December 4, 2011

The story goes back to the mid-1930s when Norfolk looked out over its blighted inner-city neighborhoods and realized they were among the worst in the nation. City Manager Thomas P. Thompson formed a five-member advisory committee to “make a study of the slum districts of Norfolk with the hope of obtaining federal funds to eliminate them.”

This was the beginning of what became the nation’s first urban renewal program – one that demolished thousands of substandard dwellings and replaced them with public housing projects. At the same time the city turned the once-squalled neighborhoods into major components of a new downtown – office buildings, highways, a medical complex, a downtown mall.

This brave new world is chronicled in an extensive history of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, available on its website ( you can also go online to view thousands of historic photographs. Among the most prominent in the photo archives are before and after pictures of the city’s slums.

What the history doesn’t mention is how the city, in its rush to remake itself, demolished scores of historic buildings and homes in the process. Its train station, its most famous hotel, a historic church and blocks of stores and houses that reminded visitors of Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown.

Alex Marshall, a well-known writer on urban affairs and a former Virginian-Pilot staffer, put it this way: “The city also lost less tangible things, like its historical memory. Norfolk not only tore down buildings, but erased ancient streets, dating back to the city’s founding. No longer could someone walk downtown, and remember at a glance where they or their forefathers came from.”

Norfolk, he wrote, “fell in love with the bulldozer.”

To be fair, NRHA made the rejuvenation of the old city possible. Over the course of decades the authority cleared the way for wide thoroughfares leading to downtown, Brambleton Avenue and St. Paul’s Boulevard among them, for Eastern Virginia Medical School, SCOPE, Chrysler Hall and MacArthur Mall. It created thousands of new housing units for low-income residents and made possible the revitalization of Ghent. It was recognized as one of the nation’s most successful urban renewal agencies.

The Norfolk Housing Authority – it would later add “Redevelopment and” – was created in 1940 to clear out the city’s vast slums and build public housing. But World War II intervened and thousands of military families created an urgent need for more, not less, housing.

During the war years, downtown became a magnet for off-duty sailors and developed a reputation for bars, brothels, tattoo parlors and at least one burlesque theater – another national ranking that embarrassed city leaders.

Even so, there were many fine buildings, including a railroad station-office complex on East Main Street – right where the city wants to build another station. Inside, columnist George Tucker wrote, there was an “imperial serenity” of lofty marble and decorated plaster. It was demolished in 1962 and added to the city’s growing pile of rubble.

The same was true for the late Monticello Hotel, once considered the South’s grandest hostelry and host to the rich and famous. It was imploded by dynamite in 1976 to make way for the federal building on City Hall Ave. between Monticello and Granby.

Another gem to fall was Christ Church, built in 1828 at Freemason and Cumberland streets. The edifice, where Robert E. Lee once prayed, was in such bad condition that no one would buy it, not even for the asking price of $1. It fell to a wrecking ball in 1973.

Old Atlantic City, which had some decent structures among its dilapidated ones, was wiped out to make way for EVMS. East Ocean View was demolished to make way for the more upscale East Beach.

Out with the old, in with the new has been the city’s credo for more than half a century. What is left of the old is – except for these photos – a distant memory.

Photo: “Stairway to the stars” shows what was left of one house on Olney Road in Norfolk’s Atlantic City in December 1953. Originally in The Ledger-Dispatch, courtesy of NRHA.