Norfolk is the central city of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area. Hampton Roads is one of the world's finest natural deepwater harbors. It is home to Norfolk Naval Base, the largest in the United States, as well as the headquarters of NATO's Allied Command Atlantic.
Norfolk was founded by the Virginia General Assembly in 1680 as port to serve ships sailing to England and the West Indies. It became an independent borough in 1735 and an independent city in 1845. Norfolk grew slowly until the Navy began building the base in 1917, shortly after the USA entered World War I. Military activity during World War II caused a surge in population from 141,332 in 1940 to 213,513 in 1950.
The military remains the city's largest employer. Port activity is also imporant to the economy. Hampton Roads handles more coal than any other port, serving as the distribution center for the coal fields of southwestern Virginia and West Virginia.
Norfolk began slum clearance under federal Urban Renewal programs in 1951. Much of the downtown area was demolished in the 1960s. Reconstruction began with the office core along East Main Street as well as the Scope cultural center on the north side of downtown. The Granby Street corridor was spared total clearance and includes a number of historic mid-rise buildings of architectural interest. At the center is the MacArthur Center shopping mall, built in the 1990s.