Yesterday morning I was reading the local paper when I came upon this story about Scientology (part 1 of 3). Apparently 4 fairly prominent members of the religion have defected over the last few years and the St. Petersburg Times finally got them to agree to be interviewed. The Times is rolling out the interviews over 3 days, much to the chagrin of Scientology (part 2 of 3 is out today).

For those who don’t know, Scientology has a major headquarters in Clearwater, FL, which is about 30 minutes from where we live. It’s the training headquarters of the religion, not the corporate headquarters (that’s in LA), and not where the leader, David Miscavige, lives (that’s near San Jacinto, CA). As the training headquarters, there are lots of Scientologists living and regularly visiting Clearwater. The St. Petersburg Times (St. Pete is the adjoining city to the south of Clearwater) has a long history of investigating Scientology and the relationship between the two, Scientology and The St. Petersburg Times, is not very amicable.

I learned that Scientology had a strong presence in Clearwater shortly after we moved here and have wanted to go check out their digs ever since then. Seeing the story yesterday morning re-awakened that interest. Luckily, Debi and Toren were feeling rather generous yesterday, so they agreed to go walk around downtown Clearwater to check out the sites.

I did a bit of research before we went so I would know what there is to see. The St. Petersburg Times has a quasi-interactive though slightly dated map showing the property Scientology owns in Clearwater.

(1) Red properties were actual structures in 2004; (2) Blue properties were planned or under construction; (3) Gold were properties that were owned but as of yet undeveloped in 2004.
(1) Red properties were actual structures in 2004; (2) Blue properties were planned or under construction; (3) Gold were properties that were owned but as of yet undeveloped in 2004.

Another guy, who I believe is affiliated with Anonymous, has put together a Google Map of Scientology properties in the US that includes their many holdings in Clearwater:

Scientology sites in Clearwater according to Anonymous

Based on those two sites, I put together a little tour for us.  Having driven to Clearwater last week when Brent visited, I knew there was a little park right near the water in Clearwater, so we drove there to begin with and parked on Drew St..  The park is actually adjacent to the Clearwater library:

Clearwater library
Clearwater library

The library itself is gorgeous. But it looks out over the park and this:

Scientology 6-21-2009 4-15-50 PM
the view from the Clearwater library

If anyone comes to visit us and has a day they want to spend just relaxingly reading in a library, well, I’m not sure you can beat this one. It’s a gorgeous view.

Toren was hungry once we got here, so we stopped for a bit to feed him. While Debi took care of Toren, I saw a sign that said “Sandcastle.” I knew that the Sandcastle resort was right next to the library, but I didn’t realize there was a separate entrance for their restaurant:

Scientology 6-21-2009 4-11-07 PM
A sign by the entrance to the Sandcastle restaurant. If you look close it says “Church of Scientology Religious Retreat”

Feigning ignorance, I walked toward the restaurant (with my huge camera around my neck).  The two security guards looked very skeptical, but I’m pretty good at acting like a tourist when I want to.  I walked straight up to them and asked them if what I was seeing was a restaurant:

Sandcastle's restaurant and the security guards
Sandcastle’s restaurant and the security guards

They said it was in what sounded like a native Spanish speaker’s accent.  I then asked them if I could eat there.  They hemmed a bit, then said that I couldn’t unless I was a member.  I acted really naive here and said, “Oh, a member of what?”  They said I had to be a member of the Sandcastle resort.  I then acted like I was just seeing the sign and said, “Oh, is that affiliated with Scientology?”  They nodded.  I followed up with, “So, if I was a Scientologist I could eat here?”  Yep.  I told them that Debi was hungry and then asked if there were any other places we could eat nearby.  They were very friendly and offered some suggestions.  I thanked them then walked back across the street to the park.  I waited for them to turn their backs before I snapped a photo of them in front of the restaurant.

Once Toren finished up his snack, we packed everything into the stroller and headed up Drew st. toward Fort Harrison Ave. where there were some restaurants.  I snapped these along the way:

The Sandcastle Resort
The Sandcastle Resort

This is at the intersection of Drew St. and N. Osceola Ave.:

The front entrance sign to the Sandcastle Resort
The front entrance sign to the Sandcastle Resort

Directly east of the Sandcastle Resort is the Osceola Inn, which is also billed as a “religious retreat” and is owned by Scientology:

Osceola Inn sign
Osceola Inn sign

This was also taken at the corner of Drew St. and N Osceola Ave.:

Osceola Inn wide shot
Osceola Inn wide shot

From here we headed up Drew St. to Fort Harrison Ave. then turned South where we immediately encountered the West Coast Building, which is also owned by Scientology.  There were uniformed Scientologists coming and going from the building while I snapped a few pictures.  This first one is looking at the front of the building.  It’s actually quite large and surrounded by parking lots on both sides (which I believe are owned by the Church of Scientology).  What I liked about this is it shows two cameras.  The first is just above the green bushes and is pointing down the street.  The second is just above it and is a controllable camera:

profile of the West Coast Building capturing the cameras
profile of the West Coast Building capturing the cameras

They seem a little obsessed with security.  We crossed the street and stopped at an Italian pizza place for dinner (owned by a Scientologist, but the employees were not; I asked).  Then I snapped this shot of the front of the West Coast Building:

Scientology 6-21-2009 5-33-34 PM
The front of the West Coast Building

The building really does look unassuming from this angle, but it goes back quite far from the street.  Also, you can’t see it from this far away, but on the front doors are two white crosses, which are symbols of Scientology.

From here we only had to walk about another 1/2 block before we entered the heartland of Scientology.  The corner of Fort Harrison Ave. and Cleveland St. is really the center of action.  As we neared the corner we could see droves of Scientologists walking back and forth.  We weren’t sure what was going on, but one of the many Scientology security guards floating around the streets of Clearwater (yes, you read that right, Scientology security guards patrol the sidewalks in Clearwater outside their buildings) helped clarify things.  The first building we came upon is the former Clearwater Bank Building that was bought out by Scientology and refinished.  There are no tours; they turned it into a cafeteria for Scientologists.  Everyone was coming out the Church of Scientology training center (see below), walking down Fort Harrison Ave., crossing Cleveland, then walking down Watterson Street to a side entrance into the former Clearwater Bank Building where the cafeteria is.  Strange.  Here’s the building from further down Fort Harrison Ave:

former Clearwater Bank Building
former Clearwater Bank Building; now a cafeteria for Scientologists; the side entrance is on the right

Here’s a shot of a plaque on the front:

Bank of Clearwater plaque
Bank of Clearwater plaque

The security guard was very nice.  He saw Debi and I looking around (we probably looked suspicious to some degree, though the baby is a great cover) and approached us, asking us if we needed some help.  We did.  We were actually looking for an ice cream shop for dessert (the dinner we had wasn’t very filling).  He pointed out the Baskin Robbins down the street.  I then asked him if we could take a tour of the Bank of Clearwater building.  He was the one he told us that it was now a cafeteria.  He did say we could take a tour of the Church of Scientology training center right across the street, though.  But when I looked across the street I didn’t really understand what it was I was seeing as no one was coming out of that end of the building (poor design).  We thanked him and headed to Baskin Robbins.

After we got our dessert, we found a nifty little side ally that took us to Park St. (turns out the side alley is where the Scientologists who are smokers hang out; I wonder if that is an engram they are working on…).  Here’s Debi walking down the side alley:

Debi heading down Scientology-smoker alley
Debi heading down Scientology-smoker alley

At the corner of Park St. and Fort Harrison Ave. we had a good view of the main entrance to THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY.  Toren also got a little hungry, so while Debi fed him I approached a uniformed member of the religion and asked her (she was from Columbia) what the building was.  She said it was THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY.  When I asked her to clarify she said, “No, really, it is THE church.  It’s the main one.  This is the chief church of all the churches in the world.  They do training here that you can’t get anywhere else.”  That explained why she was there, along with so many other foreigners – they needed the specialized training.  I asked her if we could go in and she said yes.  So, with Toren topped off, we headed in.  Here’s the building:

the north side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; apparently no one uses this entrance
the north side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; apparently no one uses this entrance
the south side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; this is the main entrance; the area with the exhibits is in the center glass enclosure
the south side of THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY; this is the main entrance; the area with the exhibits is in the center glass enclosure

Another security guard approached us as we headed that way.  I forget his name, but he was also very nice and asked us if we needed anything.  We told him we were just interested in seeing what was inside and learning a bit more.  He was from Mexico but had only a minor accent (he had been in the US for 14 years).  He guided us in to the main hallway, started a short video for us, then went to find one of the guides, Beth.  We ended up hanging out inside this building for a good hour and a half at least, peppering Beth with questions.  There’s no way I can recount the entire conversation, but I’ll try to hit on some of the highlights.

It did eventually come out that I’m a college professor and that I’m a Sociologist of Religion.  They, of course, had no idea what that meant.  But when they would ask me if I knew anything about Scientology, I always said, “Yes.”  And when they asked whether I had heard anything good, I usually said, “Not much.”  I think I surprised them when I told them that I had read Dianetics, which I really don’t recommend (wow is that a terrible, terrible book).  Even so, they treated me like I didn’t know anything, which was kind of funny because I think I knew more about their religion than they did in some regards (neither of them showed any knowledge of Xenu when I asked them about him), though I did learn a few things.  I asked Beth if Scientologists believe in a god-like entity.  She said they did, kind of.  She also said that you didn’t have to be exclusively a Scientologist to belong – Scientology is not an exclusive religion (i.e., you could be Jewish and a Scientologist).  I asked if you could be an atheist and a Scientologist, but she said not really, as they believe in something akin to a soul (called a Thetan).  Their notion of god is kind of Buddhist or Hindu – it’s an ill-defined supreme being that they associate with the term “infinity,” which is also the symbol of their god.

I also asked Beth how many Scientologists there are.  She claimed, initially, 2 billion.  After I stopped guffawing and choking on my tongue, I asked her if she was sure.  It took her a few minutes, but eventually she realized her mistake – she meant 2 million.  Okay, I could live with that number (probably an over-estimate, but that’s okay; some religions do that…).

I also asked her who or what created their Thetans.  She said she didn’t know.  Then I asked her how old the Thetans were.  She also couldn’t put a specific time on it, but said that she, herself, was older than the Earth (they believe in past lives).  When I told her that meant she was at least 4.6 billion years old, she nodded and said that she had dealt with engrams that went at least that far back (Note: Beth is a 27 year veteran of the religion; she was probably in her late 40s or early 50s).  I asked her if Thetans predated the known universe.  She said she had been created some time after the creation of the universe, but she couldn’t put an exact date on it.  So, Beth (i.e., her Thetan component) is somewhere between 4.6 and 14 billion years-old.  That’s better than most religions can do!

I was peppering her with so many questions that she eventually pulled me into a backroom and showed me The Bridge to Total Freedom:

Apparently what this shows is the different levels of Scientology.  On the right are the levels of self-improvement (a.k.a. “processing”) that you can attain.  In Dianetics, Hubbard only talks about getting to the “Clear” stage (all your engrams are gone).  Apparently they have introduced additional stages that include more knowledge.  However, the last 6 or 7 stages have yet to be revealed.  Beth, my 27 year veteran guide, was a Grade 0 on the self-processing side.  The other side is the levels of training you can receive (so you can audit other Scientologists).  She was a Class II or III.  This chart gave me a ton of questions.  I asked her what “Total Freedom” is.  She said it is complete control over time, space, matter, and energy.  Basically, if you reach that stage you no longer need a body and are kind of omnipotent.  I asked her if L. Ron Hubbard, the founder, who died from a stroke in the 1980s, had reached Total Freedom.  She said she assumed so because he was the one who knew about it.  I asked her why not all of the stages had been revealed since L. Ron Hubbard had to have known about them.  She said that Scientologists were not ready for them.  I asked her if anyone knew what they were.  She said she thought David Miscavige must know them but he was waiting until Scientologists were ready to hear them.  I asked how he would know.  She said that L. Ron Hubbard must have written some indicators that must first occur before they could be revealed, but that they had to be included in his final papers.  I asked her how L. Ron Hubbard figured them out.  She said he studied.  I asked her what he studied.  She said philosophy and science.  So I said, “Well, that means all of this secret knowledge must already have existed then.”  She agreed, but said that it was L. Ron Hubbard (LRH for short) who was able to discern between the truths and the falsehoods.  There are millions of falsehoods mixed in with the truths; his special gift was being able to discern the truths.  Then I said, “Well, how did L. Ron Hubbard know what is special and what is not?”  She said he used a scientific method.  I almost lost it at this point when I said, “Well, you must not mean the same thing I mean when I say I, a scientist, use the scientific method.”  She said his scientific method was taking out of the many ideas those that worked.  I asked what the alternative approach would be.  She said you could do things philosophically and just take what you like.  So, what made LRH special is he had a “scientific method” for discerning truth and it was based on “what works.”

We talked about a bunch of additional things, but I ended with a final question (it was starting to get dark and we still hadn’t made it to the Fort Harrison Hotel).  I asked her, “Beth, why are you a Scientologist?”  She said, “I was raised a Methodist and never felt like I  found happiness or contentment in life.  Methodism didn’t hold the answers for me.  When I found Scientology I found happiness and contentment.  Scientology has the technologies and tools to bring me peace and happiness in life.”  I asked her if she thought that was the reason most people join and she said yes.

This last question does bring up some of the basic elements of the religion that I was less familiar with and seem to be quite prominently on display in the center.  A lot of what I saw in The Church had to do with pop psychology stuff (which is what Dianetics is, except it’s really poorly written, obtuse, and retarded).  The current teachings seem to be all about overcoming your own problems and learning how to interact with other people.  They still do this using auditing and e-meters (which are known to be hokum).  They now also include some pseudoscientific gobbledy-gook about toxins in our bodies and a detoxing program that includes vitamins, potions, special food, and time in a sauna (a good way to get you to spend more money on their processing programs).  So, maybe it has helped Beth.  Who knows.  But it does seem like a lot of people are interested.

Beth gave us 3 videos to watch and her card (I wanted it so I could call and get the time for a Sunday morning service some time).  She also introduced the head chaplain at the Church.  Oh, and I left out the little interaction I had with the security guard and Beth while Debi was feeding Toren.  The security guard followed up with me about what it is I do.  Not unlike most people who hear I’m a Sociologist of Religion, he didn’t know anything about what I do, about other religions, or about the worldwide picture of religion generally.  So I gave him and Beth a quick rundown on which religions are growing where and why.  He seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying, but Beth eventually interrupted – she was the one who was supposed to be teaching me stuff, not vice versa.  This does seem like a common feature of many missionaries – they are so confident they are right and that they have “ALL TRUTH” that they don’t realize just how much they don’t know.  If graduate school did anything for me it taught me how little I know.  Case in point, I have a PhD in Sociology but was asking them questions to LEARN more about their religion.  I know a lot about some things, but I also know that I know virtually nothing relative to what there is to know.  Alas, missionaries don’t seem to realize that…

Anyway, once we got out of THE CHURCH, we snapped a shot of the Super-Power Building that is still unfinished (and has been under construction for quite some time):

the unfinished super-power building
the unfinished super-power building

We then headed down Fort Harrison Ave. to the Fort Harrison Hotel:

The front of the Fort Harrison Hotel
The front of the Fort Harrison Hotel

The bellhops kindly helped us carry Toren’s stroller up to the main lobby where we waited a good 20 minutes for a tour guide.  One never showed up, so a bellhop showed me around briefly: the hotel has a very nice restaurant, Hibiscus, that isn’t too pricey but was empty.  He also showed me their massive auditorium where they hold receptions, graduations, and services.  It’s a swank hotel.  We didn’t stay too long as it was getting late.

As we walked back to our car, Debi couldn’t help but reflect on just how bizarre this all was.  She had no idea that Clearwater was really kind of Scientology-ville.  (For my Mormon readers, imagine what downtown Ogden would look like if the Missionary Training Center was across the street from the Ogden Temple and the campus was open, not fenced in, and you’ll get a sense of what it is like.)  Most of the people we saw were wearing Scientology uniforms and there were dozens of Scientology buses (all with “Flag” on them) shuttling people back and forth to buildings.  While it’s kind of an exaggeration to say that Clearwater is now Scientology-ville, it really isn’t much of an exaggeration.  Clearwater Beach remains a tourist spot with people of all stripes.  But the old Clearwater downtown area does now seem to be dominated by Scientology.

If anyone wants to come visit us and check out Scientology-ville, here’s my recommended walking tour:

Start at the Clearwater Library and park:

100 N. Osceola Avenue
Clearwater, Florida 33755-4083

There isn’t much to see of either Sandcastle or the Osceola Inn, but you can check them out briefly through the foliage that surrounds them.  Follow Drew St. to Fort Harrison Ave.  Take Fort Harrison to Cleveland and check out the former Clearwater Bank Building.  You can only see the outside, but it’s intriguing to see nonetheless.  Take the little side alley to the east of The Church of Scientology, which is on the south of Cleveland opposite the former Bank (the address is 503 Cleveland St., Clearwater, FL; it’s also called the “Coachman Building”).  Wrap around the building then enter the main doors and spend some time inside.  You’ll likely be approached by someone inside (their version of a missionary).  Spend as much time in there as you’d like, then exit back out the same doors and head down Fort Harrison Ave to the Fort Harrison Hotel (210 S Fort Harrison Ave, Clearwater, FL 33756).  You can get a good glimpse of the Super-Power Building along the way.  If they aren’t super busy you should be able to get a tour.  You could even finish it off with lunch or dinner at the Hibiscus restaurant.  As near as I can tell, there isn’t much else to see, just keep your eyes open for the swarms of Scientologists floating around the city, primarily around the Coachman Building.  And if you’re feeling daring, go up and talk to a Scientologist; they don’t bite.  They may even let you get a picture with them (something we didn’t do).

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8 Replies to “Scientology-ville (a.k.a. Clearwater, FL) Tour”

  1. Just got back from Clearwater yesterday. Scientology is neither a church or a cult. It is a legal bank for money laundering in the United States. This bank’s big stars get their “toaster” by proclaiming the good works of the church are helping people. Also, once in, at a high level, you can’t get out under threat of death.

    L.Ron Hubble, or whatever his name was was a half-assed science fiction writer to wrote Dianetics on dare as a joke with a friend.

    If one does their homework, maybe they would realize that John Travolta and others might be nice people in one way, but the nicest thing you could say about them is they are insecure and have to know that this scam has no eithical redeaming value whatever, and at worse, by being a member, they are perpetrators of evil and real live snuff ! End it.

  2. I choose to disagree with the previous post. This was an outburst of rumors and personal opinion rather than any valuable data. ah, yes and no one kills anyone – those zealous folks are a thing of the 80-ies. people are free to leave as they please.

    And as for the main post, the article itself.. I think the authors did a good job documenting the whole adventure. However you have fallen in the same Xenu pitfall that much of the Scientology critique had fallen. Official COS (Church Of Scientology), in my opinion, has long lost the initial drive and goal it had when being created and developed.

    Unfortunately (as it happens with many religions and ideas) they get overrun by 2 types of people. (Not that there aren’t more, just these 2 often seem to be the most disruptive). Your tourguide Beth is a fine example of one – 27 years and still on LVL2?!! Her badge should say “Just camping here”. They take space and even though may look authentic to what they do – know very little of the subject and have never wondered “why”s and “hows” if you dig deeper.

    The second type love to create secrecy and exclusivity around everything, most likely because doing so may bring power and money. Most of the Scientology materials and LRH’s research are vigorously copyrighted and protected by COS. Over the years they fought numerous battles with people, using the materials and continuing research outside of the official COS. They lost in some countries but prevailed in most.

    Regardless, the phenomenon known as FreeZone exists and flourishes. Most of materials are available online as the downloadable torrents. You can even get auditing via webcam and the e-meter device is available at a mere 10% of a cost of the COS’s Quantum E-meter. (Note: E-meter is not some magic device – it is basically a galvanometer that reads electric currents in your body, when being audited – it is useful for a good process as it shows if you have any “charge” left on the subject, if the theme still makes you anxious about it – very akin to “lie detector”. It will not tell you how and it will not cure you of anything – it is just a handy tool to see – which subject is the most worrysome and consumes more energy and your thoughts.)

    Fact is that even in COS people can’t often afford to own the books and audio recordings (a good pack of most lectures and books by LRH can cost up to 10K). Yes, in the library these are free to read and research – but if you want to study at home or listen in the car – you have to have deep pockets.

    Auditing your way up the Bridge – is probably another 50-200K (this would vary depending upon the amount of “issues” one has to address as a Thetan). We all come in different shapes and sizes 🙂 and even though there are about 12 major games people play on this planet – there is always an individual flavor to each.

    In my personal opinion, there is a ton of useful techniques in Scientology that instead of locking yourself in a cave and meditating classic-Buddhist style 20 years-on can get you remarkable results. People go there to get results, they find plenty good data in the books and trainings, but – with COS – there is always a drive to make you buy and pay more – which leaves a bad aftertaste. So people come get some gains, and leave.

    Those who stay longer really progressing (unlike Beth) or who go for it in the FreeZone are known to achieve some matrix-style gains… exteriorize from their bodies, do things outside while apparently sleeping, being in several places at once, remembering their past lives in big details.. etc… Remarkable? Well not so, – if you consider that these are only a VERY SMALL part of our innate powers. Just think for a second that we are pure awareness, that is essentially a part of a bigger God-like energy. That it was us, who created this whole universe for our own experience and games… we have toned down quite a bit to where we are now, where most people say “I am a body” or “I have a soul, but i am sinful and despicable” :)) Don’t you think?

    So if you really are interested in knowing more, get a bittorrent, emule or other client software and look up a freezone scientology online. It is all there one only has to look for it. But then again.. how many of us would give up the fun games they play here on Earth? 😉

  3. To counter PRIVATEER’s comment-
    Go read, the Ex-Scientology Member Message Board , or to get real information on how awful Scientology is. Deaths are an 80s thing? Ask the parents of a few Narconon (run by Scientology) patients that have died in the past 2 years. The whole “tech” that Hubbard came up with is a mish-mash of ideas pulled from various well known sources. It’s a scam, it’s evil, and it’s dangerous.

  4. For all the latest (and I did not say “just the nub, or jist”, I said “all”) of the news about Scientology and the many suits proceeding against the “Church” go to Tony Ortega’s “The Underground Bunker” website, which is devoted to the topic.
    In France, the highest appeals court just upheld Scientology’s conviction as a “fraudulent organization” and convicted many of the employees of participating in the fraud.
    There are historical articles. For a man who was supposed to be so good at finding “what works” (for what? and judged by whom? against what control?) he sure ended up a hell of a mess, a physically sick, alcoholic,three time marital loser and fugitive. With an incredible penchant for prevarication.

  5. Beth, the one who did part of the tour, has been in Scn for 27 years and is only a Grade 0 release. That is bottom of the Bridge. It proves once again that the very people who give up everything to dedicate their lives to Scn and LRH, end up getting the shaft of no auditing and not much training in the areas they want to be trained in. So the very people giving the tour may not know much about their own religion. They’re too sleep deprived to attend their own classes.

  6. After nearly 30 years in the cult I left after realizing Scientology had become the problem instead of the solution it had once promised to be. I realized too that Scientology existed only for its own benefit and was self perpetuating. Like a runaway train. There will always be curious and vulnerable people to climb aboard. Only the worldwide spread of the truth can stop it on its tracks.

    1. Glad you made it out. It can be very hard to realize that what you’ve been taught for so long isn’t accurate or even helpful.

  7. I am in Clearwater….just a vacation. Saw these hotel looking types walking around a dead downtown Clearwater as Scientology has decimated the Black community here: 3 bar b q joints and no one open. Go to my Facebook page later today to see dead hotels on US 19, looking ready to go, on the coast, all bought up by Scientology….they pay no taxes. This ain’t right. Indeed: this is a money laundering scheme. GO BERNIE!!

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