TARPON SPRINGS — Residents and tourists rarely miss an opportunity to experience at least a little of Tarpon Springs’ vibrant Greek community.
A ride on a sponge fishing boat often comes first, but visitors can also hear the sound of the bouzouki, the stringed instrument that resembles a mandolin; feast on Greek dishes; and witness the annual Plunging for the Cross, the central event of the Greek Orthodox Church’s January celebration of Epiphany.
“The sponge industry provided the seeds of Greek life here,” said Tina Bucuvalas, Tarpon Springs’ curator of arts and historic resources since 2009. However, the uniqueness of this town’s 24,000 Greek-Americans stands out. reflected in many other areas of life every day.
Now Bucuvalas, who has a doctorate in folklore, wants to document their story using a digital documentary including photos, videos, audio tapes and other materials that she collects from local residents , and which everyone will be able to consult online.
“I want to give people back their history,” she said of the local Greek population. “They managed to save their culture in its entirety and maintain it while remaining Americans.”
The Tarpon Sponge Docks inspired Bucuvalas to pursue the project. Although dating back to the late 1800s, the Tarpon Springs sponge industry really took root in 1905 when a New York sponge buyer, John Cocoris, brought 500 divers from the Greek Islands to Tarpon Springs. He also introduced the first mechanized sponge fishing boat.
But many visitors to Tarpon Springs, and even some residents, may not know this history.
“I had been researching the sponge industry,” Bucuvalas said, “and in doing so I realized that there were no museum exhibits on the industry and yet that is why the Most people come to Tarpon Springs.”
She received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Florida Humanities Council to continue her research on the sponge industry and create several exhibits, which she completed in 2009.
His new project goes beyond sponge divers, however.
After learning that residents had a wealth of old photos of daily life, schools, cafes and religious celebrations, she set out to find some of these photos, hiring four volunteer interns to help her research and document findings.
Alyce Diamandis, one of the interns, is passionate about the project. Born in Tarpon Springs in 1966, she was raised with an awareness of Greek life, culture and history. His mother, Mary Giallourakis Diamandis, was also born and raised in Tarpon Springs, and his father, Dr. Themistocles J. Diamandis, was a well-known general practitioner who retired four years ago.
“My father practiced medicine in Tarpon Springs for 50 years,” Diamandis said. “He was always interested in collecting old photographs and the walls of his office were decorated with them.”
Between 200 and 300 of these photos form the basis of the new documentation project. They were taken from the doctor’s photo bank, many of which were given to him by local residents who knew of the interest he had in their story.
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“I’m in the process of taking inventory and organizing them by subject,” Alyce Diamandis said of her father’s collection.
The subject matter is broad and includes the sponge industry, school life, daily comings and goings, and Greek Orthodox heritage.
These little pictorial slices of life are likely to bring back memories to the locals. There is a photo of the Greek Parish School class of 1937, another of a group of men at Lorenzo’s Cafe on N Safford Avenue in the early 1930s, and one of an Epiphany celebration in Anclote Key from this era. A photo of a fruit stand and barbershop dates from around 1910.
For Diamandis, the joy of this project is in the connections.
“It’s really about connecting with people of all ages who are proud of their parents, their grandparents and their history,” she said. “It’s truly our shared history.”
The project involves making lots of phone calls and knocking on doors; gather, identify and categorize results; and finally, digitize the collection.
This collection, which included hundreds of objects in 2010, now contains photos; recorded interviews, including one with famous sponge diver, the late John Maillis; videos of music and dance events; audio cassettes of Greek music sung in Tarpon Springs; and CDs and cassettes from local musicians.
The Tarpon Springs Project website will link to the University of South Florida Library Special Collections website. The website will provide a comprehensive overview of the history and culture of the Tarpon Springs Greek community.
“This way our resources will be available to the entire community,” Bucuvalas said.
Diamandis said digitizing the collection also has other benefits, such as allowing people to preserve their precious photos, which can be digitized.
“We’re really just getting started and we want to get the word out,” Diamandis said.
Bucuvalas is forward-thinking in his work.
“I see the collection not only in the past, but also in the present,” she said. “We also want the hair salon, the bakery and things that reflect the daily life of this community.”
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at email@example.com.