Tarpon Springs, Florida is now my favorite place in the United States.
As a Greek-American journalist, I have always heard about and wanted to visit Tarpon Springs. This past week I was able to witness its wonders firsthand, and while I have seen many images and read about its historical Hellenic significance in America, nothing prepared me for the experience I had there. The region had such a positive impact on me due to the warmth of its people through their kindness, openness, hospitality and Hellenism.
The Greek-Americans in Tarpon Springs are different from any other I have come in contact with and are hard to describe in text. They all had a smile on their face and were genuinely pleased to meet a fellow Greek-American, who was elated to be in their hometown. The city currently has the highest percentage of Greek-Americans than any other American city, and is universally known as the "Sponge Diving Capital of the World."
John M. Cocoris, an immigrant from Leonidio, Arcadia, founded the sponge diving industry in Tarpon Springs in 1905, whom originally immigrated to the United States via New York City, in 1895. Cocoris recruited divers and crews whose main origins derived from the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Halki and Symi, while the initial divers immigrated from Hydra and Aegina. Cocoris swiftly transformed the maritime trade into one of the state's leading aquatic industries, resulting in an annual multimillion dollar business.
During my stay in Tarpon Springs I walked around the city at length and introduced myself to just about every Greek and Greek-American I encountered. The highlight of my visit was a sponge-diving exhibition on the "Famous & Original St. Nicholas Boat Line" that was originated by Captain Michael Billiris. I boarded the St. Nicholas VII and watched sponge diver Fotis gear up in 172 pounds of diving equipment assisted by captain Dimitris, before descending into the waters. Diver Fotis, who is half Kalimian and half Sicilian, extracted a sponge for all on board to see and touch.
On the boat tour, I learned that 70% of the world's natural sponge products come from Tarpon Springs. The first sponge boat was purchased during The Great Depression for $1,800 in 1933. After jumping off the boat, I talked to Captain Billiris' relative George Billiris, who runs the exhibition. Mr. Billiris was one of the sincerest Greeks I have ever met and a true legend in the Greek-American community of Tarpon Springs.
Tarpon Springs is the closest one can get to feeling as if he/she is in a Greek coastal village in America. The climate, the colors, and the many restaurants and shops that line the main drag of Dodecanese Boulevard, transports one to another time and place. Boats line the waterway with names such as Agios Fanouris and Miss Irene.
The Greeks of Tarpon Springs couldn't have been more accommodating; from Eirini of Agora Food Market, to the family who owns Amvrosia Greek Imports, to the pretty servers at Mama Maria's Greek Cuisine, and Sophia who sold natural sponges under the beautiful Floridian sun. I was lucky enough to dine at Hellas Restaurant that served fresh and delicious Hellenic fare, complete with a massive Greek bakery.
Dodecanese Boulevard intersects with appropriately named Athens Street and Hope Street. I walked past the massive St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the Shrine of St. Michael Taxiarchis. Tarpon Springs is complete with two local kafenios, sponge factories including Spongeorama, and Zorba's nightclub, among other eclectic Hellenic venues.
I spoke to many third, fourth, and fifth generation Greek-Americans; some that have never been to Greece but were just as Greek-American as the ones of us that do travel back to the homeland regularly, in their own unique way. Their lifestyle and environment is as close as you can get to Greece in this nation. The city's slogan is appropriately coined, "Visit Greece Without Leaving Florida..." I have never felt so close to my culture in the United States as I did while visiting Tarpon Springs, Florida. It is a trip that impacted me to the bottom of my soul. I can't wait to go back!