Clearwater, Fla. -- In the crushing noontime heat, the downtown of this waterfront city is eerily devoid of human life. Cars jam intersections along Cleveland Avenue, a main thoroughfare, their reflections rippling across the long, glass line of vacant storefronts.
Suddenly, without warning, a great mass of uniformed people appears. They spill from a corner building, wearing belted green, navy or russet pants and crisp white and pale blue shirts. No one jaywalks, and when the light turns, they cross the intersection in purposeful strides, round an alleyway and disappear.
In their idling cars, natives barely glance up. Such apparitions have become everyday fare since the Church of Scientology made Clearwater - unbeknownst to the city then - its world spiritual headquarters 30 years ago.
Interest in the secretive religion has piqued after the recent media antics of one of its most famous adherents, actor Tom Cruise. But in Clearwater, thousands of far less glamorous Scientologists have long become an indelible, if still mysterious, part of city life.
The church's founder, science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, chose Clearwater because it was sunny, close to an airport and near the water. Each year, 15,000 Scientologists from every continent study at the opulent Fort Harrison Hotel, a city landmark that the church secretly purchased under an assumed name in 1975.
"This is, quote-unquote, our Mecca," said Pat Harney, a church spokeswoman. "Everyone at some point will come here for advanced religious services."
The "everyone" includes rank-and-file believers along with Scientology's brightest stars, which, besides Cruise, include John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Nancy Cartwright - the voice of Bart Simpson - and CNN's Greta van Susteren. Chick Corea, the musician, has his own parking space at the Sandcastle Hotel, a training site and one of two dozen buildings and parcels that the church amassed to become the biggest taxpayer, and one of the biggest landowners, in Clearwater's struggling downtown.
Relations between the city and the church, which the IRS officially recognized as a religion in 1993, can broadly be described as peaceful, if tense. City leaders attend events at Fort Harrison - unheard of until recent years - and Scientologists are increasingly part of community groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Boy Scouts.
This fledgling mutual acceptance, born of a fractious past, was partly forged by necessity. The church estimates 12,000 Scientologists live in Clearwater, population 110,000, and surrounding Tampa Bay. Those numbers are certain to mushroom, as Scientologist developers are building hundreds of condo units near downtown.
The church is also constructing a massive "Flag" or "Super Power" building across from the Fort Harrison Hotel where new, advanced "power" courses will be taught. At 380,000 square feet, it will easily dominate Clearwater's skyline, a testament to Scientology's permanence in a city that remains a reluctant host.
"They have a very large presence, an enormous investment, but sentiment is very mixed," said Frank Hibbard, Clearwater's mayor. "Some folks have accepted them, but some citizens have an inherent mistrust that's been around for decades."
Animosity between Clearwater and Scientologists surfaced after the church's surreptitious 1975 arrival. In 1979, thousands of townspeople protested the church at city hall, as Scientologists dressed in Halloween costumes hollered back from across the street.
In the 1980s, Clearwater police and government investigated whether the church was a cult. The church planned a smear campaign against avowed critic and then-mayor Gabe Cazares, the FBI found, and tried to discredit local reporters. Scrutiny intensified after follower Lisa McPherson died in 1995 in Scientologists' care, which led to a wrongful-death lawsuit, now settled, and criminal charges by the state attorney's office, which were dropped.
In the late 1990s, relations between the city and the church began to thaw. City leaders, weary of decades of near war, began reaching out to the church. Believers in turn replaced their old, severe soldier-like outfits with khakis and dress-shirt uniforms and began joining community groups.
"Part of it was our own comfort, the basics of living in the community," said Ben Shaw, a church spokesman. "Scientologists' basic nature is to help. Their own salvation is based on how everybody is doing."
Shaw helped spearhead the church's softening toward local officials and the media, and sometimes offers visiting reporters tours of Fort Harrison and the Sandcastle. The centers are otherworldly places, filled with displays of Hubbard's work and many smiling people. The hotels are staffed entirely by Scientologists, from the chefs to the gardeners to the waiters, who aren't allowed tips.
Adherents train here, taking or learning to conduct the one-on-one counseling or "auditing" courses that form the core of Scientology. There's a childlike quality to some classes. Auditing is often practiced using large, stuffed bunnies. People fashion scenarios out of clay. In study halls, practitioners have to ask for permission to use the bathroom.
"You often need discipline in getting people from where they are to spiritual freedom," Shaw said.
Yet for all the church's newfound openness, opinions across Clearwater remain wildly mixed.
Locals credit Scientologists with cleaning up Clearwater's once decrepit downtown, which, while largely empty, at least looks pristine. But there is a prevailing opinion that non-Scientologist retailers and passersby avoid downtown because of the church's dominance there. According to the St. Petersburg Times, which has its own litigious past with the church, some 200 restaurants and businesses around town are Scientologist-owned.
"They control the city legally, politically. They get on all the boards," said Fred Thomas, a former city commissioner and longtime Scientology critic. "It's not a vibrant city in terms of regular families, the way it used to be. It's a vibrant Scientology city. They've conquered us."
Others strongly resent the hefty tax write-offs the church is allowed. It paid nearly $440,000 in taxes last year - the most for a business downtown - but was exempt for $34 million of its $52 million worth of property. Still, those taxes will jump once the church converts Fort Harrison into a full-time hotel, albeit one for Scientologists alone.
But others say Scientology's detractors are uninformed, clinging stubbornly to the past. Like it or not, they say, Scientologists are a permanent fixture.
"It's not a cult, those are ignorant hate words," said Phil Strom, a local yacht broker and Methodist who has Scientologist friends. "They changed a ghetto into a very nice clean neighborhood. That's what Scientology has done. So what if they wear gray pants and white shirts. They're just doing their job."
Scientology operates several drug rehab, education and anti-psychiatry organizations.
_Narconon: The church's drug-rehabilitation program was founded 35 years ago. It has 145 centers in 38 countries. Narconon is based partly on Scientology's belief that drugs accumulate in body fat.
_Crimonon: A prison program founded in 1972 that draws on Scientology principles to rehabilitate prisoners. The program rejects traditional mental-health care. Hubbard believed that Scientology could help rid the planet of crime.
_Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR): Established in 1969 as an anti-psychiatry organization, CCHR promotes Hubbard's teachings against modern psychiatry. It charges that psychiatry has no scientific foundation, that psychiatric drugs cause violent behavior and that chemical imbalances have never been proven.