The Greeks of Tarpon Springs

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Close to three major metro areas and thirty suburbs make up the collection of cities known as Tampa Bay. Starting with Apollo Beach to the south on the mainland, the arc of towns curves counter-clockwise through Brandon, Tampa, Dunedin, Clearwater, and finally ending with St. Petersburg on a spit of land in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re affable places, full of friendly people and a succession of strip malls in varying states of repair. The quality of life is high. The amount of hurricane hits has been surprisingly low. Still, with so much suburban development sandwiched into such a small area, it’s unavoidable that Tampa Bay—once the home of pirates and the Spanish explorers—has somehow faded to vanilla.

But life is not all beach condos and lattes. At eleven o’clock on Tampa Bay’s arc, there is a place where working fishing boats still bob daringly on choppy green water and everyone speaks… Greek? It’s a metropolitan suburb, but it’s also everything you’d expect from a place where people still dive for sea sponges for a living. The dining is unforgettably good, though it’s a stretch to call it “fine,” and you can pick up CDs of the hottest Hellenic pop stars before you leave town for the day. Welcome to Tarpon Springs.

Tarpon Springs has somewhere between 6 to 8,000 Greek-Americans living in its borders, which—incredibly—still only accounts for a quarter of its population. (The entire state of Florida is home to about 150,000 Greek-Americans.) Still, the cultural ties are so strong that Tarpon Springs is the smallest city in the nation with its own consulate. The Greek Orthodox community is still alive and thriving, and the town’s annual Epiphany festival is one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the United States.

Probably the reason that Greek culture survives so effortlessly here has to do with family. As the town’s official website points out, many of the businesses set up by the city’s
founders are still owned and operated by their descendants. Even now, it’s not unusual to watch someone’s nephew wander into a dress shop and kiss their coiffed, elderly aunt behind the counter, or for one shopkeeper to run next door to another store so that she can borrow a roll of pennies from her sister. Young men sell cigars on Dodecanese Boulevard, the main artery that pumps cash into the touristy Sponge Docks. On a sunny May day, a few of them can be seen relaxing in plastic patio chairs and chatting in Greek while they wait for customers, their shouts and laughs sometimes so loud that a few potential buyers turn around in surprise.

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No one is likely to find a bored teenager minding the shop in the Sponge Dock district — most owners are on hand themselves to offer charming, solicitous customer service designed to separate tourists from their spending money. Do you have one hand on a t-shirt? “I’ll be getting more of those in on Saturday.” Looking at a pair of earrings? “I have more in the back; there’s some over here, too!” Older women run boutiques with brilliantly-coloured dresses for the middle-aged set, and entire extended clans help to run over a dozen restaurants and bakeries (usually involving the name “Mama” in their ad and boasting live Greek music). I’ve even seen one of Mama’s sons take to the streets with paper menus, chatting up potential diners and expounding upon the virtues of the family cooking: “You like lamb? You haven’t had lamb until you’ve had my
mother’s. Come on inside…Well, you’re coming back, aren’t you? You don’t want to miss it! Best food in town!”

In Tarpon Springs’ most intimate back alleys, where old men sit outside of corner stores and gossip while their olive-toned heads bake in the Florida sun, Greece’s influence feels as gently corrosive and omnipresent as the salt spray off of the Gulf. But while the side-street scenes are touching, the best argument for holding onto all things Hellenic with both hands is newly constructed on U.S. 19 near the “Welcome to Tarpon Springs” sign. Someone has just built a brand-new Starbucks: an ominous reminder of what the rest of Tampa Bay has already become.

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Julie Manenti is an Orlando-based freelance writer. More of her work can be seen on her blog.

This entry was written by Julie Manenti , posted on Thursday May 31 2007at 05:05 pm , filed under Demographics, Society and Culture, United States and tagged . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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