Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mermaids On Parade

Mermaid on the rise
Norfolk, Virginia is a city of juxtapositions. Her grand old homes situated along crepe myrtle lined streets are reminiscent of the genteel old south while neighborhoods filled with scruffy tract housing are a reminder of her less than polished post World War II days when the Navy was the strongest, but least welcomed, influence in town. Newly built condo high rises and pre-fab cookie cutter houses are like the fourth face lift to a city that is past its prime but refuses to give up. Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world as well as PETA headquarters yet has the Pat Robinson religious empire in its Virginia Beach backyard. Religion is worn on one's sleeve and politics here are conservative. Being a local is valued while being an outsider is viewed with suspicion. Being a graduate of their failing public schools and attending a local university carries more weight than an Ivy League education. No government decision is made without an extensive series of debates with costs, morals with hints of race relations being a part of every equation. There is a desire to become a world class city but the a fore mentioned traits seem to really be holding the place back. Its a place that wants to be really nice but doesn't want to pay for it. This critique may seem harsh but I feel as though I can say it with some authority; as someone who definitely wasn't a local, I spent several years living in Norfolk and working for the city and after being away for awhile, my recent return visit reconfirmed all of these thoughts for me.

So given this backdrop, it has always amazed me that Norfolk embarked upon a forward thinking  branding and marketing campaign that revolved around public art. Mind you, this is the same community where city council members would unilaterally declare some pieces of work as art and others not worthy of the designation simply because they didn't like it or didn't get it. And this is the same city where a painting in a private gallery window had to be removed after a public outcry because a female breast was shown partially bare. (Opponents claimed that such an image would traumatize our children, cause them to ask questions and cause impure thoughts all around--I kid you not). Given all of this the fact that the city embarked upon a branding campaign where mermaids (yes, partially clothed creatures that are half fish and half woman) became the city symbol is particularly noteworthy. But I think it is probably one of the best things the city ever did and I absolutely love it.

The mermaid campaign first appeared fifteen years ago as the city struggled to revitalize itself yet again. Local civic leaders, influenced by Chicago's popular Cows on Parade, suggested that such an effort could help sell Norfolk to tourists, residents and businesses alike. The mermaids paid tribute to Norfolk's long relationship with the sea. One hundred and thirty mermaid forms were cast and artists were commissioned to create these life sized statues which were placed in various locations around the city. Business and community groups were able to "adopt" a mermaid whose design reflected their particular interests. Although the sizes and shapes were uniform their decorations were anything but. From American flags to glitzy gold sequins, from the realistic to the abstract and everything in between, the designs were varied. I personally loved the black and white cow one that for awhile found a home at the end of our street.

The Pagoda's mermaid
Even today, fifteen years after they first landed, the mermaids still reign supreme; their likeness is woven into the terminal walkways at the airport, plastered on flags and banners at all of the main intersections and discretely graces all of the neighborhood signs. And the mermaids themselves, they are everywhere. During my recent visit I spent quite a bit of time walking through some of the city's neighborhoods and spotting the mermaids. I found them in neighborhood parks and private yards, gracing the entrances to businesses and government buildings and traffic islands. These works of art are found in areas of the city-- affluent and lower income residential neighborhoods alike, in front of government buildings and commercial centers. This graceful symbol of the sea seems to be the single thing that unites this city of contrasts and I think that is pretty darn cool. And the funny thing is that I thought I knew the locations of so many of the mermaids. I do but then I would take another look and see one that was completely new to me. Because they really are everywhere.

So if you ever find yourself in Norfolk, be on the lookout for the mermaids. They are everywhere and are perhaps the best thing that happened to this city in a long time.

The education mermaid at TCC

Mermaid in a neighborhood park

Mermaid at the federal court house

1 comment:

  1. I've never been to Norfolk, but I'm intrigued by the mermaids and will have to make a point to visit!