Living in Norfolk by the Sea - 3/21/2013
I have lived in Norfolk since 1983. It's the city at the center of the "Hampton Roads" region, which consists of roughly 7 competing cities all within a stone's throw of each other in Southeastern Virginia, the "city" of Virginia Beach being the largest by population and the "city" of Suffolk being the largest by land area. In actuality, Norfolk really is the only that looks or feels like a city to me, and that would be a smaller city. There is a bit of a skyline with some tall buildings in the downtown area. The other cities are more suburban in flavor and indeed many people choose to live in them and commute to Norfolk for work. The largest employers are the military, shipbuilding and the port.
As in any place, there are pros and cons to living here. Here are a few generalizations: many people who live here, are not originally from here. They have ended up here mainly because of the military - and many have stayed to make a life here. This means that people here are used to being around people who are different from them, come from a different place, have a different perspective and they generally seem to get along well for the most part. It is a friendly, laid back kind of place.
Norfolk itself, seems to be divided into a population of "haves" and "have nots." If you are fortunate enough to be a "have", then life here is good - lots of cultural opportunities - Opera, Symphony, art museums, historic houses, a good smattering of locally owned restaurants for foodies, Norfolk Botanical Gardens, arts festivals, marathons, broadway shows, local theater, close access to beaches, hiking, tourist areas of Williamsburg, Jamestown, Virginia Beach, Outer Banks of NC, etc. Probably one area of weakness for some is the lack of professional big league sports teams. There is a minor league baseball team (with a very nice stadium) and a decent hockey team. Basketball and football fans are very enthusiastic about attending games at Norfolk's two largest universities - Norfolk State University, an HBCU, and Old Dominion University. (Since I don't care about sports this is not a deficit to me, but I know many people would not feel that way.) In short, if you live here and you are bored, it's really your fault for not taking advantage of all there is to do.
As a percentage, the "haves" do not make up the majority of the population. There is a large percentage of poor, mostly black residents whose quality of life, I believe, is not as good. Like many cities, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Hampton (the three original cities) experienced an epidemic of white flight during the 60s, 70, and 80s. Much of the white middle class fled to Virginia Beach and Chesapeake on the southside and York and Gloucester counties on the peninsula. As a result, Norfolk's (and Portsmouth's)public schools struggle with the challenges that a very high percentage of students from a lower socio-economic status bring. (Some people view this as an opportunity rather than a challenge, but that probably goes against the conventional wisdom for many.) This is excaberbated by many upper and middle class families placing their children in one of the private schools here. At the high dollar end, would be Norfolk Academy, and then in descending order in terms of price would be Norfolk Collegiate, then Norfolk Christian and then several Catholic K-8 schools. (Ironically Norfolk Catholic High School was moved to Virginia Beach a few years ago and "Norfolk" was dropped from its name.) While Norfolk schools suffer, Virginia Beach schools on the other hand, flourish. They are regularly named in national publications for all kinds of outstanding achievements and honors. There is a misperception (probably based on the white flight history) that VB schools are mostly white. This is no longer the case as the population of Virginia Beach has become much more diverse than it used to be even ten years ago. If you have school-aged children and want to put them in a highly praised school district, then you may want to consider living in Virginia Beach. Housing costs are higher there and the commute can be troublesome, but you get the benefit of the highly rated schools.
There does seem to have been somewhat of a reversal in the flight of the middle class from Norfolk, starting in the late 1980s and continuing on to the present as many older couples chose to return to (or not leave) Norfolk as they sought to downsize. Urban renewal began in the Ghent neighborhood (our urban village, where you can get by without a car - hospitals,grocery stores, churches, restaurants, shops, museums all within walking distance) and expanded into the neighborhoods of Freemason Harbor and then downtown. Urban revitalization continues in the once very seedy bayside communities of Ocean View on the northern side of town. This effort had stalled somewhat with the economic downturn but appears to be on the rise again. I used to live in Ghent when I was in college and will likely return there when I retire because of the high walkability factor. I don't want to end up like my parents in their mid to late 80s stuck in suburbia when driving is becoming an issue.
Because Norfolk cannot expand into the surrounding cities (that's why those counties became cities in the first place)it has essentially run out of room to build large new neighborhoods. Instead it has been revitalizing neighborhoods as I mentioned above. Despite this, much of the city's housing stock is postwar construction, which many will not like if they want to live in a brand new house. Because the city is laced with rivers (really tidal estuaries) and creeks, there are opportunities to buy "waterfront" homes at relatively reasonable prices compared to Virgina Beach.
Then there is the weather. We do have four seasons. Winter is generally mild - typically in the 40s during the day. We usually get a couple of weeks at the end of January beginning of February where temperatures can drop below freezing. Snow is uncommon and schools and government offices close whenever we get a little bit of snow, which generally melts within a day or two. Spring is beautiful here in this very lush, green environment. (If you are an allergy sufferer, you may have issues.) Summers are long, hot and humid and you will probably want air conditioning unless you are lucky enough to live right on the bay where you might be able to get a constant breeze. Temperatures can be in the low 90s but it's the 90% humidity that will get to you if your are not used to it. Locals start going to the beaches (which are free) in May and you can usually go through September and sometimes into October. We do get an occasional hurricane but seem to suffer more from periodic "Noreaster" storms (winds out of the northeast) which push lots of water into the bay and onto the land. Some parts of Norfolk flood regularly especially in the older neigborhoods of Ghent and Freemason some of the neighborhoods on the Elizabeth and Lafayette rivers. They say that Norfolk is the most threatened city after New Orleans for coastal flooding. Fall is also beautiful and usually doesn't start until mid October. Many people like to drive to Skyline drive in the Virginia mountains about 4 hours away to see the leaves.
Finally, I have to write about traffic. If you live and work in Norfolk, it's not too bad. 20 minutes commute would get you where you need to go. Public transportation is not great, but we recently completed the starter line of our light rail system called the "Tide". It will ultimately extend from the Norfolk Naval Base to the oceanfront in Virginia Beach one day, but that day may take quite a while to get here. If you choose to live in Chesapeake, Virginia Beach or on the Peninsula (Hampton and Newport News) and have to commute in to Norfolk, you will hate the drive, especially if you are coming through a tunnel under a river. Drives that might take 20 minutes without traffic can last an hour and a half if you run into trouble. I live in Norfolk and have commuted to Virginia Beach for the past 12 years. What used to take 30 minutes now generally takes 40 to 45.
My job used to take me all over the US so I have seen a lot of towns and cities. One thing that strikes me about many of the smaller to mid-sized cities is the "sameness" - Walmart, Target, fast food chains - the same from one place to the next. While Norfolk does have those things, it also has enough other items to make it unique. It has enough cultural amenities to give it a slightly big city feel, but not the high cost of living or high crime rate of a true big city. All in all, it's not a bad place to be.[read more...]