Visiting a Greek enclave on Florida's coast Remnants: Although gaudy commercialization is on the upswing in Tarpon Springs, reminders of the old days and old ways remain.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You can still see a genuine Greek fishing village in this city where nearly one-third the population is of Greek heritage.

But in Tarpon Springs, on Florida's west coast, the old ambience is being replaced by gaudy shops with plastic trinkets and hawkers waving menus in front of restaurants. Tacky T-shirts are everywhere.

What's left of the Tarpon Springs that Greek sponge divers made famous early this century can be seen in the few remaining Greek coffee shops, where old men sit late at night playing cards, and at Zorba's, a nightclub where young Greek women take to the dance floor and move like liquid silk, as the bouzoukis blare.

That's late at night, and on the side streets, away from the seven-block downtown historic district, where some century-old buildings house shops, art galleries and restaurants. Many of the stores have facades that look like tourist shops, with the goods spilling onto the sidewalks.

Katerina Simeon's family opened an arts store in 1934; it still has the stark feel of a Spartan stucco building. She said many old-time merchants are selling out and the buyers are replacing art and genuine goods with plastic.

"It's losing its flavor," she sighed as she looked outside her store, which specializes in artistic, rather than mass-produced, products. "It's really sad for me to watch this," she said. She walked over to a painting of a small place in Greece. "This is Greek village," she said, adding that Tarpon Springs could look like that.

On the wall of her store are pictures of the city in the 1920s and 1930s, showing Greek men in big mustaches, and a city without adornment. Tarpon Springs was a working-class city then. Those who owned the sponge-diving boats kept them out almost year-round. "A working boat tied to the dock does not produce," they said.

Descendants remain

If that is history, and has been lost, there is still an undeniable charm to Tarpon Springs because many of the families here are the descendants of those who came starting in 1905, and they still work the stores and restaurants and boats, and tell tales of their families.

As you walk down through the center, starting with Pappas' famous restaurant, you can hear the rapid staccato of Greek language, with the occasional punctuation of fist on a table, emphasizing a point. Greeks are most passionate about politics and debating. And there are the aromas of lemon and lamb and oregano coming from the street-front restaurants.

Angelo Billiris, who runs a sponge boat that gives daily diving exhibits, graduated from high school here in 1958 but left after college to work in Atlanta and South Carolina. He came back 10 years later because he wanted his family to grow up in a Greek-American environment of church and friends.

"They were losing the customs and traditions we grew up in," he said. When the Greeks first came, they even stayed within the families of their homeland islands. "It was unheard of for someone from Kalymnos to marry someone from Halki," he said. "It was unheard of to marry an American."

Mayor Anita Protos says Tarpon Springs is still the most Greek of all the communities in which Greeks settled in the United States. "They retain their religion and their customs steadfast and hold them tighter than anyplace else in the world," she said of her neighbors.

Indeed, the superintendent of schools, the city manager and even the congressman, Mike Bilirakis, are Greek-Americans. And you can still see remnants of the early life of the Greek immigrants in their stores and homes.

Social center

The center of social life is still St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in 1943. On Jan. 6 each year, the festival of Epiphany attracts 40,000 visitors to watch Greek boys dive in the harbor for a cross.

And on nearby Hope Street, there is the Shrine of St. Michael Taxiarchis, built by a family to honor the saint they believe delivered a miracle in saving their son from an illness in 1939, and which they say still delivers miracles to the ill.

But most activity takes place on the main street. In front of one restaurant, a comely young woman with black hair and fiery eyes beckoned passers-by to come in for a bite. When they promise, but walk down the street and go into another restaurant, she chastised them in mock anger when they walk back, spitting Greek epithets, but not profanity.

"Min mas prothosees!" she snapped, meaning "You betrayed us!" a line that comes from the treason 2,500 years ago of a shepherd named Ephialtes, who showed the Persians a way through a mountain pass to finally defeat the 300 Spartans at the Pass of Thermopylae.

Tarpon Springs, just north of Clearwater, doesn't sit directly on the ocean. Its harbor is really a bayou inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Settlers began arriving in the mid-1880s, attracted by the plentiful fishing and hunting.

In 1881, northern developer Hamilton Disson bought 4 million acres of land from the state around the area and began turning the town into a winter resort and health center, helped by the arrival of the Orange Belt Railway in 1887, which brought in many wealthy families, who built mansions that still stand.

Transformation

Tarpon Springs' transformation began around 1905 with the arrival of the Greek sponge divers. Before that, Caribbean and South American fishermen would troll the shallow waters and scoop sponges off the bottom with hooks.

The Greeks brought with them the method and ability to dive in pressurized suits with heavy bell helmets. With this quipment, they could stay underwater in deeper spots for several hours, walk on the bottom and use hooks to find the best sponges. The lifestyle was captured in a 1950s movie, "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef," starring Gilbert Roland and a young Robert Wagner.

The first divers from Greece were amazed to see thousands of different species of sponges on the deep floors of the Atlantic. It was a colorful jungle of shapes and sizes. At first, they were sending up sponges every few minutes, filling wooden baskets.

The industry was started by the first Greek to settle in the city, John Corcoris, who traveled back to Greece to find the expert divers while his brothers bought a boat for $180.

The first trip out was on June 18, 1905, after they had built a house and a warehouse for the sponges. The word quickly spread back to Greece and the Dodecanese Islands of the sponge cornucopia. Soon, those who weren't in the diving industry opened restaurants and shops.

By the 1930s, there were 200 boats, mostly operated by Greeks and Greek-Americans. But then came a bacterial blight, and in the 1940s the industry almost became extinct, with only a handful of boats still operating. There was a slight resurgence in the 1960s, and again in 1985 when a hurricane south of Tarpon Springs stirred up egg larvae, which made the sponges flourish again.

Today, on the docks, you can see hundreds of sponges hung on drying lines, and buy varying qualities in the stores, from those hard enough to scrape pans with to those that feel as soft as lamb's wool and can be used to gently cleanse your face.

Auctions are held twice a week for buyers and wholesalers, and the industry now brings in an estimated $6 million to $8 million annually for the sponge-boat operators. And while many of those diving are still of Greek heritage, they have taught others. Sean O'Donnell, who works for Billiris, takes part in the exhibitions for tourists in which the boat goes only a short distance into the bayou.

Wearing 172 pounds of equipment, O'Donnell goes over the side. He controls his descent and ascent by adding and removing air, which goes into the suit from a line attached to a generator on the boat.

Tourists run to the side of the boat and peer over, watching the bubbles rise from under the water, and cheer when O'Donnell emerges on a shallow bank, waving a sponge on a hook.

Changes

Still, you can't escape the downtown places offering cheap T-shirts and trinkets. It even dismays Protos, but not too much; she says at least the shirts sometimes show a Greek warrior, or a woman in Greek costumes, or are in Greek.

"Tourists want T-shirts, and they've asked for them through the years," she says. "There is commercialism, but you still have the old flavor of Greece and the Greek ethnic background. It will continue to survive because of the owners of the shops and the real sense and purpose of the dock area."

Duchess Arfaras, who is president of the merchants association and who has run a curio shop on Dodecanese Boulevard since the 1950s, said there is concern about the changing face. "It has gotten more commercialized," she said. "But how can you tell people you're taking away from the authentic Greek village? They will say you want everything for yourself, and that's not true.

"The ethnic stores are all keeping their ethnic merchandise," such as linens and goods from Greece, she said.

"There's only one place in the world like Tarpon Springs," said Arfaras, stopping briefly to add: "And that's right here."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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