Why is Hampton Roads so big? confusing? overlooked?

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Nate Shivar (whom I initially confused with Nate Silver) wrote up a neat little post using Google’s autofill to gauge stereotypes of 50 large American cities. It’s fascinating in some ways and blinkered in others: I want to know what “so ghetto” means in so many of these places. Diverse, impoverished, dilapidated or some combination of all of these? And I wonder why places as cheap as Buffalo and Richmond are considered expensive; my thought is that wages are proportionally lower than in other, really expensive cities, and therefore give an impression of high costs.

More blinkered, I think, are his surprise at a number of things – I don’t know why anyone would be surprised that prairie cities like Dallas would be “windy”, or that southwest Ohio gives googlers the impression of being “conservative” and “racist” (Cincinnati has been subject to four Blue Ribbon commissions, and its northeastern suburbs gave John Boehner his Congressional seat). Similarly, Toronto isn’t “the Dallas of Canada”, as Shivar muses – that would be Calgary; Toronto is far more cosmopolitan – but despite this, Scott Thompson’s musing lives on in the imagination that Toronto The Good is “a nice place to raise a family, or a plant, but no place to fall in love”.

Speaking of which, tho: he seems surprised that southeastern Virginia is a thing. Apparently the original search for Hampton Roads either turned up nothing or, more likely, Shivar didn’t know what to look for. “I had no idea Virginia Beach was the #37 metro area in America,” he says. “Seriously.”

This is not terribly surprising in its way, given that southeastern Virginia is a conurbation of seven to fifteen jurisdictions of roughly equal size. But he realizes the Inland Empire, a similarly decentralized conurbation of San Bernardino, Riverside, Palm Springs, Redlands, Indio and a whole lot of other places, is not well-defined by a single quantifiable center. Both it and Hampton Roads could be maligned, not entirely unfairly, as many suburbs in search of a city (and I’ll admit we were both surprised at the Inland Empire’s sheer size).

To the extent Hampton Roads does have a center, there’s some confusion as to whether it would be Virginia Beach or Norfolk, which has the lion’s share of cultural amenities but not of the population. Most of the infrastructure south of the harbor converges on Norfolk’s unusually small downtown like spokes on a wheel. On the other hand, Virginia Beach is more populous and has a substantial and growing pattern of commuting focused on itself. It’s also increasingly the epicenter of local cultural production: while impressions of Norfolk (often by outsiders) are increasingly represented in national media – “NCIS” comes to mind – indigenous expressions of local culture, such as the region’s very influential hip-hop scene, often emerge from Virginia Beach, with its more vibrant nightlife (not that Norfolk is totally lacking) and melting-pot neighborhoods.

For my part, tho, here are the Hampton Roads cliches I dug up with a minute’s Google:

“Why is Virginia Beach so expensive?” (see comment on wages, above)
“Why is Norfolk so flat?” (see geology comments, below)
“Is Virginia Beach Southern?” (Yes, kind of? People seem to ask this about Baltimore, too. But given its car culture and transient population, despite its conservatism, it often seems to want to be in California. Perhaps it would be happier as San Diego.)
“Why is Hampton Roads so ghetto?” (It’s certainly run-down in parts, but the overall ethnic diversity is on account of the military; it’s one of the most integrated regions in America. Also, the economic base of defense activity, tourism and shipping/shipbuilding is primarily industrial in nature and doesn’t easily support concentrated wealth.)
“Why is Norfolk so susceptible to coastal erosion?” (It’s on a very low-lying, ancient alluvial plain covering an even more ancient meteor crater with mud, which the Chesapeake Bay eventually flooded into and over. Much of the city was also built on fill, which is compacting and subsiding below sea level even as the regional sea level rises.)

I also tried “why is 757” but mostly got things about tax forms and jets. Take that as you will, I guess….

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~ by J.D. Hammond on July 19, 2013.

One Response to “Why is Hampton Roads so big? confusing? overlooked?”

  1. Very informative – thanks for the write up. I wonder if these places like Inland Empire and Virginia Beach/Hampton Roads/Norfolk (which seem to be especially unique at this scale to post-war America) will continue to grow as they are – or begin to centralize as cities continue to shift back from the suburbs. It’s also interesting to hear how people who live there think of their place identity (and maybe how the neighborhood becomes the defining element again). Great post!

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