In the late 1940s, Gerald Frank decided he’d pull a fast one on Uncle Sam. He lied about his age and joined the National Guard so that he could avoid the draft and go to college. He was 15. He was playing drums in a hot jazz band, taking classes at a small college and had no time for the Army.
The National Guard might have worked for Dan Quayle but it wasn’t much of a shield for Frank, and neither was admitting his real age; at 16 1/2, he was wearing green.
That was a long time ago. Frank is 63 now, sitting at a glass dining table in his million-dollar home overlooking Lake Washington, reminiscing about the path he took to that house and to being a major – maybe the major – landlord in Seattle’s Central Area.
Frank owns 24 apartment buildings and houses in the Central Area, down some since a divorce settlement in 1989 divided his holdings.
His life is a testament to the complexity of humans. The man who speaks forcefully about his vision for improving the Central Area is the same one accused of being an insensitive landlord. The man who discusses the values he wanted to instill in his four daughters is the same one who brought topless dancers to Seattle.
The Army deposited young Frank in Seattle in 1950, and he decided not to go back to Detroit. Even though the Detroit he grew up in wasn’t the Detroit people think about now, it was heading that way.
“Most people think of Detroit like a ghetto right now, but when I was growing up, it was more like Archie Bunker’s neighborhood, because people were working and employed. So when you see people working and employed and doing things, then it gets instilled in your mind that you can do what you want to do if you attempt to do it.”
Frank says that in his neighborhood all the children went to school and were expected to go to college, and the parents worked.
“I was so blessed. I had my grandmother and grandfather living on one side of the street, and my mother and father living up the street and Mrs. Dillard living in between, and if you acted a fool, she’d beat you before you got home to your mama.”
If Detroit was different in the ’50s, so was Seattle, which started the decade with a vital jazz scene.
“Seattle was much more alive, all of Jackson Street had nightclubs and people were listening to music.”
DRUMMED WITH THE BEST
Frank played his drums with many of the top names of the day, people such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom made Seattle one of the stops on their tours.
He developed a taste for the city, and so he says it was natural that many years later, “When people were leaving Seattle, saying, the last one out turn the lights out, I was trying to accumulate property because I felt that white America would one day rediscover Seattle.”
Still, he says he wants to preserve the Central Area’s housing for the children of the people who are living there now, to help them understand what he learned in his early years in Seattle: How the economy works, and how to make it work for your benefit.
Sometimes black people see those economic workings as something mystical, he says.
“When I went to college they talked about social studies and being a school teacher and that kind of stuff. I would encourage all the young people now, that’s fine, but study the economics because that really is what makes this country run.
“The other thing is that you have to get up and get on it.”
A BUSINESS SUGGESTION
In the mid-’50s, Frank Colacurcio hired Frank as a musician at a place on Sixth Avenue. Business wasn’t too good, so Frank suggested that Colacurcio bring in topless dancers from San Francisco.
“It was very successful for Frank’s business so he loved me.”
When the City Council banned topless acts, Frank suggested bottomless acts, which did nothing for business, so “I fired myself.”
Colacurcio, apparently impressed, found something else for Frank to do, remodeling taverns.
Colacurcio, who figured prominently in Seattle’s night life for many years, tended to attract the attention of policemen. He served two prison terms, one for income-tax evasion and another for skimming profits from a couple of topless clubs.
During his association with Colacurcio, Frank was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The FBI said he’d brought a woman to Washington to work as a prostitute. The sentence was relatively light because the judge said Frank, then 25, had “straightened out” his life.
Frank learned a lot from Colacurcio, then went to work at a place called the Downbeat. He and a group of partners eventually bought the club and tried to make it a swanky operation.
They opened it as the Pink Pussycat around the time of the 1962 World’s Fair with Ike and Tina Turner on the bill – but by then Seattle was a Friday-Saturday town, he says. It no longer supported the six-nights-a-week of entertainment he needed to make good money.
MAN OF PROPERTY
Frank had discovered the landlord business a few years earlier and moved his attention there.
He divided the first house he bought, on Helen Street, into rooms where students could live, and that led to his discovery that a person could make money providing housing.
He’d move into houses that needed work and fix them up. Most of the houses, Frank said, were in the Central Area, a neighborhood that had been “redlined” by banks.
“It was like they’d drawn a line around it and said they weren’t going to lend you any money,” Frank said.
He found other ways to finance purchases and rehabs. Once, he traded his Cadillac for a house.
“I said, `Why are you trading me this lovely house in Leschi for this little raggedy Cadillac?’ ” he remembers, “and he said, `The Cadillac can move and the house can’t.’ ”
PRAISE AND CRITICISM
Whether Frank has helped the community while helping himself depends on whom you ask. He has been singled out in news stories over the past 20 years for saving buildings from blight and providing housing for poor people. He has also been criticized for dealing harshly with tenants he suspects of breaking drug laws, and for providing substandard housing.
“We do get a lot of phone calls about Mr. Frank,” said Irene Woo, executive director of the Tenants Union. “I’d have to say he’s not the most sensitive or most conscientious landlord in the city.”
There have been complaints that he evicts tenants without due process.
Frank says he won’t tolerate drugs in his buildings and that he’d never get rid of lawbreakers if he waited for the police to act.
He says he keeps his buildings up but that he has to make money, and requirements that don’t allow for that will wind up reducing the amount of housing available to low-income people.
Arlen Olson, with the Tenants Union, mentions Frank’s own home and says, “part of that handsome property comes from people living in substandard housing.”
Frank was barred from participating in the Seattle Housing Authority’s Section 8 housing program for three years beginning in 1990, but a spokesman for the authority says Frank’s buildings now comply with city requirements.
Frank says he’s grown tired of the hassles. He’s selling his assets so he and his second wife, Nancy, can take it easy.
When he was divorced, his daughters got a third of his former holdings, and he says he gets pleasure seeing them put into practice what they learned over the years.
His daughter Dana jokes that the girls were indentured servants.
“But they were really the core of the business,” Frank says. “I like to say what I did for my children, but really, it’s kind of like what the children did for the business. For whatever reason, they were conservative homebodies and they would get up and just go to work and they made the thing run, with the exception of Dana. She made up in her mind when she was about 15 that she wasn’t going to work, so, for Christmas, I got her a McDonald’s uniform. Since that time, she’s turned out to be the leader. So my children actually lead me now.”
A DAUGHTER, A FRIEND
Of her, he says, “Not only is she a hard worker, but she’s my best friend because we have so much in common from doing this for so long.”
Frank says he wishes more young people were like her. “Youngsters have to understand it’s about effort and hard work.”
That is how he views his life, a lot of hard work, some fun, some bad, some good.
The bottom line being, “When you shave in the morning, you have to feel good about yourself.”
Frank feels good about himself.