Freeport (officially The Incorporated Village of Freeport) is a village in the town of Hempstead, Nassau County, New York, New York, USA, on the South Shore of Long Island. The population was 42,860 at the 2010 census. A settlement since the 1640s, it was once an oystering community and later a resort popular with the New York City theater community. It is now primarily a bedroom suburb but retains a modest commercial waterfront and some light industry. The village is racially and ethnically diverse: the 2000 census shows the population as 42.9% White, 32.6% African American, and 33.5% Hispanic or Latino of any race.
History and Culture
Before people of European ancestry came to the area, the land was part of the territory of the Meroke Indians. Written records of the community go back to the 1640s. The village now known as Freeport was part of an area called "the Great South Woods" during colonial times. In the mid-17th century, the area was renamed Raynor South, and ultimately Raynortown, after a herdsman named Edward Raynor, who had 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 during colonial times because they were not charged customs duties to land their cargo.
After the Civil War, Freeport became a center for commercial oystering. This trade began to decline as early as 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 shape of Freeport today were several canals, including the Woodcleft Canal, one side of which is now the site of the "Nautical Mile". Randall, who opposed all of Freeport's 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 had split off from Queens, the Queens County treasurer set up an office at Freeport. The village residents voted to incorporate the village on October 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. It is one of two municipally owned electric systems in Nassau County; the other is in Rockville Centre. Public street lighting was begun in 1907, and a public fire alarm system was adopted in 1910.
From 1902 into the late 1920s, the New York and Long Island Traction Corporation ran trolleys through Freeport to Jamaica, 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 three miles (5 km) 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. Also in this era, in 1910 Arthur and Albert Heinrich flew the first American-made, American-powered monoplane, built in their Merrick Road airplane factory (see also Heinrich Pursuit). 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 start of the 20th 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. Leo Carrillo and Victor Moore were early arrivals, later joined by Fannie Brice, Trixie Friganza, Sophie Tucker, Harry Ruby, Fred Stone, Helen Broderick, Moran and Mack, Will Rogers, Bert Kalmar, Richard Whiting, Harry von Tilzer, Rae Samuels, Belle Baker, Grace Hayes, Pat Rooney, Duffy and Sweeney, the Four Mortons, McKay and Ardine, and Eva Tanguay. Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields, and many other theatrical performers who did not own homes there were also frequent visitors.
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 a 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.
With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island in the 1920s many villages in Nassau and Suffolk counties were the focal point of Klan activity. According to a story in Newsday detailing the history of Long Island, "often, respected clergymen and public officials openly supported the Klan and attended its rallies. On Sept. 20, 1924, for instance, the Klan drew 30,000 spectators to a parade through Freeport – with the village police chief, John M. Hartman, leading a procession of 2,000 robed men.... the founding of one of Long Island's first klaverns, in Freeport, was memorialized on Sept. 8, 1922, in the Daily Review, which carried a banner headline about the meeting at Mechanics Hall on Railroad Avenue. About 150 new members were greeted by seven robed Klansmen."
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.
The landscape of Freeport underwent further change with a significant increase in apartment building construction. When such buildings went up in just two years in the early 1960s, the Village passed a moratorium on multi-unit residential construction.
While never a major boatbuilding center, Freeport can boast some notable figures in that field. 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. 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 , an operational nuclear-powered submarine and the first vessel to complete a submerged transit across the North Pole.
Freeport is a Long Island hot spot during the summer season in New York. A popular festival occurs on Freeport's Nautical Mile (the west side of Woodcleft Canal) the first weekend in June each year, which attracts many people from across Long Island and New York City. The Nautical Mile is a strip along the water that features well-known seafood restaurants, crab shacks, bars, eclectic little boutiques, fresh fish markets, as well as 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 servings of mussels, oysters, crabs, and steamed clams ("steamers") accompanied by pitchers of beer. An 18-hole miniature golf course is popular among families. The Sea Breeze waterfront park—which includes a transient marina, boardwalk, rest rooms and benches—opened in 2009 at the foot of the Nautical Mile. It has proven to be a very popular spot to sit and watch the marine traffic and natural scenery. This is in addition to an existing scenic pier.
Freeport has an ethnically and racially diverse population. Freeport's African-American population lives largely in the northern section of the village. There is one housing project, named after Nassau County's first black judge, Moxie Rigby. Freeport's Hispanic community is made up of Puerto Ricans and immigrants who hail from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and many other Latin American nations. Among the many Latin-American-themed businesses are the Compare Foods Supermarkets, several grocery stores, and restaurants along Merrick Road and Main Street that serve Caribbean, Central American, Dominican, and South American cuisines.
Freeport, along with neighboring Merrick, is also the gateway to Jones Beach, one of the largest state beaches in New York. One famous area is the Town of Hempstead Marina, where people from all over Long Island dock their boats. Freeport is a 45-minute ride by the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan, making the trip an easy commute to New York City.
From 1974 to 1986, Freeport was one of the few Long Island towns to hold a sizeable open-air market area, known as the Freeport Mall. The heart of the Main Street business area was closed to vehicular traffic and reconfigured for pedestrians only. The experiment was not a success. The W. T. Grant store that was supposed to anchor the mall closed, along with the rest of that chain, shortly after the mall opened. The mall area became shabby and disused, and many businesses failed. The mall was dismantled and returned to through traffic with regular parking on each side of the street.
Just north of the high school and the railroad tracks is the ruin of the former Brooklyn Water Works, described by Christopher Gray of the New York Times as looking like an "ancient, war-damaged abbey." Designed by architect Frank Freeman and opened in 1891 to serve the City of Brooklyn (later made a borough of New York City), it was fully active until 1929 with a capacity of 54 million gallons a day, and remained in standby for emergency use until 1977, when the pumps and other machinery were removed. See Ridgewood Reservoir. An unsuccessful 1989 plan would have turned the building into condos. Currently, the parcel is the subject of litigation and ongoing investigations by various agencies. Long Island Traditions also describes the sites of notable architecture in Freeport's history, such as bay men's homes and commercial fishing establishments, some of which are still existing, as well as the still-existing Fiore’s Fish Market and Two Cousins, which are located in historic waterfront buildings, built by the owners, so they could negotiate directly with the baymen as they pulled into dock).
Long Island Traditions also describes and provides a photograph of the no-longer existing Woodcleft Hotel and important boatyards, about which the site writes:
In Freeport the Maresca boatyard stands on the site of what is now the Long Island Marine Education Center owned by the Village of Freeport. Founded in the 1920s by Phillip Maresca, they built both recreational and commercial boats. Their customers included Guy Lombardo and party boat captains. The business was taken over by Everett Maresca, who died in 1995. The original building remains relatively intact, consisting of a large concrete block structure. Further down on Woodcleft Canal stands the former Scopinich Boatyard, now part of Shelter Point Marine services. The structure is obscured by corrugated metal siding but elements of its original frame structure remain. The yard was founded by Fred Scopinich, a Greek immigrant in the early 1900s. His grandson Fred moved the yard to East Quogue. The Freeport yard specialized in building commercial fishing boats including trawlers, government boats for the Coast Guard, rum running boats, as well as sailboats and garveys for local baymen. Finally the original Grover boatyard, founded by Al Grover, stands on Woodcleft Avenue a short distance from the Maresca yard. A modest frame building, approximately 20 people worked there. Today the yard is located north of the Nautical Mile on South Main street, run by Grover’s sons. Their yard consists of modern corrugated structures used primarily for maintenance and storage.
Freeport Memorial Library
The Freeport Memorial Library is one of Nassau County's largest public libraries. The library was founded in 1884 as part of the school system, granted a provisional charter by the state Board of Regents in 1895, and a permanent charter on December 21, 1899. In 1911 it was moved from a school building to a rented room in the Miller Building on South Grove Street. At that time it was a membership library: members paid ten cents for a card and were permitted to borrow two books at a time, one fiction and one nonfiction.
A drive was started in 1920 to construct a library building. The resulting library at the corner of Merrick Road and Ocean Avenue, a Beaux Arts building designed by architect Charles M. Hart, opened on Memorial Day, 1924. A year later it was renamed Freeport Memorial Library. In 1928, a tablet was erected with the names of Freeport's war dead from the American Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I.
For the 2009–10 school year, there were 6,257 students enrolled in Freeport's public schools. The children of Freeport, in grades 1–4, attend four magnet elementary schools, each with a different specialty: Archer Street (Microsociety and Multimedia), Leo F. Giblyn (School of International Cultures), Bayview Avenue (School of Arts and Sciences), and New Visions (School of Exploration & Discovery). In grades 5 and 6, all public school children attend Caroline G. Atkinson School on the north side of the town. Seventh and 8th graders attend John W. Dodd Middle School. The Middle School is built on the property that housed the older Freeport High School, but not on exactly the same site. The old high school served for some years as the junior high; then the new junior high was built on what was previously parking lot and playground, and the old building was torn down. A Catholic school, the De La Salle School, is run by the Christian Brothers and accepts boys from grades 5–8.
Children in grades 9–12 attend Freeport High School, which borders the town of Baldwin and sits beside the Milburn duck pond, which is fed by a creek, several hundred yards of which was diverted underground when the high school was built. Freeport High School's mascot is the Red Devil, and its colors are red and white. The school has track-and-field facilities. One unique feature of the school's curriculum is a science research program run in cooperation with the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The school offers numerous advanced placement courses and was a pioneer in distance learning at the high school level. Roughly 87 percent of the high school's graduates go on to some form of higher education. A community night school for teen-agers had 236 students as of 1999.
As early as 1886, Freeport's schools began the then-unusual policy of providing their students with free textbooks. In 1893, the newly incorporated village constructed a ten-room brick schoolhouse. Also in the late 19th century, the community was among the first Long Island communities to establish an "academic department", offering classes beyond the elementary school level.
Freeport saw its share of the social, political, and racial turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 1969–70 school year saw three high school principals in the village's only high school, succeeded in August 1970 by William McElroy, formerly the junior high school principal, who came to the position "in the midst of racial tension and a constantly-polarizing student body"; McElroy backed such initiatives as a student advisory committee to the Board of Education and, in his own words, "made [him]self available to any civic-minded group" that wished to discuss with him the situation in the school. By May 1972, he could claim success, of a sort. "Formerly, a fight between a black and a white student would automatically become racial; now a fight is just a fight—between two students."
The Freeport High School newspaper, Flashings, founded 1920, is believed to be the oldest high school paper on Long Island. It has won numerous awards over several decades. From 1969 until 1999 it operated under "free press" guidelines unusual for a high school newspaper, with an active role for the students in picking their own faculty adviser, and with ultimate editorial control firmly in the hands of students. Throughout that time, Ira Schildkraut functioned as faculty adviser. In 1999 the school administration removed Schildkraut from that role, and attempted to establish themselves as censors. That last decision was turned back by the school board after it drew attention from, among others, The New York Times and the Student Press Law Center. However, the resolution of the dispute did reduce the student journalists' role in selecting their own faculty adviser, and increased the faculty adviser's editorial authority relative to the student journalists'.
From about 1970 to 1973, the town and Freeport High School achieved recognition because of its math team's ("The Mathletes") performance in regional inter-school math competitions and performance on advanced mathematics tests including the Olympiad and those from the MAA. In addition, in about 1970, Freeport High School became one of the few schools in the country then to have a general purpose computer on the premises dedicated to student use and teaching programming, an IBM 1620 donated by IBM. The 1620 was later replaced by remote access to a DEC System 10 then, later, an on-site PDP-11/40 running the RSTS/E time sharing system, also dedicated to the students. Much credit for the team and computers goes to FHS math teachers and to the Freeport School District's head of Mathematics, Joseph Holbrook.
In June 2008 sixteen people were arrested after violence erupted in the high school.
In a 2010 Newsday story regarding Long Island eighth-grader scores on Regents Exams, which have traditionally been given to students in ninth grade and up, Freeport was ranked in the lower tier.
Sports and recreation
From 1931 until the early 1980s, Freeport was home to Freeport Speedway, originally Freeport Municipal Stadium. Seating about 10,000, the stadium originally hosted "midget" auto races; after World War II it switched to stock car racing and eventually demolition derbies. In the early 1930s it was the playfield for a semi-pro baseball team: the Penn Red Caps took their name from the caps worn by Pullman porters. For a few years after that, the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers football team, who, like their baseball namesakes, played at Ebbets Field, used the stadium as a midweek training site. The site is now a BJs Warehouse Club.
Freeport is home to the Freeport Recreation Center, which features an enclosed, year-round ice skating rink; an indoor pool; an outdoor Olympic-size pool; an outdoor diving tank; an outdoor children's pool; handball courts; sauna; steam room; fully equipped workout gyms; basketball courts; and snack bars serving hot and cold foods. The "Rec Center" also offers evening adult classes and hosts a pre-school program, camp programs, and a senior center.