Superintendent of Public Works Louis DiGrazia and the Village of Freeport

Maura Bohart

Lou DiGrazia is a busy man. Full of energy, ideas and determination, when this superintendent of public works for the village of Freeport sets out to do something, it tends to get done.

“I’ve got probably $15 million worth of projects going on right now. There are only five of us, my four engineering guys and myself, and we do a lot.”

But Lou doesn’t mind being busy. In fact, he thrives on it.

“It’s great, because you’re busy from the minute you walk in the office to the minute you leave.”

And even after he leaves. Lou said the worst thing he ever got was a Blackberry, because it allows him to take his job everywhere.

“My staff thinks I’m nuts, because I send them e-mails at 3 in the morning,” he said with a friendly laugh. “All these thoughts come into my mind, and as they do, I’m banging them out on my Blackberry.”

But as a village resident for his entire life, Lou thinks it’s important to get those things done.

“You’re concerned about everything, because you live here too, and if I see something that’s not right, I’ve got to make sure I take care of it,” he said.

He wouldn’t be able to accomplish nearly as much if it weren’t for support from the village board, however.

“Earlier this year a new budget was passed. Even with everyone so cognizant of the economy, the village board knows that they still need to maintain the fleet. They’ve given DPW $200,000 to receive a roll-off truck that will be used to move materials.” Lou said. He paused. “It really helps being able to get the equipment you need.”

In his 14 years as superintendent, Lou has battled floods, plowed through 24-in. snowstorms, built ice skating rinks, elevated streets, repainted water storage tanks and hosted Nautical Mile festivals. His experiences are diverse, impressive and sometimes intimidating.

Lou’s Hardest Day

on the Job

The hardest day on Lou’s job was just two weeks after his appointment to superintendent, when the village was hit with a blizzard.

As any brand new superintendent would, Lou said, “I had a moment where I asked myself ‘What did I get into?”

But as the snow blanketed the ground, Lou quickly learned that he wasn’t alone. He had an assistant superintendent who had been with the village for 30 years and had seen his fair share of snow.

“I relied on experience and expertise and we got through it,” Lou said. “He guided me through the plowing.”

But there was another problem.

“We didn’t know where to push the snow. Our streets are 30 feet wide, so there’s not much room. When you’re pushing the snow, where are you going to put it?”

Inevitably some of the snow ended up in driveways.

“When it stops snowing and people start to shovel their driveways, sidewalks and cars; where do they put the snow?”

You guessed it.

“Right back in the street,” Lou said with a good-natured laugh.

Still, they managed to clear the streets so that the residents could get to work.

Lou has been through many snowstorms since that first one and he keeps his men prepared for them.

“We actually start getting the plows ready in September, right before leaf season. When a storm comes, we clear the main roads first. There are about 10 miles of county roads that we’re not responsible for, but if it snows, we clear them. They’re important roads.”

Lou’s kids understand that snow is part of their father’s job.

“My twins are 14 years old. They were one when I took over as superintendent, and they know that when it snows, Dad has to clear the roads. Sometimes they wish we would let them have a snow day though. They plead ‘Please don’t clean the street tonight. We want a day off tomorrow.’”

Working With the Right People

“Mayor William F. Glacken has been the mayor for the past twelve years and together we have worked on a number of large projects,” Lou said. “He is a visionary and understands what is best for the village.”

Glacken’s visions result in a number of projects. After all their time working together Lou not only understands the mayor’s vision for the projects, but he shares it.

“The mayor understands all aspects of our projects. He wants safety, functionality and aesthetics. The project should look good for years to come.”

Most projects the village undertakes, including the road elevation projects, are designed by the public works in-house engineering department.

“The village hires a surveyor and they’ll give us the base plans, but our engineering department will design it, bid it and manage it. We feel that it is very important that we control the project. With a consultant we would have to guide them throughout the project. Our engineering staff has the expertise and experience along with a strong sense of our community, so we like to keep it in house.”

The in-house engineering department includes Robert Fisenne, the village engineer; Ben Terzulli, assistant engineer; Anthony Esposito, general supervisor; and Brian Nicholson, construction inspector.

“Ben Terzulli is really a Freeporter,” said Lou.

Terzulli’s grandfather was the old Captain Ben Bracco, who started Captain Ben’s Fish Dock, a famous Long Island fish market that has been around since the 1920s and is still there.

“Everyone’s heard of Captain Ben’s,” Lou said.

The engineering department is, in Lou’s words, the “backbone” of the department.

“They handle a lot of projects worth millions,” he said. When I need anything I just walk over to those guys and they are ready and willing to do anything I need done.”

Another man Lou depends on is Assistant Superintendent of Public Works Bob Capozzoli.

“He came to the highway department when he was 18 years old and he’s been here 42 years. There’s probably not a harder working guy. He gets here at 6 in the morning and he won’t leave until I leave. I call on him at all hours of the night and he has never been fazed.”

Lou said Bobby’s knowledge of the village is valuable.

“His whole family grew up here. His father ran the sanitation department, brothers the electric department and village garage. Bobby can tell us things about the village like, ‘This used to be a dump yard,’ and we say, ‘Oh that’s why we just found a fender coming out of the ground.’

Raising the Road

There is a road in Freeport that used to get a lot of press.

“[The Nautical Mile] used to flood 120 times a year. We tried valves and backflow devices and that never worked, because the road was at elevation 3.5 msl,” Lou said. “The media would come and film this one street. We would be on the local and network news and it would lower property values for our citizens, because, when they filmed that one street, people thought the whole village was flooded.”

The solution was a $7 million project that elevated more than 4,000 ft. (1,219 m) of roadway starting in 1997. Some sections were elevated as much as 2.5 ft. (0.762 m).

“It was one of the biggest projects we ever did, picking areas up to a minimum elevation of about 5.5,” said Lou.

It was complicated by the fact that they often had to take the project right up to the people.

“It was very difficult, because entrances to businesses were right up to the back of the sidewalk. We had to construct handicap ramps or eliminate entrance steps on almost forty buildings.”

The project also included relocating overhead electric, telephone and cable wires underground.

Although the project was difficult at times, it was a complete success.

“This project has been so successful that traffic is just backed up in this area, with people going on boats and to restaurants.”

Of course, with that many people, litter happens, and Lou’s department has cleaning to do on Mondays.

“It’s a lot of work, because it gets messy over the weekend, but it creates jobs for our residents, and the property values have gone up.”

Raising the Grade

Over the years Lou and his staff have undertaken nine grade raising projects that cost more than $10 million to complete. Raising the grade and eliminating the flooding made residents very happy.

“By raising the streets up, now, people can go to work, people are fixing their houses up, and people are planting shrubbery. It’s great to see.”

Most of the homes along the streets were about 30 ft. (9.1 m) off the sidewalk, so Lou and his team had to make grade transitions from the street to the front of the house.

“This is the most difficult part of the project as you are dealing with the homeowner and trying to get them to understand the project. Most people think if you raise the street the water will go to another adjacent block.”

Legs of Jelly, Heart of Gold

Getting on snowplows and getting his hands dirty is important to Lou.

“I’ll get on a plow and push snow if needed. I believe that “If my guys can be out here in the middle of the night, so can I.”

Sometimes understanding the past can shed light on the future.

Lou believes his previous experience in jobs like draftsman and assistant superintendent in the engineering department gave him a better understanding of what he needs to do as superintendent.

“You kind of know how it was being in those jobs, and you know the problems you came across dealing with residents and property owners. You know how project decisions can affect homeowners, so it gives you a larger perspective,” Lou said.

“I think that’s why I can get on a plow, line a field, or run a basketball game. It is important to stay in touch with all the different jobs that I supervise. It makes me a better superintendent.”

Lou said that once, after he spent 22 consecutive hours on a plow, he remembers getting off the payloader, and almost hitting the ground.

“My legs were like jelly, sitting and bouncing for so long. I understand that guys need breaks. If you’re sitting in the golden chair, you don’t understand it, but if you’ve been there, then you know.”

The Rec Center

Playing in the first basketball game ever held at the village’s recreation center was an honor for 12-year-old Lou. It was at the grand opening of the complex. He doesn’t remember whether he won or lost the game, but he remembers that it was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Freeport’s recreation center.

Another honor came to him a year and a half ago, when the mayor asked him to assume responsibility for managing the recreation center. What was supposed to be a short three-month position is now part of Lou’s everyday job.

Lou grew up in the center and is now in charge of it.

“I remember my father painting a mural in my living room that he donated to the rec center and it’s been posted there for 34 years now. The piece features an ice skater, basketball player and a swimmer.”

After taking over the recreation center, as Lou went through old paperwork, he found something interesting in his new office. It was an old article where his father was pictured with former Mayor Bill White. The caption read:

“I’m giving this painting because of all the work the recreation center did with my son growing up,” said Lou’s father.

“Now I have responsibility of doing that for other kids,” said Lou.

It’s a responsibility he relishes, but it takes dedication.

“Our Freeport recreation center is a tremendous complex,” Lou said. “The building has four pools, a basketball court, ice skating rink and a number of program areas. We have a ‘Kiddie Club’, too, where there is a three to five year old program.”

But it’s not just the tremendous schedule of the building. It’s the sentimental element as well.

“I took over for an icon when I started managing the rec center. I spoke to former director, John “J” Jefferies, every day when he was running the building until he retired 18 months ago.

“I know how he was respected in the community and the trust that parents gave him to take care of their kids.”

The friendship that the two department heads had helped Lou tremendously when he was put in charge of the center.

“J always talked to me about the center, so I had a lot of knowledge on how the department ran thanks to those talks.”

The recreation center building is only about 0.5 mi. from the highway department complex, which makes Lou’s job a little easier, but there are still many things to think about.

“When there’s snow, I don’t only have to worry about the streets and parking fields, I need to make sure the recreation center is dealing with it correctly. The ice rink is covered with an air supported structure, so heavy snows can cause havoc.”

Lou has come to depend on his support staff at the recreation center, namely Building and Pools Maintenance Supervisor Alan Richartz.

“Alan can be working on the pool filter, boiler or Zamboni all in one day. He is a very skilled mechanic.”

One day all the departments under Lou’s control came together to deal with a problem. On a Saturday morning in December 2008, Richartz called Lou, stating that water was coming out of the main outdoor pool deck.

The water main to the building was leaking and required immediate attention. Lou called his water department personnel to come out.

“We found where the leak was, but it was going to take time to fix. We had our ice rink rented out to a number of youth hockey clubs throughout the day, so I had all these teams coming in to play games. The easiest thing to do would have been to shut the rink and the building down because we had no water. But we decided we needed to keep the rink operating, so we said, ‘OK. Let’s rent port-a-potties. They can be here in an hour. OK, we can get through this.’”

Two and a half hours later, Lou and his team got the building back up and running. The recreation center staff took care of the building. The water department fixed the water main. The highway department provided equipment and backfill.

“We opened the pools back up and we never lost a hockey charter,” he said.

A Safe Place to Skate

The ice rink itself was another accomplishment Lou supervised. The village recently spent $2 million to rehab it.

“Not many government agencies operate ice skating rinks, but the recreation center had an outdoor rink when it opened and later covered it. The idea was to provide our children a safe place to have fun. The village board gave us the direction to replace the existing air supported structure. The rink was shut down in early June and the highway department removed the existing fabric, cables, dasher boards, bleachers, and locker rooms, all of which had to be replaced and operational by October. The multi contract project was completed in time and the first game was on October 4, almost four months to the day demolition started.

The new facility has new blowers, air conditioning, dasher boards, glass, safety flooring, a scoreboard and bleachers. The recreation center staff constructed new player locker rooms, a rink guard office and a maintenance area inside the rink.

Additional projects are under way and will be completed shortly — a new restroom building with showers, a first aid office and a new building connector that will provide passage from the main building to the ice rink.

“You used to have to walk away from the bubble to go to the bathroom and sometimes it was cold outside, so we put the whole thing together.”

Lou said he learned a lot from building the ice rink.

“You learn about the different boards and which ones to select and the safety surfacing and how thick is ice? I was not knowledgeable about how thick ice has got to be or the temperature of the slab, so there were a lot of new things that were coming at me.”

Ice that is too thick requires a lot of energy to stay frozen and also is prone to getting soft on the top. Ice that is too thin is dangerous because skaters run the risk of cutting straight through the ice. The temperature and thickness affect the hardness of the ice. Soft ice is better for figure skating because it grips the skates better and is less likely to shatter during jumps. Hard, cold ice is preferred by hockey players, because soft ice gets chewed up during hockey games.

“You had to research and learn about ice and boards and it was pretty fascinating,” Lou said.

Lou said that it’s different being part of the operations of the rec center compared to just helping with the building.

“Before, it was, ‘OK we’re going to build you this new heating system and this is the one that you’re getting, but you can operate it however you want.’ Now I’m the operator too, so I see it from a different perspective.”

350 Years

Currently the highway department is planning an anniversary party.

“This is our 350th anniversary of the settlement of the village, so we’re looking to put up banners and have a celebration.”

Every year, in June, the village holds a nautical festival on Woodcleft Avenue, also known as the Nautical Mile. This year Lou will try to include an anniversary theme into the festival.

“My only involvement used to be that we’d clean the streets and set up about 2 miles of barricades.”

Today Lou and the rec center staff start working on the Nautical Mile festival in January. The festival includes dock-diving dogs, fishing, racing pigs, rock climbing, rides, live music and boatfuls of seafood.

“The festival is a lot of fun. Last year, about 140,000 people attended,” Lou said.

With the anniversary celebration this year, it might be even more.

Keeping It Clean

Lou and his crews take pride in keeping the village in good condition.

“We have 79 miles of roads to maintain and one of the ways to keep things looking good is by sending out the street sweepers. The village owns five sweepers; four of them go out everyday, weather permitting.

“We send our street sweepers out around 3 a.m. at least five days a week to clean our business district and municipal parking fields,” Lou stated.

“People don’t see a lot of the things public works does,” Lou said. “If they turn on the faucet and the water comes out, everybody’s happy.”

But for Lou and Ken Claus, the supervisor of the village’s water department, water maintenance means constant upgrades and purifying the water to ensure it is free from bacteria and other harmful substances. A growing population meant Freeport had to add capacity to the water system by building a new water plant two years ago. It was lucky, because the village already had a place to put the new plant.

“It was an old camp site that the village bought 30 years ago, saying, ‘You know, one day the water department might need this land — and we needed it.”

The water department built three wells and a treatment facility, on the site. The $5 million project turned out to be a lifesaver when the village encountered problems with one of its tanks.

“We have 11 wells, two elevated storage tanks,” Lou said, “and one of them has been a nightmare for us. We had a company that defaulted on a contract to paint the tank. They were supposed to start the work in September and be finished by mid June. That was two summers ago.”

Because the tank was in the process of being painted, four wells that feed into the storage tank couldn’t be used and the department wouldn’t have had enough water for Freeporters to drink, flush the toilet or water their lawns if it hadn’t been for the new plant.

“As we saw that the tank was not going to be put back on line, we went to the mayor and the village board and said, ‘Look we need to change how we treat some of these wells so that we can go right into the system and not into the tank, and they gave us the money to do it.

“We had four wells that pumped to that tank — four wells that produced 6,000 gallons a minute. With the tank out of commission, we lost a capacity of 8 million gallons a day. Thank God we had that new system and we were able to provide the water that we needed for the village.”

Lou’s department also is in charge of wastewater, which presents its own challenges. The village owns the main sewer lines in town, about 105 mi. (169 km), and it owns four lift stations that pump water up and out of the system to a county treatment facility.

“The biggest problem is our storm water,” he said. “We have probably 10 miles of canals and we have 51 outfall pipes in town, which are drainage pipes that go from the street to the canal. There are no recharge storm basins.”

The village has been proactive in trying to treat the rainwater before it flows into the canals.

“You don’t want the floatables and the oils from the street going into the system, so we’re looking to put about 250 filters into the catch basins to filter the water and catch all the debris before it goes into the canals.”

Below the Roads

Both concrete and asphalt roads can be found throughout Freeport. All are paved. However, what’s below the road is a little different in Freeport.

“A lot of the roads in the southern end of town were built with the dredged materials that they used to dig out the canals back in the early part of the last century. Later developers built houses in these filled areas.

“What they should have done is dig the canals a little deeper. That would have raised the elevation of the streets. With canals just deep enough for boats, the roads were not constructed high enough to stop tidal flooding,” Lou said. “You’ll dig 2 or 3 feet deep and you hit ground water.”

Lou has spoken in Florida and Boston about the village’s road elevation projects and people are always amazed.

“We did a video a while back,” Lou said. “We interviewed some of the old timers and told the story from their perspective about the flooding, and what it was like and what the project meant to them.”

A Place for Waste

In the early ’80s, with landfills closing in the area, many of the incorporated villages didn’t know where to take their garbage, so, when the town built an energy waste disposal plant, local villages, including the village of Freeport, started taking their waste to it.

“We kind of got locked into it. We had a contract where all our garbage had to go there. If we didn’t take it there, we had to pay the plant anyway. The contract was so that with the event of recycling and removal of yard waste from the system we still had to provide the plant with the original amount of tonnage. That contract is finally up in August of ’09 and we will have some breathing room.”

Lou has been working with seven other villages to find a place to put Freeport’s waste.

“We worked together to try to get the best deal on where to bring our refuse.”

This gave Lou a chance to get to know other villages.

“It’ was a great experience because we were also able to discuss different topics such as ‘What are you doing with safety gear?’ and ‘Can we borrow your jet rodder?’ These are great relationships.”

Giving Back to the Next Generation

Lou and his wife, Grace, have four daughters — twins Angela and Danielle, who are 14; Nicole, age 12; and Julia, age 8. He enjoys coaching Nicole’s soccer team and watching the others play soccer and basketball.

“I’ve been coaching Nic’s team for three years,” he said. “We have a great group of girls”.

Lou also has coached his kid’s softball and CYO basketball teams.

About the Village of Freeport

The Incorporated village of Freeport is in the town of Hempstead, Nassau County, N.Y., on the South Shore of Long Island. Baldwin is to the west and Merrick is to the east. Roosevelt lies to the north. The south village boundary is not precisely defined, lying in the salt flats and bays.

The population was 43,783 at the 2000 census. Freeport is a suburb with a modest commercial waterfront, light industry and local tourism. The south part of the village is penetrated by several canals that allow access to the Atlantic Ocean by means of passage through salt marshes. The oldest of these canals is the late 19th century Woodcleft Canal. Freeport has extensive small-boat facilities and a resident fishing fleet, as well as charter and open fishing boats.

The village is racially and ethnically diverse: the 2000 census showed the population as 42.6 percent White, 32.9 percent African American, and 33.3 percent Hispanic or Latino of any race.

Freeport has its own municipal police, fire, electric and water departments. Freeport also has its own station on the Long Island Rail Road.

Freeport’s government is made up of four trustees and a mayor. One trustee also serves in the capacity of deputy mayor. The current mayor, William F. Glacken, is assisted by deputy mayors Renaire Frierson and Donald Miller. William White and Jorge Martinez are trustees. The mayor and board of trustees are elected to four-year terms.

History

Before people of European ancestry came to the area, the land was part of the territory of the Meroke Indians.

In the 1640s, Europeans settled the land, and written records of the community date back to this time. During Colonial times, the village was part of “the Great South Woods.”

In the mid-1600s, the area was renamed Raynor South, and ultimately Raynortown, after a herdsman named Edward Raynor, who moved to the area from Hempstead in 1659, cleared land, and built a cabin.

In 1853, residents voted to rename the village Freeport, adopting a variant of a nickname used by ship captains. It got this nickname because ships were not charged a fee for landing in the port during colonial times. Hence, it was a “free port.”

After the Civil War, Freeport became a center for commercial oystering. This trade began to decline at the beginning of the 20th century because of changing salinity and increased pollution in Great South Bay. Nonetheless, even as of the early 21st century Freeport and nearby Point Lookout have the largest concentration of commercial fishing activity anywhere near New York City.

From 1868, Freeport was served by the Southside Railroad, which was a major boon to development. The most prominent figure in this boom was developer John J. Randall. Among his other contributions to the development of Freeport, he built several canals, including the Woodcleft Canal, one side of which is now the site of the Nautical Mile

Randall, who opposed all of Freeport being laid out in a grid, put up a Victorian house virtually overnight on a triangular plot at the corner of Lena Avenue and Wilson Place to spite the grid designers. The Freeport Spite House still is standing and occupied.

In January 1873, before Nassau County split off from Queens, the Queens County treasurer set up an office at Freeport. The village residents voted to incorporate the village on Oct. 18, 1892. At that time, it had a population of 1,821. In 1898, Freeport established a municipal electric utility, which still operates today, giving the village lower electricity rates than those in surrounding communities.

In the years after incorporation, Freeport was a tourist and sportsman’s destination because of its boating and fishing. From 1902 into the late 1920s, the New York and Long Island Traction Corporation ran trolleys through Freeport to Jamaica, Queens, Hempstead and Brooklyn. These trolleys went down Main Street in Freeport, connecting to a ferry near Woodcleft Avenue. The ferries took people to Point Lookout, about 3 mi. south of Freeport, where there is an ocean beach. For a few years after 1913, the short lived Freeport Railroad ran a train nicknamed “the Fishermen’s Delight” along Grove Street (now Guy Lombardo Avenue) from Sunrise Highway to the waterfront.

During the same era, in 1910 Arthur and Albert Heinrich flew the first American-made, American-powered monoplane, built in their Merrick Road airplane factory. WGBB, founded in 1924, became Long Island’s first 24-hour radio station.

In the late 19th century, Freeport was the summer resort of wealthy politicians, publishers, and so forth. At the time, travel from Freeport to New York City required a journey of several hours on a coal-powered train, or an even more arduous automobile trip on the single-lane Merrick Road. According to Elinor Smith, the arrival of Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell around the turn of the century marked the beginning of what by 1914 would become an unofficial theatrical artists’ colony, especially of vaudeville performers.

Freeport’s population was largest in the summer season, during which most of the theaters of the time were closed and performers left for cooler climes. Some had year-round family homes in Freeport.

Several of Freeport’s actors gathered together as the Long Island Good Hearted Thespian Society (LIGHTS), with a clubhouse facing onto Great South Bay. LIGHTS presented summer shows in Freeport from the mid-1910s to the mid-1920s. LIGHTS also sponsored summertime “Christmas Parade,” featuring clowns, acrobats, and once even some borrowed elephants. It was held at this unlikely time of year because the theater people were all working during the real Christmas season. A Coney Island—style amusement park called Playland Park thrived from the early 1920s until the early 1930s but was destroyed by a fire.

By 1937, Freeport’s population exceeded 20,000 and it was the largest village in Nassau County. After World War II the village became a bedroom community for New York City. The separation between the two eras was marked by a fire that destroyed the Freeport Hotel in the late 1950s. During the 1950s local merchants resisted building any shopping malls in the village and subsequently suffered a great loss of business when large malls were built in communities in the central part of Long Island.

Freeport has had some notable boat-building figures. Fred and Mirto Scopinich operated their boatyard in Freeport from just after World War I until they moved it to East Quogue in the late 1960s. Their Freeport Point Shipyard built boats for the United States Coast Guard, but also for Prohibition-era rumrunners. From 1937 to 1945 the shipyard built small boats for the United States Navy and British Royal Navy navies.

The marina and dealership operated by Al Grover in 1950 remains in Freeport and in his family. Grover’s company built fishing skiffs from the 1970s until about 1990. One of these, a 26-footer, carried Grover and his sons from Nova Scotia to Portugal in 1985, the first-ever crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a boat powered by an outboard motor.

Columbian Bronze operated in Freeport from its 1901 founding until it closed shop in 1988. Among this company’s achievements was the propeller for the USS Nautilus, an operational nuclear-powered submarine and the first vessel to complete a submerged transit across the North Pole.

A Long Island Hot Spot

Because of the Nautical Mile Festival and the revitalized downtown, Freeport is a Long Island hot spot during the summer season in New York. The Nautical Mile features well-known seafood restaurants, crab shacks, bars, eclectic boutiques, fresh fish markets, party cruise ships and casino boats that float atop the canals. People line up for the boat rides and eat at restaurants that feature seating on the water’s edge and serve mussels, oysters, crabs and steamed clams (“steamers”) accompanied by pitchers of beer.

Wikipedia contributed to this article. P

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