Tourists may venture into the city of Norfolk for the colonial history, but many leave dreaming of mermaids.

On November 30, 1999, the late Pete Decker, Jr., (known by locals as “Uncle Pete”) introduced a whimsical idea during a breakfast meeting with more than 300 Norfolk leaders. His vision? Mermaids. Inspired by his wife’s (Bess Decker’s) admiration of the artwork they’d seen on a recent trip to Chicago, Decker was determined to give little-ol’ Norfolk something just as spectacular as the Windy City’s “Cows on Parade” art exhibit.

In hopes of spreading Norfolk’s nautical heritage across the city, Decker commissioned local bronze sculptors to produce 130 life-sized mermaid statues. Decker then asked a few Virginia-based artists to personify the mythical marine goddesses with gold scales, nautical symbols, and American flags, among other things. And before he knew it, the city of Norfolk helped transform his wife’s dream into reality — he called it “Mermaids on Parade.”

Courtesy of norfolk.gov

“Bess looked at me and said, ‘Mermaids! Mermaids in Norfolk,”‘ Decker said in a 1999 interview with The Virginian Pilot. “Of course, I was knocked out by it.”

In November 2000, Decker’s beloved mermaids were auctioned off and scattered across the city. Many of the sculptures were placed outside schools, hospitals, and community organizations. (You could say the project went swimmingly.)

“It’s going to be more fun than this city has ever seen,” Decker added. “It’ll let the world know Norfolk, Virginia, is not only here, but alive and well, and a fun place to be.”

The City of Mermaids

Decker’s mermaids evolved into a community brand and a symbol of Norfolk pride. Today, more than 300 mermaids decorate the city. The art project became so popular, Norfolk’s former mayor, Paul Fraim, declared 2009 the “Year of the Mermaid.” To celebrate the project’s 10-year anniversary, the city held several mermaid-inspired events, including a mermaid festival titled, “Mermania!”

“It [Decker’s exhibition] provides a symbol for awareness about the city, not just for residents but for tourists and others,” Cathy Coleman, former president of the Downtown Norfolk Council said in an interview with The Virginian Pilot. “I think there’s a genuine love affair with the mermaids, and as a symbol for the city it’s enduring and has definitely created that brand. What is fascinating to me is that it’s just embraced and loved by our visitors as well. We never go more than a couple of days without seeing visitors standing in front of the mermaids and taking pictures.”

Courtesy of norfolk.gov

If you’d like to see the mermaids up close and in person, the city of Norfolk website has a “Mermaid Interactive Spotting Map” that’s perfect for first-time sightseers. The website also has an additional section for Virginia residents who’d like to become an official “Mermaid Spotter” (which is exactly what it sounds like — someone with an eagle eye for unmapped mermaids.) Those who are interested are asked to send an email to comehome@norfolk.gov or apply via the site’s online form.

It’s a sweet story, isn’t it? Let us know what you think in the comment section below!

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