Located on the south side of Hampton Roads, bordering the Chesapeake Bay and the Elizabeth River, Norfolk is at the center of Virginia's principal port area and is home to the world's largest naval operation. The area was settled in the early seventeenth century, but not until 1680 was the town of Norfolk surveyed. Norfolk received the status of borough in 1736 and city in 1845. With its deep natural harbor, Norfolk quickly evolved into an international port whose strategic location made it particularly vulnerable in wartime. It was burned to the ground by its own fleeing residents during the Revolution, leaving only the walls of the borough church standing. During the Federal period, affluent merchants (including Moses Myers, whose elegant town house survives) slowly rebuilt Norfolk, only to see it suffer again during the maritime disruptions caused by the War of 1812. Another period of prosperity followed, as represented by a new city hall and courthouse, designed in part by Thomas U. Walter, and the growth of the Freemason neighborhood north of downtown. For most of the Civil War Norfolk was occupied by Union forces, who inflicted little damage. The city's economy recovered slowly during Reconstruction. By the end of the nineteenth century the BB&T Building, the city's first skyscraper, transformed the appearance of downtown; streetcar suburbs such as Ghent pushed the boundaries of the city even farther northward.
Norfolk remained a relatively small city until the early twentieth century, when two events catapulted it into national prominence. Thousands of tourists converged on the city and the adjacent region for the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition (1907), a world's fair that celebrated the arrival of the English colonists in Virginia. The exposition simultaneously spurred downtown construction and outward residential expansion. Ten years later, when the United States entered World War I, the former fairgrounds were redeveloped as a naval base, which was greatly expanded during World War II and which has continued to grow in the post–Cold War era. The construction of new roads, bridges, and especially tunnels in the mid- to late twentieth century has linked Norfolk more effectively with the surrounding region while it has accelerated the abandonment of the city's retail district and neighborhoods for the suburban areas of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk, and the Lower Peninsula. To fight this trend, Norfolk once again rebuilt itself, undertaking one of the nation's largest urban renewal programs, through which many important historic buildings were lost. The downtown waterfront was cleared of industrial warehouses, and the business district was rebuilt with modern and postmodern skyscrapers, such as the Bank of America Building. The intensity of this program has not abated, so some of the buildings from the initial period of redevelopment are already being demolished for new construction. Although for many years Virginia's largest city, Norfolk now trails Virginia Beach in population.
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