TARPON SPRINGS — Residents and tourists alike rarely miss a chance to experience at least a little of the vibrant Greek community in Tarpon Springs.
A ride on a sponge fishing boat often comes first, but visitors also might catch the sounds of the bouzouki, the stringed instrument resembling a mandolin; feast on Greek foods; and watch the annual dive for the cross, the centerpiece event of the January Epiphany celebration in the Greek Orthodox Church.
"The sponge industry provided the seeds of Greek life here," said Tina Bucuvalas, who has been the curator of arts and historical resources for Tarpon Springs since 2009. However, the unique character of the 24,000 Greek-Americans in this city is seen in many other areas of life every day.
Now Bucuvalas, who has a PhD in folklore, wants to document their history with a digital documentary, including photos, video, audiotapes and other material she is gathering from local residents, that anyone will be able to view online.
"I want to give people back their history," she said of the local Greek population. "They were able to save their culture in whole cloth and maintain it while still being Americans."
The Tarpon Sponge Docks inspired Bucuvalas to pursue the project. Although dating to the late 1800s, the Tarpon Springs sponge industry really took hold in 1905 when a New York sponge buyer, John Cocoris, brought 500 divers to Tarpon Springs from the Greek islands. He also introduced the first mechanized sponge fishing boat.
But many visitors to Tarpon Springs, and even some residents, may not know that history.
"I had been doing research on the sponge industry," Bucuvalas said, "and in the process I realized there were no museum exhibits about the industry and yet that's why most people come to Tarpon Springs."
She secured grant money 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 did in 2009.
Her new project, though, goes beyond the sponge divers.
After learning that residents had a wealth of old photos of daily life, schools, coffeehouses and religious celebrations, she went to work unearthing some of those photos, taking on four volunteer interns to help her search and document the 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. Her mother, Mary Giallourakis Diamandis, also was born and raised in Tarpon Springs, and her 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 his office walls were decorated with them."
Between 200 and 300 of those photos form the basis of the new documentation project. They were taken from the doctor's stock of photos, many of which were given to him by local residents who knew of his interest in their history.
"I'm in the process of taking inventory and organizing them by subject matter," Alyce Diamandis said of her father's collection.
The subject matter is wide ranging and includes the sponge industry, school life, daily comings and goings, and the Greek Orthodox heritage.
These little pictorial slices of life are likely to bring back memories to locals. There's a photo of the Greek Parochial School Class of 1937, another of a group of men in Lorenzo's Coffee Shop on N Safford Avenue in the early 1930s, and one of an Epiphany celebration on Anclote Key from that era. A photo of a fruit stand and barbershop dates to about 1910.
For Diamandis, the joy of this project is in connections.
"It's really about connecting with people of all ages who are proud of their parents, grandparents and history," she said. "This is really our shared history."
The project entails making lots of phone calls and knocking on doors; gathering, identifying and categorizing the findings; and finally, getting the collection digitized.
That collection, which began with hundreds of items in 2010, now contains photos; taped interviews, including one with a famed sponge diver, the late John Maillis; videos of music and dance events; audiotapes of Greek music sung in Tarpon Springs; and CDs and cassette tapes of local musicians.
The Tarpon Springs project's website will be a link on the website of the Special Collections at the University of South Florida library. The website will provide a comprehensive look at the history and culture of the Greek community of Tarpon Springs.
"That way our resources will be available to the entire community," Bucuvalas said.
Diamandis said digitizing the collection has other advantages as well, such as allowing people to keep their treasured photos, which can be scanned.
"We're really just getting started and want to spread the word," Diamandis said.
Bucuvalas is forward thinking as she works.
"I see the collection not just deep in the past but coming up to the present," she said. "We want the barbershop, the bakery and things that reflect the daily life of this community now as well."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]