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Francine LeFrak

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How I Became My Father: Generations of Vision

Posted: 06/05/2012 7:11 pm

I grew up in an atmosphere of intensity. Every night, my sister, brother, Peppy the dog, and I would hear the sound of a whistle approaching the front door of our family's home. That sound signified my father, Samuel J. LeFrak's, return from work. We would stand up straight, line up at the front door, and anxiously await what the end of the day would bring out in my over-worked father. At times, my father's boisterous behavior would dominate the dinner conversation, or he'd be tired and cranky from the stress of the construction unions, but no matter what, there was never any filter on his thoughts, and never any dull moments.

My father had the ultimate larger-than-life personality. It was exactly this personality that provided him with the vision to develop the then-"no man's lands" of New York City, like the swamplands of Queens and New Jersey, as well as Battery Park and Brooklyn. I remember when my father bought the land for LeFrak City in Queens when it was still known as "Mary's Dump," and when he envisioned creating Battery Park City on 90 feet of water in the Hudson River.

In a time when women typically played a passive role, it was my father's larger-than-life personality and bold attitude that I was so drawn to. My father's company, The LeFrak Organization, was most certainly going to be passed down to my brother who had started working with him at age 13. Despite this, everybody -- my mother, my siblings, and friends -- all told me I was most like my father. We shared many traits: fearless, self-willed, a go-getter, and so on.

I was still a child when my father was pursuing his passion to create safe and affordable communities in Brooklyn and Queens. I remember when my family went to visit the 40-acre plot where he planned to develop LeFrak City; it was simply a wasteland of abandoned railroad tracks, trash piles, and tumbleweeds. But when my father dreamt, he did. More so than many other developers in New York, my father had a cause for his buildings. He always stressed, "housing for the masses not the classes," meaning people need decent and affordable housing, and they need more of it.

The idea of placement was essential to his buildings. I remember driving by LeFrak City from the Long Island Expressway; at the time there was a sign that read, "Daddy, if we lived here, we'd be home by now." As a child I never understood this, how could one live on the freeway? But I later learned that my father was way ahead of his time. He always went by the four S's: subways, schools, shopping, and safety. Safety was the most important and revolutionary aspect of his buildings. In LeFrak City there was a 60-man security force for the 20 buildings, and all of the elevators had television surveillance. Later in the 60s, he added swimming pools and doormen to the complex, which emphasized a sense of luxury that was unheard of at the time for middle-class complexes.

My father's tireless work for the middle class came from his childhood growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, with an ambitious father that built homes for immigrants on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Likewise, my ambition is derived from my childhood, where I grew up in a Man's World, and a society that always commended the powerful man and subjected the woman. When I was introduced to the concept of an empowered woman it completely changed my life. I now use all the traits that my father passed on to me towards my dream for global gender equality -- I am the founder of the company Same Sky that employs Rwandan and Zambian women to make jewelry for a wage that is 15 to 20 times their average wage. It is with this wage that they are able to stop living on the streets, they can get out of public-housing, and create safe homes for their families. No matter how far out of the box my dreams are, much like my father, when I dream, I do.

Samuel J. LeFrak had the audacity to build in the swamplands of New York for the sake of safe middle class housing, and I have the aspiration for global gender equality. Both of our goals were unprecedented at the time of their initiations... Everybody called my father crazy for wanting to build Battery Park City. His friends and co-workers said that nobody wants to live in lower Manhattan -- that is where people go to work, not to live. About 14,000 residents later, my father proved right. In 2008, when I decided to found the social enterprise Same Sky my circle of friends all thought I was nuts... why leave a career in Hollywood to start a business in Rwanda? But just four years after the start of Same Sky, I have seen remarkable changes in the living environments of Rwandan women.

There are innumerable traits that my father and I share. I even subconsciously led my life in the exact same direction as his. So even though it has been nine years since my father passed away, this Father's Day I can recognize that with every day I dream to give the women of the world more security and comfortable living situations, I am furthering the dreams of my dad, Samuel J. LeFrak.

 

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