An Old Florida Melting Pot

Ybor City got a big boost from the cigar vogue and Tarpon Springs from a blight that hit the sponge beds of Europe.

About twenty-five miles northwest of Ybor City, another small ethnic community, Tarpon Springs, is also experiencing something of a comeback in its primary industry, sponge fishing. Sponge beds are a rarity in the United States, and this is one of the few areas where they are found. Around 1890 John K. Cheyney, a developer who was looking to promote the area, discovered sponges growing near Tarpon Springs in the Gulf of Mexico. He started a hooking operation, in which sponges were snagged from boats. Within a decade John Corcoris, a Greek sponge buyer from New York, came to do business in the area and ended up staying on when he saw how profitable Tarpon Springs could be. He sent for men from Greece, where diving for sponges was a long-established and far more efficient method than hooking. By 1936, when Tarpon Springs was recognized as the sponge capital of the world, it was also home to a growing Greek community.

In the 1940s a bacterial blight hit the Gulf of Mexico. The sponge industry in Tarpon Springs was nearly dead for two decades. By the 1970s few divers or sponge boats remained, and those that did had to go nearly a hundred miles offshore to find healthy sponges. Recovery of the Gulf beds came in the mid-1980s, and currently a blight on the Mediterranean Sea (some think it was caused by Chernobyl) has given the economy of Tarpon Springs a considerable boost.

When I visited Tarpon Springs, I sensed that people were genuinely optimistic about the sponge industry, which is the town’s pride. The sponge divers and the men who run the boats clearly love what they do and relish the Greek traditions that still flourish here. I spoke to one of the sponge-boat captains, who expressed his belief that more growth is possible here if only “energies can be properly harnessed” from the current resources. What is perhaps most amazing about the sponge-diving industry are the divers themselves, whose equipment sometimes looks similar to that which sea adventurers in Jules Verne novels wore. Most use modern-day scuba equipment, but a few rely on round copper and brass helmets with glass viewing holes—still handmade by a local, Nick Toth—each screwed onto a brass neckplate and attached to a rubber and canvas suit, with hoses up to a boat above. The diver wears shoes made of leather and iron and also has lead weights strapped to him for a total of 172 pounds, not counting his own weight. The weighted gear lets the diver walk on the ocean floor, where he searches for sponge to collect.

The sponge docks face Dodecanese Boulevard, an area modeled after a Greek waterfront village. Its white and blue buildings, winding streets, sponge shops, and numerous Greek bakeries and restaurants among the souvenir shops along the waterfront give the place a definite Mediterranean tinge.

The town of Tarpon Springs is very quiet and compact. As in Ybor City, the main streets are lined with low buildings, many of which have recently converted their top halves into apartments to draw more residents to the center of town. Everywhere are galleries, antiques stores, and old small-scale department stores, like the 1912 Faklis store and the Tarapani’s department store (one of the last independent department stores in the county). Peeking into the shops, I notice tin ceilings and brick walls in almost every one. The elegant St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which is modeled after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, is the showpiece of Tarpon Springs. Services are given there in Greek and English, and many children in town go to after-school classes to learn Greek. One of the area’s biggest ethnic celebrations is Epiphany Day, held January 6, when a visiting archbishop throws a cross into the water and a crowd of determined boys, all waiting to spring from rafts, dive in to retrieve it. A huge parade with Greek dancing and costumes follows.

The land boom in Florida during the late 180Os ushered in the building of large hotels to accommodate a very different segment of the population from the immigrants who settled in Tarpon Springs and Yhor City—wealthy tourists traveling on newly built railroads. These were the people who, in Florida’s future, would be strolling the beaches with stylish walking sticks, humming the latest tunes of the day.

Clearwater is still home to several of these hotels. I stayed at the hundred-year-old Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa, a sprawling Victorian caravansary made almost entirely of white-painted wood that was built by the railroad developer Henry Plant for his moneyed clientele. Other hotels existed on Florida’s west coast at that time, but none so lavish as those put up by Plant. While construction was under way in 1896, the Tampa Weekly Tribune proclaimed: THE WEST COAST TO BLOSSOM AS A ROSE .

The Belleview did attract the society and business worlds—many people arrived in their own private railroad cars—and after Plant died, his son Morton replaced the golf course’s sand greens with grass and added guest cottages and a larger, more lavish pool. During World War M the Belleview joined many other large hotels by closing down to house servicemen. After a series of postwar changes in ownership, the Belleview was eventually bought by Hideo Kurosawa, a Japanese businessman, who altered the place’s character only slightly by adding a startlingly modern lobby, complete with an enormous silver ceiling decoration and Japanese prints.