TARPON SPRINGS — Few places evoke Florida’s cultural past like Tarpon Springs.
Unlike an abandoned Spanish fort or ancient Indian mound, there are still people living and working along the Sponge Docks in this port town, and many of them still speak Greek.
Here bakers selling baklava gossip in two languages with sponge merchants who continue on a smaller scale an industry that has sustained this community on the Anclote River for a century.
Many of the fluffy, natural sponges pulled from area waters now wind up in tourist shops rather than being exported en masse, but it’s a point of pride for families here that this distinct way of life endures.
At 6 p.m. today, Dodecanese Boulevard will come alive with folk music and dance during the monthly Night in the Islands event at the docks.
It’s the living history visible every day in Tarpon Springs’ “Greektown” district that earned it the special distinction as the first place in Florida listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural site.
“This isn’t just a touristic Greek Disney World. It’s a real place,” said the city’s curator of art and historic resources, Tina Bucuvalas, who applied for the district to be added to the list.
“When I go downtown to the Sponge Docks, it’s a Greek community where everyone knows everyone.”
The Greektown district covers about 140 acres along the Anclote River, including several hundred buildings and about a dozen sponge boats.
The area is bounded by Tarpon Avenue and Spring Bayou on the south, Hibiscus Street to the east, and stretches from Roosevelt Boulevard to Spring Bayou on the western edge.
The National Register encompasses a broad range of cultural treasures, including old neighborhoods with well-preserved architecture, such as St. Petersburg’s Historic Kenwood, and even Old Florida attractions such as Cypress Gardens in Polk County, which was added to the list last month.
Tarpon Springs’ old downtown district and even a handful of individual sponge boats already are on the list.
The old wood-frame Sponge Exchange along Dodecanese Boulevard also was on the register until most of it was redeveloped into a more contemporary shopping plaza in the 1980s.
“People really mourned the loss of that,” said Bucuvalas.
Many of those people also fought passionately to halt plans earlier this year to spruce up the faded docks and add amenities like an amphitheater, fearing the district would lose its authenticity.
What sets Tarpon Springs apart is that the Greek American culture and the sponge industry that helped it grow isn’t a show, many said.
Henry Coburn’s great-grandfather was among the first sponge divers to emigrate here from Greece and his family continues the tradition, selling local sponges at Tarpon Sponge Co.
“It’s important to preserve that history and recognize we’re still a working waterfront,” said Coburn, 20.
“You see the Greek culture that has become uniquely American while you’re down here.”
Inclusion on the register doesn’t prevent people from updating their buildings, though it might clear the way for federal preservation grants that can help people who want to maintain their property’s historic character.
“It will help tremendously in the preservation of what we have in that whole district,” said Tarpon Springs Area Historical Society President Phyllis Kolianos, a lifelong resident.