Bedford-Stuyvesant is 653 blocks of ghetto in the heart of Brooklyn, and Franklin A. Thomas knows its mean streets well. He was born in “Bed-Stuy.” And remembers what it was like to grow up there. “It was the era of the fighting street gangs,” he says. “They all had their turfs marked out.” Even a short trip from his home on Halsey Street to the Concord Baptist Church seven blocks away required strategy. “It really was a navigational problem. You did not want to encounter the gangs and get shaken down.”
Thomas eventually grew to a size (6’4″, 218 lbs.) that discouraged any interference. He left Bedford-Stuyvesant to attend college on a scholarship, then law school. In due course he received appointments as an assistant U.S. attorney and a deputy commissioner of New York police.
In 1967, however, Frank Thomas went back to his old neighborhood as president of the nonprofit Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp.—one of the largest experiments ever undertaken jointly by government, private business and the community itself to rescue an inner-city slum from further deterioration.
When he took over, Thomas promised two years to the effort. He stayed 10. Now, at 43, he is preparing to leave. While Thomas is probably the last person to suggest that Bedford-Stuyvesant’s problems are solved, he knows that a foundation for progress has been established.
Like Harlem and Watts, Bed-Stuy burst on the national consciousness during the long hot summers of the ’60s. Urbanologists looked into its decrepit buildings and garbage-strewn vacant lots and found that 75 percent of its teenagers dropped out of school and 28 percent of its families had annual incomes under $4,000. Its infant-mortality and homicide rates ranked among the highest in the country. New York journalist Jack Newfield, himself a Bed-Stuy alumnus, described the realities of decay: “Rorschach tests of vomit staining the gutters…Roaches are so bold they don’t run from the light; children have eternally running noses and slow-healing scabs on their elbows and knees…”
In 1966 a grim New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy toured Bed-Stuy, whose 360,000 population is second only to Chicago’s South Side as the largest predominantly black neighborhood in the U.S. The senator soon came up with a plan for a partnership between government, business and the community to salvage the area. Applying the usual Kennedy persuasiveness, he enlisted bipartisan support at both national and local levels.
One key businessman who signed up was financier Benno C. Schmidt. “Bob Kennedy and I had a meeting with [CBS board chairman] Bill Paley and a group of city agencies which might be affected,” Schmidt recalls. “The police department sent Frank Thomas as its representative. He didn’t say much, but he responded when it was appropriate. I walked out of that meeting, and I said to Bob, ‘We’ve found our man.’ ”
Thomas remembers his first private conference with Kennedy, held at the senator’s plush Manhattan apartment overlooking the United Nations. “After I was introduced and said hello, what seemed like five minutes of silence followed,” he says. “The senator then talked about his vision of what could happen in Bedford-Stuyvesant and how important it would be for this community and the country. He talked about improving life and giving people more say in what was happening to them.”
Frank Thomas accepted the challenge, but he had some doubts. He asked himself why he had worked so hard to escape the ghetto just to end up where he started. “Part of the struggle was to be someplace other than where I had been—someplace ill-defined but grander. On the other hand, I had the sense of, God, if I could do it here, what an extraordinary place to do it, where I would know every street and every building and almost every person. And if I used whatever training and development I had on issues I cared about, in a setting I cared about, it would be an opportunity to do something that really mattered—something I could always look at and say, ‘I know what my life has been about.’ ”
Friends describe Franklin Augustine Thomas as a bridge between two worlds. “He is street-wise, but he is also boardroom-wise,” says one. Thomas dresses in the manner of an Ivy Leaguer (which he is—Columbia). He talks in carefully measured tones befitting a member of the board of directors of New York’s Citibank, CBS, the Cummins Engine Co., the New York Life Insurance Co. and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
“What I take to the boardroom or to the corporation is a very direct experience in the trenches,” says Thomas. “I believe part of what I do is to translate the need that exists in areas like Bed-ford-Stuyvesant into a form that is recognizable by the usual sources of capital.”
He knows the trenches. He was the youngest of six children whose father, a watchman and laborer, died when Franklin was 11. His mother, Viola, an immigrant from Barbados, worked as a housekeeper and waitress. During World War II she went to trade school at night to become a machinist. By scrimping and saving she managed to put down a deposit on an old Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone. She soon discovered that the real estate broker had sold the house to someone else. Though Mrs. Thomas got her down payment back after a prolonged struggle, the swindle left a deep mark on her youngest child.
“I always wanted to be in a position to take care of myself and other people,” says Thomas. “There is something so disabling about not having the knowledge, not having access, not knowing how to deal with circumstances, that it obviously had a big effect on me.”
His drive for excellence meant practicing on the horn until his lips were swollen to make his Scout troop’s drum-and-bugle corps. He also excelled in basketball. Around the Brooklyn playgrounds he was labeled a “horse”—tireless on defense, strong off the backboards. He captained the basketball team at Franklin K. Lane High School and went on to do the same at Columbia University. Selected to the all-Ivy squads of 1955 and 1956, he set a school record of 408 rebounds in one season that still stands. (Years later Columbia would honor Thomas by naming him one of its first black trustees; in 1976 the university awarded him its medal of excellence.)
After four years as an Air Force navigator, Thomas went back to Columbia for his law degree. As an assistant U.S. attorney, he helped prepare the case that led to the conviction of three men who attempted to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Later, as deputy police commissioner for legal affairs, he balanced the demands of community pressure groups for a civilian complaint review board with the cops’ appeal for their own bill of rights. That kind of tightrope act prepared him for the job of Bedford-Stuyvesant restoration.
Frank Thomas’ day begins with a quick breakfast of grapefruit juice and coffee in an apartment on the top three floors of his brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He limbers up with isometric exercises and running in place, then heads for the Restoration Corporation headquarters, which now sit amidst a modern $7 million shopping center that opened 18 months ago.
His handsome office is barely a stick-ball blast from where he grew up. Driving along in his red-and-black Ford sedan, Thomas likes to tell visitors how youngsters—many of them gang members feared by the community—were put to work on renovations. The results 10 years later: 3,835 local kids trained in welding, painting, masonry and carpentry, and the exteriors of 3,682 homes on 96 blocks refinished. “There is something about getting on a scaffold and seeing the work completed,” says Thomas, “that is almost magical.”
Through $63 million in federal grants and private investment, 118 businesses have been financed, 7,468 workers placed in jobs, 1,280 new or rehabilitated housing units completed or under construction—and the list goes on.
But for all the figures, it’s only a start. The old Bed-Stuy, with its large numbers of unemployed, its blight of board-ed-up buildings, continually intrudes. “There is a tremendous amount of work still to be done,” Thomas concedes. But he adds, “I wouldn’t contemplate leaving if there were major hurdles.”
What are his plans now? Late last year, he reluctantly turned down an offer from Jimmy Carter to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “I needed time to sort out what I’ve been doing,” he says.
Thomas intends to resume his long-interrupted law practice. He bought 50 acres 90 miles north of New York City, put in a road, drilled a well and cleared a plot for a new house. Divorced five years ago, he regularly visits his three younger children, who live with their mother, a teacher and editor, in New Jersey. Their oldest son, Keith, 19, is a college freshman. Thomas says he is seeing someone “seriously,” but will not elaborate.
He will talk without hesitation about the lessons he’s learned as they may be applied to other beleaguered urban neighborhoods: move ahead in orderly, modest steps and make sure the community’s residents are deeply involved in decisions affecting their lives. “When you can sit in your office and all around you see evidence of your work, in bricks and mortar and in the people who use and enjoy them—well, that’s a good feeling.”