Norfolk, Virginia: From Honky Tonk to Honky Glitter

Black and white aerial overlook of city

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 3 No. 4, "Facing South." Find more from that issue here.

The New South should celebrate the heritage of George F. Babbitt with a festival in every city and a symposium at every university. The past year marked the centennial of the birth of that great exemplar of the American booster. Writing in 1922, Sinclair Lewis made his hero a Middle Westerner and modeled his home town of Zenith on industrial cities like Dayton and Milwaukee and Grand Rapids. If he were at work today he would have picked a different setting, for the American booster has fled the problems of Cleveland and St. Louis for a new home in the South. Here among the pines and along the warm coasts, he hustles for new superhighways and defense contracts exactly as his great-grandfathers hustled railroads and factories for Michigan and Minnesota.

Norfolk, Va., is a loud and self-proclaimed example. For decades, the city has suffered from a severe inferiority complex. Generations of Navy men have known it as their favorite port to leave; journalists have attacked its "confusion, chicanery and ineptitude." John Dos Passos based much of his novel Nineteen Nineteen in Norfolk, describing Joe Williams as he wandered the "airless empty streets" looking for liquor and women. And in the recent movie, The Last Detail, Jack Nicholson cursed it as "shit city." Norfolk is still a Navy town, supporting 80,000 military troops and 35,000 civilian Defense Department employees, and more tattoo parlors, sleazy bars and prostitutes than anyone would care to count.

But the local business and political boosters have been working hard to change that image. They're scurrying around, constructing new buildings downtown, buying museums, planning massive developments. They toss around millions of dollars to seduce tourists and new industries. They call to the world to come marvel at the changes of Norfolk.

Yet they've forgotten their own people. Salaries in the city remain low. Thousands have been pushed from their homes so these developments could be built. Unemployment has begun to increase. There is much substandard housing.

Real progress affecting the daily lives of Norfolk residents has been made, but due to the efforts of citizens, not the established leaders. Court-ordered busing has continued smoothly since 1970, producing an evenly integrated school system. Peaceful integration of several Norfolk neighborhoods has taken place. These are developments deserving attention, yet like most of Norfolk these days, they are obscured by the hustle and hype of the city's promoters.


New Norfolk

Urban renewal in Norfolk has meant massive construction of modernistic buildings in hopes of generating increased business revenues. A saucer-shaped coliseum called Scope, short for "kaleidoscope," was built first, and now houses conventions, sports events and entertainment. Adjoining the two block-long complex is a large cultural center featuring two theatres. It's a spectacular structure and, like so much of the city's new appearance, was due to the efforts of one man, Roy B. Martin, Jr., who just finished a 12 year stint as mayor.

People had talked about a replacement for the aging sports arena, especially after a study group on urban renewal recommended it. But no decision had been made. Martin made it, with the advice of his director of the Norfolk Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Federal money could be found, the two men discovered, if they moved quickly. They had no time to consult the public or even the City Council (which later rubber-stamped approval). Martin announced plans for Scope to a shocked city in 1964. Soon after that, as hoped, the federal government coughed up two thirds of the $35 million cost.

Scope triggered a building and buying spree that still continues, most of it, like Scope, without citizen approval. The city bought an abandoned Army port terminal, to expand non-military use of the world's finest natural harbor. A group of rich benefactors decided to enhance the city's educational image and paid $27 million to start the Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1973. The city paid $538,000 for a museum to Gen. Douglas Mac- Arthur, though the general's only connection with the city was that his mother once lived there.

A million dollars was sunk into expansion of the Chrysler Museum art collection, a cultural feature for which city leaders campaigned vigorously. A new airport has been built for $30 million. In all, said former City Manager G. Robert House, Jr., up to $150 million may be plunged into construction on Norfolk's waterfront alone, including hotels, apartments, townhouses and shops.

But clearly the climax of this construction is the proposed $100 million Norfolk Gardens (see box).

The city's slick magazines have joined the choruses praising the urban plans. When it debuted in 1971, Metro: Hampton Roads was a mild muckracker on under-the-table land deals and the problems of integration. Now it tells its readers, uncertain of their own tastes, how to spend their money, often in the new downtown shops. Articles on tennis are interspersed with ads for the right equipment, articles on condominiums with invitations to buy into the newest tower under construction, articles on interior decorating with notices of professional designers. Reviews of dining tend to be lessons in the elementary etiquette of eating out-what to wear, how much to tip and why not to write on the tablecloth.

The other city magazine is New Norfolk, a sheet of puffery produced by the Chamber of Commerce to promote "this dynamic, bustling, growing metropolitan area of ours."


The Forgotten People

The primary instrument for finding the space and financing for Norfolk's renovation has been the local Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Formerly known as the Norfolk Housing Authority, the organization cut its teeth helping the government erect cheap housing for the flood of Navy personnel that arrived during the 1940s. By 1950, 40 percent of the housing in the city was substandard. captured federal dollars to launch the country's first urban renewal program.

Twenty-five years and $240 million later, 1432 acres had been razed and redesigned for the New Norfolk of bank towers and in-town malls. Some homes were refurbished by their owners under city loans, but many more were simply destroyed. Today, 15 percent of the housing is still substandard and blocks of rubble make some parts of the city look like a victim of saturation bombing.

Most of those displaced have been black. Five years ago, for instance, the Authority convinced the 6,000 black citizens of the East Ghent neighborhood to move. They were promised phased land clearance and the construction of low-income housing. Instead wrecking crews leveled over 100 acres in a single swoop. The Authority now trumpets its plans for $50,000 and $70,000 houses. Its multi-media presentations compare downtown Norfolk to Beacon Hill, Georgetown and Brooklyn Heights and rarely show a black face in its many pictures of happy city-dwellers.

For years urban renewal has been tied to racial politics. During a two-year stretch in the middle 50s, the city demolished an immense ring of buildings around the core of Norfolk, an area housing 15,000 blacks. Much of the vacant land which still scars the city dates from this assault of two decades past. To members of the city's power structure —men like former mayor Martin and Virginian-Pilot editor Robert Mason—the grunting motors of the bulldozers sang the refrain of “increased tax base." To the large banks, the action meant an opportunity for new office buildings and real estate schemes. To the homeless families, it meant the doubling up of black households and the deterioration of previously respectable neighborhoods.

A decade later another round of clearances took place and Norfolk's moveable slum was displaced to neighborhoods even further from the downtown.

The increasingly vocal opposition of Joseph Jordan, the lone black on the seven-member City Council, has been one of the few impediments to a third round of renewal in the 1970s. The city's business establishment noted his criticisms and responded with strenuous and successful efforts to prevent election of a second black in the 1974 Councilmanic campaign. Efforts ranged from support for black splinter candidates to the allocation of inordinate newspaper coverage to disagreements within the black community. (The City of Norfolk had a population of 308,000 in 1970. Almost a third of the people were black.)

Norfolk blacks are particularly hurt by urban renewal, but they are not the only ones excluded from the vision of the city's developmental schemes. Metro may recommend boutiques for its readers, but the city remains what one local retailer has called a “Sears/ Penny's market." Average household income in the Norfolk SMSA is $700 below the state average for cities. At the same time it has half again as many poor and near-poor families as in urban Virginia as a whole. Recent layoffs in local manufacturing have brought unemployment above its long-time average of three percent. The labor market is heavy on low paid sales and service workers. Norfolk's suburban shopping arteries are filled with miles of fast food drive-ins, discount department stores and warehouse furniture outlets. They are demonstration enough that the entire city is a “Giant PX.”

As the city is now made up, that may be inevitable. Economic power rests in distant hands. Norfolk banks are branches of Richmond concerns. Its large factories are assembly plants for firms like General Electric and Ford. Outsiders own the shipping lines and the railroad. Most important, Washington—not Norfolk —makes the decisions which affect the 115,000 federal employees.


Fighting for Norfolk's Future

The residents of Norfolk, however, have not given up. They are hard at work making the city a decent place to live despite the bulldozers. In 1959 Norfolk witnessed massive resistance to desegregation efforts. With the enthusiastic support of the City Council, the public schools' doors were locked for a semester. But in 1970 a program of court-ordered busing began. By 1974 integration of a school system equally-balanced between the races was working well enough that school officials noticed a flow of white students returning to public school classrooms from dozens of hastily-opened private schools. Tensions are greatly relieved, but, says City Council member Jordan, much of the busing might not have been needed in the first place had the city only used a little foresight. “If it hadn't created these rigid black communities," he explains, “they wouldn't have to bus black students from them."

Peaceful integration of several neighborhoods in Norfolk, an accomplishment which caught the city's leadership by surprise, is another example of solid progress. Perhaps the greatest success is Colonial Place, a 70 year old community of two-story homes and crepe myrtles three miles from the downtown. As a direct result of Norfolk's massive renewal programs, Colonial Place received its first black resident in 1967. But instead of the quick-change process of black invasion, white flight and transformation into an all-black community, Colonial Place broke the expected pattern. Local residents successfully undertook the task of convincing both blacks and whites that an integrated community was a realistic and desirable goal. The neighborhood has now successfully stabilized. With a white-black ratio of two-to-one, Colonial Place attracts scores of young professionals to its shaded streets and has obtained the belated cooperation of city officials.

Recently, thousands of citizens decided they wanted a statue in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King,

Jr. The City Council refused. The citizens insisted. They signed petitions by the thousands and packed the Council meetings. Finally the Council, which had so easily decided to spend millions on the MacArthur memorial and Chrysler art collection, agreed only to send the idea to a committee.

Instead of dealing with the city residents' expressed desires, the Council is busy planning a very different future. With a continuation of current growth trends, Virginia by the year 2000 can expect a solid band of urban development reaching from Richmond along the northern shore of the James River through Newport News to Norfolk and the ocean front at Virginia Beach. A sparser strip of subdivisions and factories will connect Richmond and Norfolk via Petersburg and Smithfield on the south side of the river. At present rates the James River metropolis will contain about 3.5 million people, or close to half of all Virginians. The business and elected leadership of Norfolk seems intent on building their city as the southern anchor of Megalapolis. Many even talk of dissolving the traditional cities of Norfolk and the half dozen smaller ones which surround it and replacing them with a consolidated municipality of Tidewater.

In the midst of plans of this magnitude, neighborhood and school integration successes easily get lost. In fact, the residents of Norfolk, their lives, fears and dreams, their energy, is shuffled under sheets of publicity releases and lost.

The loss is too much. The city is left without a structure of leadership supporting the actions of its citizens, without strong communities to sustain the efforts of those citizens without a continuing heritage around which to build. It's becoming a Big City, identical to a dozen other "new" cities across the country which attract businesses and tourists with glittering new buildings while neglecting the quality of life of the permanent residents. The city has shown its ability to grow physically, but so far its promoters have done little to build the needed strength - an internal, community strength—to support it. And without that strength, Norfolk's growth is as hollow as the empty slogans of the modern day Babbitts.