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.

December 15, 1996|By Andy Dabilis | Andy Dabilis,BOSTON GLOBE

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.

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