The history of Norfolk begins with an indentured servant from England called Adam Thoroughgood, who came to Virginia in 1622. After his contract was completed, he became a leading citizen in the colony and in 1636 he was given a land grant on the Lynnhaven River. He also suggested the name for the New Norfolk County, after his birthplace in England. This county later split into several smaller counties. One of the parts, the present-day Norfolk, was incorporated in 1705 and in 1736 it was chartered as a borough.
Norfolk soon became the most important and the fastest-growing city in Virginia. It was a strong Loyalist center, mostly because it relied heavily on trade with other British colonies. In 1776 the city was heavily shelled by the British troops led by Lord Dunmore and nearly two-thirds of it were destroyed. American rebels destroyed the rest of the city and only some parts of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church survived. After the war, the city started to recover only to be hit again, this time by a devastating fire that destroyed over 300 buildings and caused a serious economic setback.
Virginia voted for secession from the Union in 1861 and in early 1862 one of the major battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Hampton Roads, took place at Sewell’s Point Peninsula, near Norfolk. The same year Norfolk surrendered to the Union, who introduced the martial law. Thousands of escaped slaves came to the city and established schools even before the war actually ended.
The Virginian Railway came to Norfolk in 1907, the same year when the Jamestown Exposition was held. The Exposition was important because its Naval Review laid the groundwork for the future naval base, which would become the largest in the world. The Naval Air Station Hampton Roads was completed in 1917.
In the 1950s, Norfolk, like the rest of Virginia, struggled with the issue of desegregation and integration in public schools. While most private schools were already integrated, the public ones stayed segregated until 1959. Desegregation had an effect on the population of Norfolk because it indirectly caused white flight and the city’s urban core started to decay. Downtown revitalization started in the late 20th century and as a result of this urban renewal Norfolk got many new buildings, skyscrapers, parks and other structures.
Norfolk is located in the southeastern portion of Virginia, where the Elizabeth River meets Chesapeake Bay. It belongs to the Hampton Roads metropolitan statistical area, which has 1,576,370 residents. Norfolk is considered to be the business center of this area, while Williamsburg and Virginia Beach are main tourist centers.
The city occupies a total area of 96.3 square miles, 44.22% of which is water. It has extensive riverfront property and bayfront resort and beach property.
The climate in Norfolk is humid subtropical. Summers can be very hot and humid and winters are usually mild, with sporadic snowfall. Tropical storms and hurricanes rarely hit the city directly.
Norfolk was originally built in the English medieval and later Georgian architectural style. After the city was destroyed, first during the Revolutionary War and later by the fire, it was rebuilt in Federal style. Later buildings mostly followed Neoclassical, Gothic Revival and Art Deco styles. Today, notable buildings in the city include the old City Hall, Norfolk Academy, the Freemason Baptist Church, Commodore Maury Hotel, Taylor-Whittle House and the Post Office.
Notable neighborhoods in Norfolk include Berkley, Ocean View, Willoughby Spit, Ghent, Downtown and Fairmount Park.
In 2010, Norfolk had 242,803 residents. The racial makeup was 44.3% non-Hispanic Whites, 43.1% Black or African American, 6.6% Hispanic or Latino, 3.3% Asian, 0.5% Native American, 0.2% Pacific Islander, 2.2% some other race and 3.6% some other race.
The median household income was $31,815 and the per capita income for the city was $17,372.
Norfolk serves as a commercial center for the entire Hampton Roads region, which is why it is hard to distinguish its own economic traits from those of the region. The waterways in the area have always been important for the city and the region, both in terms of trade and of military presence. The Naval Station Norfolk today serves as the headquarters for U.S. Fleet Forces Command, for NATO’s Allied Command Transformation and US. Joint Forces Command. Needless to say, this large military presence is a large economic asset for the city and the region.
The city also has a number of large private shipyards (BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair, General Dynamics NASSCO and others).
Cargo ports are also very important for the economy in the area. Virginia Port Authority has three terminals which, combined, make the second-busiest port on the East Coast. The city also has a number of shipping companies and other businesses related to the shipping, trade and distribution.
Hampton Roads has four Fortune 500 companies: Dollar Tree, Amerigroup, Norfolk Southern and Smithfield Foods.
The world’s largest animal rights organization, PETA, is also based in Norfolk.
The city is home to the Chrysler Museum of Art, the National Maritime Center Nauticus, the General Douglas MacArthur Memorial, the Virginia Opera, Virginia Stage Company, Virginia Symphony Orchestra and other important cultural institutions. Major venues in the city include the Norfolk Scope arena and Ted Constant Convocation Center.
Other points of interest in the city include Two Point Park, Norfolk Botanical Garden and Virginia Zoological Park.
Institutions of higher education in Norfolk include Old Dominion University, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk State University, Virginia Wesleyan College and Tidewater Community College.
Major highways in Norfolk area include I-64, and U.S. Routes 58, 160, 13, 460 and the Hampton Roads Beltway. The city has a number of tunnels, bridges and bridge-and-tunnel complexes.
The primary airport for the city is Norfolk International Airport. Intercity passenger service is provided through Amtrak, Greyhound and Chinatown Bus.
Hampton Roads Transit operates mass transit in the area and consists of bus, light rail, ferry and paratransit services.