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  • 9500 B.C. - First evidence of humans inhabiting Virginia.

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh led an expedition in search of a suitable place to establish a permanent English settlement in North America. By mid-July of that year, two of his ships had landed on an island which they named Roanokemarker, now a part of Dare County, North Carolinamarker. One of Raleigh's commanders, Arthur Barlowe, kept a journal during this expedition which provides a detailed account of the region and its people during this time. In it, he describes the site of what is now Norfolk as having been a city called Skicoak, which was inhabited by a tribe of Native Americans called the Chesepian (also sometimes spelled "Chesipean"). Archaeological evidence suggests that these original Chesepians belonged to the the larger Carolina Algonquian tribe. According to Barlowe, the local Chesepians claimed that Skicoak was the Chesepians' greatest city. He noted, however, that none of the locals had seen the city, but were relaying second- or third-hand accounts. The exact location of Skicoak has remained undetermined. It may have been near the junction of the eastern and southern branches of the Elizabeth River in present-day downtown or, as other evidence strongly suggests, it was located in the Pine Beach area of Sewell's Point.

When Jamestown settlers arrived at Cape Henry (in present-day Virginia Beach) almost 23 years later in April 1607, they found no traces of Skicoak. According to William Strachey's The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britanica (1612), the Chesepians had been wiped out by Chief Wahunsunacock (better known as Chief Powhatan), the head of the Virginia Peninsulamarker-based Powhatan Confederacy, some time in the intervening years. The Chesepians were eliminated because the chief's priests had warned him that, "from the Chesapeake Bay a nation should arise, which should dissolve and give end to his empire." After eliminating the original Chesepians, loyal Powhatans (also known as "Virginia Algonquins") occupied their lands and villages and assumed their tribal name as well.

Colonial period (1607-1775)

In 1619, the Governor for the Virginia Colony, Sir George Yeardley established four incorporations, termed "citties" (sic) for the developed portion of the colony. These citties were to form the basis for the government of the colony in the newly created House of Burgesses, with the southeastern portion of the Hampton Roadsmarker region falling under the Elizabeth Cittie (sic) incorporation. In 1622, Adam Thoroughgood (1604-1640) of King's Lynnmarker, Norfolk, England, became one of the earliest Englishmen to settle in the area that was to become South Hampton Roads, when at the age of 18 he became an indentured servant to pay for passage to the Virginia Colony. After his period of contracted servitude was finished, he earned his freedom and soon became a leading citizen of the fledgling colony.

Meanwhile, after years of continuing struggles at Jamestown, the now bankrupt Virginia Company had its royal charter revoked by King James I in 1624 and Virginia became a crown colony. Also at this time, the King granted of land to Thomas Willoughby, in what is now the Ocean Viewmarker section of the city. The entire population of the Virginia colony was estimated to be 5,000 people at this time.

In 1629, Thoroughgood was elected to the House of Burgesses for Elizabeth Cittie. Five years later, in 1634, the King had the colony reorganized under a system of 8 shires, with much of the Hampton Roads region becoming part of Elizabeth City Shire. In 1636, Thoroughgood was granted a large land holding along the Lynnhaven River (which he named) for having persuaded 105 people to settle in the colony. He is also credited with contributing the name of Norfolk, also in honor of his birthplace, to the newly created New Norfolk County when the South Hampton Roads portion of Elizabeth City Shire was partitioned off in that same year. Also during this reorganization, King James granted a further to Willoughby, and it is these that would become the future basis for the city of Norfolk. Shortly thereafter, in 1637, New Norfolk County was itself split into two counties, Upper Norfolk County and Lower Norfolk County, largely on Thoroughgood's recommendation. The modern city of Norfolk is located in the latter. (Thoroughgood became suddenly ill in 1640 and died soon thereafter at the age of 36. The homestead built by his grandson, the Adam Thoroughgood Housemarker, in 1680 along the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beachmarker is now maintained as a historic house and public museum.)

The history of one house and two families represents a concise story of Lower Norfolk County's past. In 1649 the English couple William and Susannah Moseley migrated with their family to Lower Norfolk County from Rotterdammarker, The Netherlandsmarker, where he had been a steward of the English Court as a member of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. They were a mature couple in their 40s and came with wealth to set up trade, reportedly traveling by one of Moseley's ships. On the Eastern branch of the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, they built a manor house with Dutch-style gambrel roof, reflecting their years of residency and trade in Rotterdam. The house was first known as Greenwich. In the 18th c. Moseley descendants began to call it Rolleston Hall, and added on to the house. William Moseley was a Commissioner of Lower Norfolk Co. from 1649 to his death in 1655. His second son Arthur Moseley was a Burgess. Moseley descendants were active in Virginia and numerous other Southern states' political offices.

Before the American Civil War, the mansion and plantation had passed out of the Moseley family and was owned from 1860 by former Virginia governor Henry A. Wise. He and his family left the house in 1862 to seek refuge in Rocky Mountmarker, as Norfolk was being overtaken by Union troops. Wise served as a Brigadier General for the Confederate Army. After the war, Wise attempted to reclaim Rolleston while a prisoner on parole. He was refused by the Union commander Major General Terry, as Wise had taken up residence elsewhere. The Freedmen's Bureau took over the mansion to operate it as a school for 200 freedmen. Rolleston Hall stood more than 200 years, until well after the Civil War. It burned down in the late 19th century.

In 1670, a royal decree directed the "building of storehouses to receive imported merchandise ... and tobacco for export" for each of the colony's 20 counties. This marked the beginning of Norfolk's importance as a port city. Norfolk's natural deepwater channels soon showed their potential and to protect that potential, in 1673, the House of Burgesses called for the construction of a "Half Moone" fort at the site of what is now Town Pointe Park in downtown. The House chiefly feared invasion or attack by the Dutch, with whom the English had been at odds, but this threat did not materialize. (New York City had become a part of the English colonies a few years previously, after having been controlled by the Dutch). Norfolk quickly grew in size, and by 1682 a charter for the establishment of the "Towne of Lower Norfolk County" had been issued by Parliament. Norfolk was one of only three cities in the Virginia Colony to receive a royal charter, the other two being Jamestown and Williamsburgmarker. The town initially encompassed a land area northeast of the point of the confluence of the eastern and southern branches of the Elizabeth River. Today the point is in downtown. In 1691, a final county subdivision took place when Lower Norfolk County was split to form Norfolk County (present day Norfolk, Chesapeake, and parts of Portsmouth) and Princess Anne County (present day Virginia Beach). Norfolk was incorporated in 1705 and re-chartered as a borough in 1736.

In 1753, Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie presented the growing city of 4,000 with a long, 104 ounce silver mace he had commissioned in London. Inscribed around the base of the mace's head are the words: The Gift of the Hon. Robert Dinwiddie, Esq. Lieut. Governor of Virginia to the Corporation of Norfolk, 1753. The mace was a symbol of royal authority and would often be carried ahead of the mayor in processions or displayed at other civic events. Today, the mace can be found on display in the Chrysler Museum of Artmarker.

By 1775, Norfolk had developed into what many contemporaries of the time argued was the most prosperous city in Virginia. It was a major shipbuilding center and an important trans-shipment point for the export of goods such as tobacco, corn, cotton, and timber from Virginia and North Carolina, to the British Isles and beyond. In turn, goods from the West Indiesmarker such as rum and sugar, and finished manufactured products from England, were imported back through Norfolk and shipped to the rest of the lower colonies. Much of the West Indies and American colonial products that flowed through the harbor were by this time produced with the use of slave labor.

Revolutionary War Period (1775 - 1783)

Norfolk had been a strong base of Loyalist support throughout the start of the American Revolution. In the early summer of 1775, after having been forced to flee the colonial capitol of Williamsburg, Lord Dunmore, the last Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia, tried to reestablish control of the colony from Norfolk. Throughout the summer and autumn of that year he was able to secure a number of smaller victories over the rebelling colonists in and around the South Hampton Roads region, mostly by means of small raiding parties which were used to reinforce his men. In November, a larger battle took place at Kemp's Landingmarker which provided Dunmore and the loyalists a clear victory, but it was nonetheless clear by then that the war was escalating. The victory at Kemp's Landing emboldened the governor, who immediately issued Dunmore's Proclamation, which most notably promised freedom to any rebel-owned slave who joined His Majesty's forces. The proclamation was very provocative to patriot slave-owners, not just in Virginia but across the South, and Dunmore's victory would prove to be short-lived.

At the end of November, Dunmore set up a stronghold in Norfolk (demolishing some 30 houses in the course of its construction). Within days, however, gullible overconfidence proved to be his undoing when his forces attempted a pre-emptive attack on a position where, according to false intelligence received, the small rebel force was about to be reinforced. The advance guard of the 600 soldiers Dunmore sent to eliminate the rebel position were lured onto a causeway which formed a narrow killing zone at the Battle of Great Bridgemarker on December 9, 1775 by the fledging 2nd Virginia Regiment. Under the command of Colonel Woodford, the large force of patriots (many of whom who had decided to support the rebellion after having read Dunmore's Proclamation) proceeded to quickly deliver heavy losses to Dunmore's troops, including the death or injury of up to 102 men (Dunmore claimed only 62), while suffering just one injured on their part. Dunmore retreated back to Norfolk, but the quickly advancing Regiment forced him and the remaining loyalists to flee to his ship, Otter, which was anchored in the harbor. Dunmore Street, in the historic downtown residential neighborhood of Freemason, was named after him not as a tribute, but as having supposedly been the street down which Lord Dunmore and the remaining Loyalists were last seen fleeing on their way to board Otter. His forced exile effectively brought an end to over 168 years of British colonial rule in Virginia.

For a while, Dunmore remained in the river off Norfolk with a small squadron of armed ships, but he met increasing difficulty from the patriot forces in the town, who not only made it difficult to get provisions, but also took up positions along the waterfront and fired at the ships. On the afternoon of New Year's Day, 1776, Lord Dunmore's ships began a bombardment, concentrating on the waterfront but also attempting to stop all movement within the city. Under cover of this, which lasted some seven hours, British troops went ashore to burn down all the waterfront buildings- and thus played right into the hands of their enemies. The rebels were quite happy to see a largely Loyalist city destroyed, happier still to be able to blame it on the British, and over the next two days they encouraged the spread of fires, while looting unburned houses. Following complaints from the Council of Norfolk in November that year, the Virginia Assembly appointed a commission which, from May 1777, studied the evidence and found that of the 882 houses burned during those two days, only 19 had been set alight by the British. A further 416- in effect all that remained standing- were destroyed in February 1776 to prevent the British from using them as cover if they returned. Only Saint Paul's Episcopal Churchmarker survived the bombardment and subsequent fires, though not unharmed, as a cannonball (fired by the Liverpool) dented the southeast wall (it was later dug up from the ground below, and cemented into the indentation as a memorial). The church was substantially rebuilt in 1827.

19th century

The 19th century proved to be a time of numerous travails for the both the city of Norfolk, and the region as whole. War, epidemics, fires, and economic depression reduced the development of the city.

The region's African Americans achieved full emancipation following the Civil War, only to be faced with severe discrimination through white legislators' later imposition of Jim Crow Laws. After Virginia passed a new constitution, African Americans were essentially disfranchised for more than 60 years until their leadership and activism won passage of Federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

Still, the city persevered and managed to quietly grow into the region's economic and cultural hub. By the late 19th century, the Norfolk and Western Railway established the community as a major coal export port and built a large trans-loading facility at Lambert's Pointmarker. Princess Anne and Norfolk Counties would become leaders in truck farming. They produced more than half of all greens and potatoes consumed on the east coast. Lynnhaven oysters also became a major export.

Rebirth, Fire, Disease, and War (1783-1861)

Following the recovery from the Revolutionary War burning, the 19th century began auspiciously enough for Norfolk and her citizens. By the 1800 census, the population of 6,926 was the 10th largest in the United States. However, just 4 years later, another serious fire along the city's waterfront destroyed some 300 buildings and the city experienced a serious economic setback as a result.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, born and raised in Norfolk who would become the first President of Liberia
During the 1820s the agricultural communities of South Hampton Roads experienced a prolonged recession, resulting in the emigration of families from the region to other areas of the South, especially the frontier areas being opened for settlement. From 1820 to 1830, there was a drop in overall population of about 15,000 in Norfolk County, despite the fact that other urban areas experienced significant population growth.

Like other Southern states, Virginia struggled with slavery, especially as it became less important in the mixed agricultural economy that was replacing that of tobacco. Virginia considered ideas to o either phase out slavery through law (see Thomas Jefferson Randolph's 1832 resolution) or to "repatriate" blacks by sending them to Africa to establish a colony at Liberia. The American Colonization Society (ACS), established in 1816, was the largest of groups founded for that purpose. Many emigrants from Virginia and North Carolina embarked for Africa from Norfolk. One such emigrant was Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a native of Norfolk who would go on to become the first president of Liberiamarker. Roberts Village in Norfolk is named for him. Active emigration through the ACS came to an end following the Civil War. Most African Americans wanted to stay in the United States with their families and communities in the nation where they were born and which they had made their own through their work and military service.

By 1840, Norfolk had shown its resilience and boasted a population of 10,920 for the borough proper (not including the rest of the county). With the concentration of population came more interest in education and culture. In 1841 an ambitious new school building was completed for Norfolk Academy, designed by Thomas U. Walter as a replica of the temple of Theseus in Athens. (Now it houses the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. In 1845, Norfolk was incorporated as a city. By 1850 the city's population was approximately 14,000 persons, including 4,000 enslaved African Americans and 1,000 free blacks.

Transportation improvements contributed to growth. In 1832 the steam ferry Gosport began service, linking Norfolk and Portsmouth. In 1851, the Commonwealth authorized the charter of an railroad connecting busy port of Norfolk and the growing industrial city of Petersburgmarker. Completed in 1858, this important line was the predecessor of today's Norfolk Southern Railway.

On June 7, 1855, the ship Benjamin Franklin detoured into Portsmouth for urgent repairs to fix leaks, a broken boiler, and an unsteady mast. The ship was en route from St. Thomasmarker in the Virgin Islands to New Yorkmarker. The city's health officer inspected the ship, as was standard practice at the time, and suspected something was awry, despite assurances from the captain that ship was free of disease. The officer ordered that the ship be held at anchor in the harbor for 11 days. Afterwards, he returned to the ship and allowed it dock under the condition that the ship's hold not be broken.

Within several days of the ship's docking, however, the first cases of Yellow Fever appeared in people whose homes were near the wharf. By July, the epidemic was in full outbreak and would eventually result in the deaths of over 3,000 people in the region, 2,000 of them in Norfolk. At its peak, the epidemic was claiming more than 100 lives a day in Norfolk alone. Because people did not know how to treat or prevent the disease, many people fled the area in hopes of escaping it, some never to return. The city's population did not reach that of the 1850 census again until after the Civil War. In 1856 the Sisters of Charity founded St. Vincent's Hospital, in part as a reaction to the previous year's epidemic.

In early 1861, Norfolk voters instructed their delegate to vote for ratification of the ordinance of secession. Soon thereafter, Virginia voted to secede from the Union. Richmondmarker became the capital of the Confederacy, and the American Civil War began in earnest.

Civil War to the Jamestown Exposition (1861-1907)

Logo for Jamestown Exposition in 1907
Not long thereafter, in the spring of 1862, the remains of the USS Merrimac were rebuilt at Norfolk Navy Yardmarker as an ironclad and renamed as the CSS Virginia. Hoping to break the Union naval blockade of Virginia, the Battle of Hampton Roads began on March 8, 1862 off the northwest shore of the city's Sewell's Point Peninsula with the Virginia sinking the and setting the ablaze. The first day of the battle ended when, due to waning daylight, Virginia was unable to engage or destroy any more Union ships, and so returned to port for the evening to address minor damages. Overnight however, the USS Monitor made it to Union held Fort Monroemarker across the James River in Hamptonmarker, and so set the stage for the world's first battle between ironclads, pitting the CSS Virginia against the USS Monitor. The battle would ultimately ended in a stalemate however, as neither ship was able to do significant damage to the other due to the heavy armor plating, but it was clear that the new technology utilized at the battle would forever change the course of naval warfare. Over the next several months, Virginia tried in vain to engage the Monitor, but the Monitor was under strict orders not to fight unless absolutely necessary. When Norfolk, under Mayor William Lamb, surrendered the city to General John E. Wool and Union Forces at the city's Princess Anne Road and Church Street intersection in May, the decision was made to scuttle the Virginia rather than risk losing her to the Union Navy.

For the duration of the Civil War, the city was held under Martial law. Many private and public buildings were confiscated for federal use, including nearby plantations. Mayor Lamb did manage to successfully hide the city's colonial era silver mace underneath a fireplace hearth to avoid having it confiscated or melted down by union troops.

Enslaved African Americans did not wait until the end of the war to be emancipated. With the arrival of Union troops, thousands of slaves escaped to Norfolk and Fort Monroe to claim their freedom. Even before the arrival of northern missionaries, African Americans began to set up schools for children and adults both.

By 1870, the end of Reconstruction was at hand in Norfolk. Union occupation troops withdrew and Virginia was readmitted to the Union. During this time, African-Americans throughout Hampton Roads were elected to state and local offices. Gradually they were restricted from office and voting by the whites' paramilitary violence and intimidation, and increasingly discriminatory legislation, including Jim Crow Laws to control work, segregated public facilities and transportation, and other aspects of life.

Most significantly, in 1902 Virginia joined other Southern states in creating a new constitution that effectively disfranchised all African Americans through creating new blocks to voter registration that were selectively and subjectively applied against them. White supremacists achieved their goal: from 1900 to 1904, estimated black voter turnout in the Presidential elections in Virginia dropped to zero.

African Americans would not regain the ability to exercise suffrage and full civil rights until their activism in the Civil Rights Movement secured passage of Federal legislation in the mid-1960s. Despite this severe restriction, many African Americans created families, churches, schools, community organizations and stable lives for themselves. Many became landowners and farmed small plots in the Norfolk area. The area's turn to mixed agriculture before the Civil War created a more favorable environment for small plots and mixed produce.

Map of the City of Norfolk and Norfolk County, Virginia, 1895
In 1883, the first car of bituminous coal arrived from the Pocahontas fields over the Norfolk & Western Railway and by 1886 the tracks were extended right up to the coal piers at Lambert's Pointmarker to handle the increasing volume, creating one of the largest coal transshipment ports in the world. In 1894, classes began in the city's first public high school. That same year the new technology of the electric street railway was introduced to Norfolk and would, within ten years, link Norfolk with Sewell's Point, Ocean Viewmarker, South Norfolk, Berkleymarker, Pinner's Point (all of which were independent communities within Norfolk County at that time), and the neighboring City of Portsmouth.

1907 brought both the Virginian Railway and the Jamestown Exposition to Sewell's Point. The large Naval Review at the Exposition demonstrated the peninsula's favorable location, laying the groundwork for the world's largest naval base. Commemorating the 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the exposition brought many prominent people including President Theodore Roosevelt, congressmen, senators, and diplomats from 21 countries. Henry Huttleston Rogers and Mark Twain also attended the expo. Many naval ships from different countries were present for the celebration. The area where the exposition took would become Naval Air Station Hampton Roads, later Naval Station Norfolkmarker, ten years later in 1917, during the height of World War I.

Resort areas; transportation key to growth

Resort areas in remote areas along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean grew in the period after the civil war as Norfolk residents embraced the concept of the day trips to the beaches. Ocean Viewmarker on the bay in Norfolk County was originally surveyed for lots before the war, but establishment of a 9-mile long narrow gauge steam passenger railroad service between downtown Norfolk and Ocean View crossing what was then known as Tanner's Creek (later renamed Lafayette River) brought the masses. Originally named the Ocean View Railroad, it was later known as the Norfolk and Ocean View Railroad. A small steam locomotive named the General William B. Mahone hauled ever increasing volumes of passengers, primarily on the weekends. Similarly, the Norfolk & Virginia Beach Railway inaugurated rail service in 1883 to the rural community of Seatack located on the Atlantic Ocean in Princess Anne County. The oceanfront area at Seatack became the site of the area's first resort hotel.

As attendance boomed, in both instances, the steam-powered services between downtown Norfolk and the beaches at Ocean View and Seatack were later replaced by electric-powered trolley car. These in turn, were later replaced by highways and the automobile. Cottage Toll Road, later largely superseded by Tidewater Drive led to Ocean View. Leading from Norfolk to Seatack, where the resort strip became know as Virginia Beach, in 1922, the new hard-surfaced Virginia Beach Boulevard was a major factor in the growth of the Oceanfront town and adjacent portions of Princess Anne County.

Ocean View gradually evolved into a streetcar suburb, and was annexed by Norfolk in 1923. Virginia Beach became an incorporated town in 1906, and an independent city of the second class in 1952, sharing courts and some constitutional officers with Princess Anne County. 11 years later, the 2 square mile city was politically consolidated with county (which was 100 times larger in land area)to form the modern City of Virginia Beach, now the City of Norfolk's neighbor to the east, part of a wave of political consolidations in the Hampton Roads region which took place between 1952 and 1976.

20th century

Expansion Through Annexation (1906-1959)

Norfolk continued to grow in the first half of the twentieth century as it expanded its borders through annexation. In 1906, the incorporated town of Berkleymarker was annexed, stretching the city limits across the Elizabeth River. The town became a borough along with the neighborhoods of Beacon Light and Hardy Field. Lambert's Point, home of a railroad pier, and Huntersville were annexed into Norfolk five years later in 1911.

In 1923, the city limits were expanded to include Sewell's Point, Willoughby Spitmarker, the town of Campostella, and Ocean Viewmarker, adding the Navy Base and miles of beach property fronting on Hampton Roadsmarker and Chesapeake Bay. The Norfolk Naval Base grew rapidly as a result of World War I and this created a housing shortage in the area. These newly incorporated areas grew rapidly along with the 1906-created Larchmontmarker neighborhood, five miles (8 km) from downtown. Wards Corner, then just outside Norfolk, became the first non-downtown shopping district in the country. The growing city needed to get a college, so in 1930, Old Dominion Universitymarker was established as the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Marymarker. ODU awarded its first bachelor's degrees in 1956 and became an independent institution in 1962. Five years later, Norfolk State Universitymarker was founded as the Norfolk Unit of Virginia State University and became an independent institution in 1969.

By 1950, Norfolk was the fifth fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. As a result of the end of World War II, another housing shortage was created. In 1955, Tanners Creek was annexed and ownership of Broad Creek Village transferred to Housing Authority. Norfolk had officially became the largest city in state, with a population of 297,253. After a smaller annexation in 1959, and a 1988 land swap with Virginia Beachmarker, the city assumed its current boundaries.

The Advent of the Highway (1952 - 1970)

Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel
the dawn of the Interstate Highway System, new highways opened and a series of bridges and tunnels opening over fifteen years would link Norfolk with the Peninsulamarker, Portsmouthmarker, and Virginia Beachmarker. On May 23, 1952, the Downtown Tunnelmarker opened connecting Norfolk with the city of Portsmouth. A second parallel tube was built in 1987. The Downtown Tunnel currently flows in four lanes (two in each direction), carrying a portion of Interstate 264. In 1991, the new Downtown Tunnelmarker/Berkley Bridgemarker complex was completed, with a new system of multiple lanes of highway and interchanges connecting Downtown Norfolk and Interstate 464 with the Downtown Tunnel tubes. On November 1, 1957, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnelmarker opened to traffic, connecting the Virginia Peninsulamarker with the city, signed as State Route 168. The new two-lane toll bridge-tunnel connection became a portion of Interstate 64 by the end of 1957, connecting Norfolk westward with a limited access freeway. A second parallel tube was built in 1976, expanding the access to four lanes. The tolls were removed in December 1976.The two-lane Midtown Tunnel was completed September 6, 1962, supplementing the Downtown Tunnelmarker and the Berkley Bridgemarker.On December 1, 1967, the Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway (Interstate 264 and State Route 44), a long toll road leading from Baltic Avenue in Virginia Beach to Brambleton Avenue in Norfolk, opened to traffic at a cost of $34 million. Many at the time believed the project was doomed to fail due to the cost of 10 to 25 cents to access the Expressway. Opponents argued that commuters would simply continue to use Virginia Beach Boulevard as the primary route to and from Virginia Beach. The Expressway was a resounding success however, perhaps too successful for Norfolk in that soon thereafter, many more people began to move to the neighboring city of Virginia Beach and commute back to work in Norfolk, a common practice which continues to this day. The tolls were removed on June 1, 1995, and State Route 44 portion of the freeway became signed as I-264 in July 1999.

A City Struggles With Integration (1958 - 1960)

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case determined that racial segregation in public schools (and public accommodations) was unconstitutional. However, Virginia, under the leadership of U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd and the Byrd Organization, pursued a policy to avoid desegregation that came to be called Massive Resistance. Among the actions were new state laws that prohibited state funding for integrated public schools, even as some school districts began to contemplate them. This set the stage for a conflict, but it was a few years after Brown before the policy was tested.

Norfolk's private schools had been integrated four years before as the city chose to voluntarily comply with the Brown decision. However, a number of public school divisions (school districts) around the state had been reluctant to do so for fear of losing state funds. In 1958, Federal District Courts in Virginia ordered schools in Arlington Countymarker, Charlottesvillemarker, Norfolk, and Warren Countymarker, to desegregate. In the fall of 1958, a handful of public schools in three of these widespread areas opened for the first time on a racially integrated basis. In response, Virginia Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. ordered the schools to be closed, including six of the Norfolk Public Schools.

In Norfolk, the state action had the impact of locking ten thousand children out of school, which raised outcry by the public to a high level. As some children attended makeshift schools in churches, etc., the citizens voted whether to reopen the public schools. The ballot made clear that the Commonwealth of Virginia would stop funding integrated schools.

On January 19, 1959, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appealsmarker declared the state law to be in conflict with Virginia's state constitution. The Court of Appeals ordered all public schools to be funded, whether integrated or not. Governor Almond capitulated about ten days later and asked the sitting General Assemblymarker to rescind several "Massive Resistance" laws. In September 1959, Norfolk's public schools were desegregated when 17 black children entered six previously all-white schools in Norfolk. Virginian-Pilot editor Lenoir Chambers editorialized against massive resistance, earning the Pulitzer Prize.

Downtown Norfolk's Decline and Rebirth

As the traditional center of shipping and port activities in the Hampton Roadsmarker region, Norfolk's downtown waterfront historically played host to numerous and often noxious port and shipping-related uses. With the advent of containerized shipping in the mid-20st century, the shipping uses located on Norfolk's downtown waterfront became obsolete as larger and more modern port facilities opened elsewhere in the region. The vacant piers and cargo warehouses eventually became a blight on downtown and Norfolk's fortunes as a whole. But in the second half of the century, Norfolk had a vibrant retail community in its suburbs; companies like Smith & Welton, High's, Colonial Stores, Hofheimer's, Giant Open Air, Dollar Tree and K & K Toys were regional leaders in their respective fields. Norfolk was also the birthplace of Econo-Travel, now Econo Lodge, one of the nation's first discount motel chains.

Similarly, the advent of newer suburban shopping destinations spelled demise for the fortunes of downtown's Granby Street commercial corridor, located just a few blocks inland from the waterfront. Granby Street traditionally played the role as the premiere shopping and gathering spot in the Hampton Roads region and numerous department stores such as Smith & Welton (1898-1988), Rice's (1918-1985) and Ames and Brownley (1898-1973), fine hotels and theaters once lined its sidewalks. However, new suburban shopping developments promised more convenience and comfort to the population that had moved to the suburbs. The opening of Pembroke Mall in Virginia Beach, the region's first climate-controlled shopping mall, and JANAF Shopping Center in Norfolk's Military Circle area, helped foment Granby Street's spiral into commercial obsolescence. The businesses of downtown's Granby Street found it harder to compete with the car-oriented amenities such as ample free parking and new luxury such as air conditioning.

Beginning in the 1970s, Norfolk's city leaders began what would be a long push to revive the fortunes of its urban core.

Granby Street

To compete with suburban shopping destinations, Norfolk city leaders tried to create a similar mall experience on Granby Street. The city rebranded its commercial core the "Granby Street Mall". In line with thinking of the time, the city closed Granby Street to through-traffic and created a pedestrian mall. It was repaved, landscaped and new street furniture and fixtures were installed. The Granby Street Mall, like most new pedestrian-only streets in the nation, did not succeed.

The closing of Granby Street to auto traffic actually made the district more inconvenient for potential customers and reduced the amount of pedestrian traffic that passed by the businesses. The reduced pedestrian and automobile traffic created an atmosphere of abandonment and probably contributed to an increase in downtown crime. This fueled customer fears of downtown, which in turn caused additional businesses to close. The cycle of abandonment and blight persisted for much of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Downtown Norfolk and Urban Renewal

While Granby Street experienced its decline, Norfolk city leaders were also focused on the waterfront and its collection of decaying piers and warehouses. Federal urban renewal programs such as the Housing Act of 1949 promised cities around the country millions of dollars in government grants for the purpose of removing blight conditions and preparing urban land for redevelopment. Norfolk, as with many other cities, took full advantage of these Federal urban renewal funds and began large-scale demolitions of broad swaths of downtown. This included slum housing that, in the mid-20th century, did not have indoor plumbing or access to running water. However, Norfolk's urban renewal also included the demolition of many prominent city buildings, including the former City Market, Norfolk Terminal Station (the Union railroad station), The Monticello Hotel, and large swaths of urban fabric that, were they still in existence today, might be the source of additional historic urban character, including the East Main Street district (where the current civic complex is located).

At the water's edge, nearly all of the obsolete shipping and warehousing facilities were demolished. In their place, planners created a new boulevard, Waterside Drive. In place of the piers and warehouses rose: the Waterside Festival Marketplace, an indoor mall created by the Rouse Company and similar to Baltimore's Inner Harbormarker Pavilions; the waterfront Town Point Parkmarker - an esplanade park with wide open riverfront views; and the Norfolk Omni Hotel. On the inland side of Waterside Drive, the demolition of the warehouses and wharves created new parcels on which most of the high rise buildings in Norfolk's skyline now stand.

Success of Downtown Norfolk Waterfront Redevelopment

In contrast to the failure of the Granby Street Mall initiative, the redevelopment of Norfolk's waterfront turned out to be an almost immediate success. Town Point Park created a pleasant and inviting new public space at which Norfolkers gather, whether for formally planned events like Harborfest, or for more passive enjoyment of the views, breeze and people watching. The Waterside Festival Marketplacemarker created a new space for entertainment and shopping in downtown, and while its fortunes have peaked and dipped over the years, the marketplace has recently repositioned itself as a one-stop entertainment destination. Nauticus, The National Maritime Centermarker, was constructed on a former pier adjacent to Town Point Park. Adjacent to Nauticus, The National Maritime Centermarker, a new cruise ship terminal has been constructed and the is docked for permanent public exhibition. The clearance of the obsolete warehouses and wharves on the waterfront area also created the real estate development pads that have brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment in office towers. The revitalization of downtown Norfolk's waterfront skyline is so dramatic that the face of the city in 2006 is largely unrecognizable to one who may have left the city in the early 1980s.

MacArthur Center

In the mid 1990s, with the fortunes of the waterfront looking brighter and more solid, Norfolk leaders once again turned their attention back to the historic Granby Street core of downtown, which continued to lag behind the waterfront in terms of revitalization. After the failure of the Granby Street Mall project, city leaders were intent on finding some way to bring commercial activity back to downtown in a major way. The idea of creating an upscale regional mall on the cleared during urban renewal just two blocks east of Granby Street had remained in the minds of Norfolk's economic development officials for many years. Norfolk had long courted upscale Seattle-based retailer Nordstrommarker to locate in Norfolk and economic development officials made numerous appeals to the luxury department store. In late 1996, Norfolk officials made the announcement that they had finally received a commitment from Nordstrom to open a store in a new downtown shopping mall. Norfolk officials named the mall, MacArthur Center, in honor of the five-star World War II General whose tomb was located across the street from the proposed site. In return for opening a store at the new mall, Norfolk officials allocated nearly $100 million dollars in public funds to infrastructure improvements and construction of parking garages to support the shopping mall.

Construction of MacArthur Center began in late 1997 and the mall opened in March 1999 to much acclaim. MacArthur Center opened as a three-story enclosed shopping mall with Dillard's and Nordstrom as the first two anchor department stores. Regal Cinemas operates an 18-screen stadium seating movie theater on most of the third floor of the mall. There is space for a future anchor store at the northwest end of the mall.

MacArthur Center introduced upscale retailing to the Hampton Roads region and it featured the premier of a number of retailers that did not previously exist in Hampton Roads (White House Black Market, Pottery Barn, Z Gallerie, Nordstrom, Johnny Rockets, Chico's, Coach, among others). MacArthur Center's entry to the Hampton Roads market heightened the competition in the retail industry and prompted waves of upgrade and investment at numerous other shopping malls around the region, especially at MacArthur Center's main competitor, Lynnhaven Mallmarker in Virginia Beach, which announced a strategy to renovate the mall and upgrade the tenant mix to reposition it as a worthy competitor to its new Norfolk neighbor.

In a touch of irony, the primary element that nearly killed Granby Street as a commercial destination - the climate controlled shopping mall - is probably what saved Granby Street from wholesale abandonment and breathed into it new life. During the construction of MacArthur Center, Norfolk invested additional funds on infrastructure improvements throughout downtown. Sidewalks were rebuilt, additional lighting was added and streets were repaved throughout the area. A parking garage on Monticello Avenue north of MacArthur Center was partially demolished in order to reconnect the western and eastern segments of Freemason Street, which were previously blocked by the garage.

With the promise of thousands of new shoppers coming to nearby MacArthur Center, owners of properties throughout downtown reinvested in their buildings and made them ready for new retail and residential uses. Tidewater Community College opened its Norfolk campus and central administrative offices on Granby Street, locating its library in the painstakingly renovated former Smith & Welton department store building. The formerly vacant storefronts on Granby Street have been repopulated by so many trendy restaurants and bars that the street, once a destination primarily for homeless and vagrant individuals, has become a new hub for the sophisticated segment of the Hampton Roads region's nightlife. The residential population of downtown continues to grow as unused commercial buildings are converted into lofts and condominiums and new residential developments rise on formerly vacant land. Since MacArthur Center's opening, two new office towers have been completed: 150 West Main Street (located at Boush Street and Main Street, completed in 2002, 20 stories, tall) and Trader Square (100 W. Plume Street, completed in 2007, 20 stories, tall). One new residential high rise tower has been approved by the City: Granby Tower (planned for Granby Street and York Street, 31 stories). Norfolk city officials are soliciting proposals for the development of another office tower for a site located at St. Paul's Boulevard and Plume Street.

Benefits of successful downtown revitalization spin off throughout the city

Norfolk's efforts to revitalize its downtown have attracted acclaim in economic development and urban planning circles throughout the country. Publications such as the American Planning Association's monthly Planning Magazine, have hailed the tremendous rebound in the downtown residential population, and Money Magazine proclaimed Norfolk as the number one city in which to live in the South in 1999.

The rising fortunes of the downtown area have helped expand the city's coffers which has in turn been able to direct its attention to revitalizing other neighborhoods of the city. Located just northwest of downtown, the Ghent district of Norfolk is one of the Hampton Roads region's premier urban residential communities. Ghent has the highest residential densities of any other area in Hampton Roads, and is home to a diverse array of people - artists, strivers, lower income to wealthy, etc. Many other areas of Norfolk are also being revitalized, including Fairmount Park, Ocean Viewmarker and East Beach, the latter both on the Chesapeake Bay.


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  2. [2] The Wise and Terry Letters: Gov. Wise Wants to Reoccupy His Old Home...
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  5. Guy, Louis L. jr. Norfolk's Worst Nightmare Norfolk Historical Society Courier, Spring 2001, accessed 2008-01-03
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