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BY TEQUILA MINSKY | For 34 years, Frank Modica served as director for Hamilton-Madison House, a non-profit settlement house, now more than 100 years old, dedicated to improving the quality of life of individuals and families primarily in the Chinatown and Two Bridges neighborhoods.
Modica died in 2013 at age 81. Immediately after his funeral, those who knew and worked with him brainstormed on how they could honor this man who so completely took the Lower East Side into his heart and made it his life’s work.
On a picture-perfect day last week, at the far reaches of the Lower East Side, between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, those who worked with and loved the late community activist gathered at Rutgers Slip and South St. to co-name the street Frank T. Modica Way.
Victor Papa, a board member of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, beamed with pride talking about the history of the neighborhood. Gesturing to the East River just north of Brooklyn Bridge, he said, “Immigrants — mostly English and Irish — disembarked here in the early 1800s.”
Pointing to an expanse of housing along South St., he said, “This is the Two Bridges Urban Renewal District — fifteen hundred units of affordable housing. It’s a flagship project that houses 60 formerly homeless families and a building for seniors only.”
Tenant leader Elaine Hoffman expressed how much she loved Modica.
“He was a former priest,” she noted. “As director of Hamilton-Madison House, he grew it for the people and the services they needed.”
Modica was the settlement house’s director from 1976 to 2010, and was also board chairperson of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.
During the street ceremony, Papa said that the L.E.S. leader had also worked in Europe and lived elsewhere. However, he said, “Frank Modica was one of us. He was a Lower East Sider and we got to have him.”
Also among those at the event were seniors and other Two Bridges tenants, former co-workers of Modica’s, representatives of local politicians and a slew of kids from after-school programs.
“This is your first foray into civic action,” Papa told the younger generation.
“He did a lot for us and I am so proud and so happy. He was my family, too,” he said of Modica. Then, looking up at the sign, he said, “Keep on shining on us.”
City Councilmember Margaret Chin mentioned a number of local initiatives that Modica was responsible for setting up, including Head Start and mental health programs.
With Modica’s widow, Kathleen, looking on, his son Sean also paid tribute.
“This was his city and his people,” he said. “He was dedicated to serving this community and worked to make it a better and safer place. Like Margaret said, maybe people will see the sign, Google his name, get inspired and follow in his footsteps.”