew of Italian immigrants. Frank remembers one time accompanying his father on a job to Troutman Street. He was only eight and worked as an errand boy. After a few tense moments, Frank remembers his father grabbing a shovel and putting it to throat of one of the goons. The other men in the work croup, seeing the danger, raised the pointy ends of their trowels ready to defend themselves from a possible attack. But, with Louis's bold and swift action, it was the Italians who won that day Frank recalls, and without, bloodshed. The Germans backed off and the Italians went back to work. But it was a lesson to young Frank about his father's determination, a lesson he would carry with him the rest or his life.
Louis became one of the most active bricklayers in Ridgewood, breaking the German monopoly in the area. But times were not always good and finding work could be a struggle. it was during one of these slow periods, about 1907, when his father was out Looking for work and he became smitten with the pretty young woman who worked inside a small grocery store an Stone and Rockaway avenues.
That woman, Virginia, was to become Frank's mother.
At five feet two inches tall, Virginia had also come from Italy, from a small town outside of Naples. Like Louis, she had traveled alone at the age of 19 to the New World. But, where Louis was tall, six feet one inch and over 200 pounds, Virginia was short, and where Louis could be loud and boisterous, Virginia was shy. “They were like Mutt and Jeff,” Frank said.
They married later that year and moved to an apartment on Ralph and Atlantic Avenues. After miscarrying her first child, Virginia then gave birth on December 5, 1909 to Francesco Principe, who was named after Louis's Father.
By the time Frank was 10, the Principes bid farewell to East New York and moved to what was considered to be a classier section of Brooklyn, Kensington, or what was generally known as greater Flatbush. School was important to Frank mainly because his father impressed upon him that an education was necessary if he was to rise above the life of an ordinary working man.
Frank toured Europe with his father, meeting various dignitaries in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. In fact, his father had gotten an invitation from the Douche himself, Benito Mussolini, to come for a chat.
At the age of 17 Frank entered Cornell and studied civil engineering, but says he won no honors and, more discouraging, did not make any varsity sports teams, although he played intramural sports. Frank graduated in 1931, with the expectation of starting his new career. What then was he going to do with his life? Frank would answer those questions and he would turn his eyes forever after to a new area outside his native Brooklyn that was just in the process of developing Maspeth.
In 1931, shortly after he graduated Cornell University with a civil engineering degree, Maspeth had a bad reputation. That's where Frank's future would lie, yet that future was still inextricably linked to his father, Louis, a flamboyant personality who had meant so much to the young Frank and would be his inspiration throughout his life.
Louis was spreading out from Brooklyn into neighboring Ridgewood and looking beyond. Louis began a project on what some real estate genius was to call “the Ridgewood Plateau.”
It was along 65th Place, the former Hyatt Avenue, in March 1931 that Louis began work on “The Gables,” a six-story complex with 60 apartments.
The Principes began another project in 1934, 10 English-style homes along 62nd Avenue at 53rd Avenue. The newly created Federal Housing Administration was looking to stimulate the economy and encourage home building. Frank said the so-called Hillsdale Homes, which sold for $4,990, were a great deal, especially compared to today's standards.
Also in 1934, Frank married Frances Camardella and the happy couple moved to one of the Hillsdale Homes. Four years later, on July 19, Frances gave birth to Lee James, and then, two years after that, on February 11, to Virginia Elaine.
Frank as a Civic Activist
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. 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. 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.
Frank then saw a need in the neighborhood for a park. It was at that time that Frank began his long career as a civic activist. He became president of the Ridgewood Plateau Taxpayers' Civic Association, and would also umpire various local Little League games in his spare time. Seeing a vast seven-acre tract of land off Borden Avenue and 51st Street where an old, inactive city pumping station was located, Frank had a brainstorm of putting a park there. He went to Robert Moses, the powerful highway and bridge builder and then commissioner of parks, but Moses told him the local homeowners would be assessed to pay the back taxes on the property left by the Urban Water Supply Co., a prospect Frank thought was unacceptable.
As time went by, Frank continued to think about the dilemma of gaining title to the property without having to tax local residents. In 1938, Frank finally convinced Moses that the city needed the property as a backup in case the city ran out of water, which it was slated to do by 1945. But, the city was then completing its second water tunnel and the likelihood that the city was going to run out of water anytime soon was low. But Frank proposed that the city's Water Department sell bonds and the money would go toward paying off the back taxes. Frank said Moses then agreed to turn the property over for a park, but such a deal needed the approval of the City's Board of Estimate, on which sat the mayor and the borough presidents.
Frank, in what would become a habit in the civic wars of the future, rallied local residents, and shuttled them down to City Hall by trolley car.
“I was as nervous as a cat,” Frank recalled. The Board of Estimate had been meeting for hours, and was just about to close its session, before approving the bond deal, that a frustrated Frank “went berserk. The cops should have grabbed me,” Frank says.
Frank said he told Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia that he had all the votes from the other borough presidents lined up. All that was needed was a quick vote. Seeing Frank's fiery Italian temper and Frank's finger wagged in his face, LaGuardia acceded to the demand and the vote was passed. “I had my park,” he said. Frank was not afraid of any repercussions from blowing up at LaGuardia, because by this time he had developed a long and friendly relationship with the “Little Flower.”
Moses then built the park with workers from the Works Project Administration by 1940. Then came the problem of what to name it. He thought the park should be named after one of Maspeth's first families. In May, 1940, Frank got a letter back from Moses saying Frank's idea for Maurice Park “seems to us to be a good one, and we shall take steps to follow it.”
The War Years and Frank Serves his Country
Frank said he then turned to the private sector working as a civil engineer, doing a number of bridge and road jobs on Long Island and in Brooklyn. But, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the country was using all available steel for the war effort, those construction jobsdwindled.
When the war started, Frank tried to enlist. He asked for a commission. He wanted to build bridges, but the Armed Forces turned him down, saying that at 32, he was too old.
Frank said he heard later that they were also worried about his loyalty because he still had family in Italy. “All right Uncle Sam, I tried,” he said to himself at the time. “I'll do my part some other way.”
Frank got a call from a friend who said they were building an aluminum plant in Maspeth – on Maspeth Avenue below Rust Street near the Maspeth Creek – and that the country needed his help. Frank jumped at the chance. Having a civil engineering degree and construction experience, Frank was third in command. He helped clear the site, built a new sewer, and supervised the construction of the 16 separate structures that would house the aluminum producing equipment and their installation.
This was all done with the utmost security, and with trainloads of silver – used to make electrical conductors – on site, Frank was always running into a rifle-toting Federal Bureau of Investigation agent lurking about.
To heat the ore to some 1500 degrees, electricity from Con Ed's Hudson Street plant in Williamsburgh was used. Frank said the authorities devised stories about enemy bombers and submarines off the coast to justify “dimouts” so that electricity to power the plant could be siphoned off.
“We worked day and night,” remembered Frank. “We never had to push anybody. After all, the war was on and we had to finish. The government was always pushing us to finish.”
He also remembers having to work all night to repair a broken conveyor belt during New Year's Eve 1943. But, that March, the first aluminum batches were shipped out of the new plant.
“With everyone working as one, it was a wonderful experience,” Frank says, his face beaming with delight at the memory.
A Concrete Future
But Frank said he was tired of working for other people and saw, despite the temporary lack of raw materials, that there was a need to build factories. So, not knowing what he would do, he sought out a site for some type of business venture. He found a site along the Newtown Creek in Long Island City, a former cement company, and filed it away in his brain. In 1945 he met one of his father's friends, Vincenzo “Jim” Delia, who also had an interest in starting a business and saw in the younger Principe great things to come as the two talked for hours. “God sent me a savior,” Frank said of Delia. Delia also asked Frank if he would take on a partner – his son-in-law who was a former Air Force captain who survived the crash of his B-52 bomber in the Pacific.
Frank warned the young captain, Frank Danna, that the hours they would work would be grueling and that they might not see a dime of profit for at least a year. Danna said he was willing to try and the Principe-Danna Cement Company was founded with Frank being the “outside man” who dealt with the drivers and business end and Danna handling production.
“We were a good team,” he said.
Worst Time of His Life
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, also passed away. 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.
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.”
Then came Virginia
Frank considers himself lucky. Where hard work failed him, fortune would always shine on him, he said. Not long after Frances' death, an aunt introduced him to the woman who would become his second wife, Virginia.
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 said, 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. Stanislau's mother's club and bowling league, and would help Frank preserve Maurice Park over the years.
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.
Over the years, Frank's company poured concrete for the World Trade Center, the Javitt's Center, Madison Square Garden, Roosevelt Island, JFK Airport, the 63 Street subway tunnel and a host of other places. He was respected in the industry by his peers and became president of the Concrete Industry Board, earning himself the name “Mr. Concrete.”
It was no secret that the concrete industry was controlled by organized crime, which also controlled the union and the workers. His biggest problem came when negotiating union contracts, when the union representatives added conditions and requirements that amounted to harassment. “That was the way they tried to undercut me,” Frank stated.
During those days, Frank said there were many nights when he and his family ate dinner “without the lights on” and he always worried that someone might take a shot at him through his kitchen window. No one ever did, he says thankfully, and he never got any threatening notes. “I always thought that one day I would get a convincing visit,” he said. “But it never happened.”
Frank said he thinks what saved him was his honest reputation. “They figured it was better to leave me alone,” he said. Also, Frank says they didn't try to shakedown his customers either because they had their own, draining them of thousands of dollars each year.
Frank said the secret to his success was a simple one: keep the customer happy. He said he always got a better price for his product because of its quality, his dependability and “behaving like a gentlemen. I would move heaven and earth for my customers.”
Frank also lobbied Borough Hall for a sewer system in Maspeth that would forever stop the constant flooding problems that plagued the area.
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 was 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. “Maspeth is always a dumping ground,” Frank asserted.
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.” Frank stated, “I pulled all the tricks I knew and the Maspeth people rallied. For once, they all came out.”
As a member of Community Board 5, Frank, who is served his 25 years on the board, again played leading roles for years making his industrial park the top capital budget project slated for city funding dollars.
Frank always conducted the meetings with respect toward everyone, allowing everyone a chance to speak as long as they remain civil and adhere to parliamentary procedure.
He has been known to escort a reporter outside to Maurice Park, across from his house, the one with his wife's name on the playground. He pointed 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.
When Frank Principe turned 90 in 1999 he was regaled by everyone who is anyone in the community at no less than three birthday parties in his honor. Politicians, business people, community leaders, friends, family, and other well-wishers attended.
Frank Principe, the man known as “Mr. Maspeth” and the Juniper Park Civic Association's “Man of the Century.” passed away in 200? at the age of 94. For seven years Frank remained the chairman of Community Board 5, a body of 50 volunteers who look out for the interests of the community.
He lived across from Maurice Park, which he was responsible for creating. The park's been a labor of love that he still nurtured until his death. The children's playground was named after his wife Virginia, who died in 1996. Frank hoped that one-day the entire park will be named after him.
No one has a greater claim to that honor than Frank, who personally saw to it that the grass was 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.
Frank Principe passed away on September 16, 2004. It was a sad for all who knew him and for the community that loved, respected and admired him. His hometown of Maspeth, which he protected for over 60 years will miss him the most. But the town is a lasting legacy of Frank and his presence will always be felt by the people who knew him and the streets he loved so much.
On September 16th the City of New York and the community will make Frank’s wish come true. Maurice Park will be renamed Francis J. Principe Park and will be dedicated and his name will live on as a lesson to future generations.
We know Frank will be withus that day with a big smile on his face. The life that touched so many people will be rermembered and a tribute so richly deserved will be passed along for future generations to read about Frank;’s life and his times.