History of Greektown and focus on boat builders and diving equipment makers.
Greek immigrants significantly changed and expanded the sponge industry by introducing deep sea diving techniques. Many new arrivals were from the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Halki, and Symi. With the spongers came related maritime businesses: ship chandlers, machine shops, boat builders, and a sail loft. By 1919, the Greektown community spread northwest of downtown to the Anclote River and Sponge Docks, with a commercial district on Dodecanese Avenue and Athens Street. In addition to maritime businesses, Greektown included residences, stores, churches, restaurants, coffeehouses, curio shops, and recreational facilities. From 1905 to 1940, Greeks constituted the numerically dominant cultural group. Although they maintained their culture, they also participated in American life.
A disease decimated the sponge beds in the mid-1940s. By the time they recovered, many sponger had entered more secure occupations and the industry survived on a much smaller level. However, businesses based on cultural tourism developed by the 1920s and became a major source of income beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Today Greektown preserves a strong ethnic and maritime character. Some major American cities have a larger Greek population, but none has a greater percentage of residents with Greek heritage than Tarpon Springs.
Until the early 1960s, sponge divers wore a heavy canvas and rubber suit topped with a copper/brass helmet. Nicholas Toth, who learned from his grandfather Antonios Lerios, is now the sole helmet maker. He still works in Lerios’s workshop by the Anclote River.
During the early 20th century, Greeks built hundreds of Dodecanese-style sponge boats and Greek boatyards sprawled along the Anclote River off Dodecanese Boulevard. Third generation boat builder George Saroukos to build traditional sponge boats, which he created without using printed plans until his recent retirement.
Special thanks to musicians Leonidas Zafiris, who performed Oi sfoungarades tou Tarpon Springs, and Mihalis Kappas, Panayotis League, and Irene Karavokiros, who performed Varka Yialo. Thanks for images go to the State Archives of Florida/Florida Memory, Special Collections/ University of South Florida Library-Tampa, Florida Folklife Program, Diamandis Family, Eleni Christopoulos-Lekkas, Tina Bucuvalas, and Mary Lerios Toth. Tina Bucuvalas wrote the script, and we would like to thank Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias and Nickollet Tsourakis Henderson for reviewing it. It takes a village.