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Fewer in Tarpon claim Greek ancestry

The 2000 census figures say the number of Greeks in the city has dropped some. But residents say the numbers don't tell the whole story.

By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2002

The 2000 census figures say the number of Greeks in the city has dropped some. But residents say the numbers don't tell the whole story.

TARPON SPRINGS -- Squeeze into a pew during Sunday services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral or a stroll down the historic Sponge Docks and that should be enough, locals say, to refute new data from the U.S. Census.

The number of Tarpon Springs residents who claim Greek ancestry dropped slightly from 1990 to 2000, according to the census figures released last week. In 2000, 2,479 residents listed Greek ancestry on census forms. In 1990, that number was 2,840.

Then again, say critics, what do the feds know?

"Bah!" said the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos, the leader of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Tarpon Springs. "I don't believe it."

After all, his church's mailing list has grown from about 2,000 families last year to 2,500 this year, he said. As evidence that the Greek culture in the city is as strong and vibrant as ever, he pointed to the church's Epiphany and Easter celebrations, which grow in attendance every year.

Ever since John Corcoris arrived from Greece in the early 1900s and created what became the world's largest natural sponge market, Tarpon Springs has been one of the Tampa Bay area's most colorful ethnic enclaves. Tarpon families came from many parts of Greece, but largely from a few islands in the Dodecanese chain, including Kalymnos.

The new census figures say nothing about the city's distinctly Hellenic character but point to a change in one statistical category.

Still, some residents are skeptical of the numbers.

Theophilopoulos figures that the city's dip in the latest census was caused by Greek residents who speak little English and were too intimidated to answer the questionnaires.

"Go down to the coffee shops and the Sponge Docks, there are a lot of Greek people there," Theophilopoulos said. "Church is packed every Sunday."

The city's population jumped from 17,906 in 1990 to 21,066 in 2000, according to the census.

After crunching the numbers, the U.S. Census determined that for 2000, 11.8 percent of the city's residents said they were Greek. In 1990, 15.9 percent of the population claimed Greek ancestry.

But that does not mean Tarpon Springs is becoming less Greek, locals say. It just means the city is growing with more residents who are not Greek.

"It has to do with not so much the Greek population declining as it is a large immigration of non-Greek residents," said John Tarapani, a local businessman who grew up in Tarpon Springs.

People are drawn to the city because of its small-town feel, picturesque waterways and strong ethnic feel, Tarapani said. Since 1990, several large housing developments have been built and mostly filled with people who aren't Greek.

"If you look at the developments, it's clearly that its an in-migration" of non-Greeks, Tarapani said.

Adding to that, some Greek residents are spreading to areas just outside Tarpon Springs, said Kathy Alesafis, the Tarpon Springs city clerk, who was born and raised in the city. That might explain the change inside the city, she said.

In both Holiday and Palm Harbor, the number of residents reporting Greek ancestry rose both in absolute numbers as well as a percentage of the population from 1990 to 2000, according to the census. In 2000, 5.7 percent of Holiday's population and 2.9 percent of Palm Harbor's population had ancestors from Greece. That equals 1,247 Holiday residents and 1,707 people in Palm Harbor.

Although those families no longer are Tarpon Springs residents, they still spend a lot of time in the city, they still belong to the church, and they still come to the Sponge Docks, Alesafis said.

"This is where they come because this is where the main Greek culture is," Alesafis said. "I think they are just spreading out more. They aren't thinning out, that's for sure."

Greek organizations continue to grow in the area, and Greek churches also are expanding because of new membership, she said. For example, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral currently is building a large youth center and banquet hall near the church on Alt. U.S. 19.

"I go to church, and I feel like I'm the stranger because there are so many new people," Alesafis said. "I really don't see that it has gone down."

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