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The site of what is now Norfolk was originally the Chesipean Indian town Skicoak. The Chesipeans had been destroyed by Powhatan by the time of the arrival of the first English settlers, who, in 1585, settled on Roanoke Island. In 1591, the colony of Roanoke had disappeared without a trace. The city was laid out in 1682. In 1862, the battle between the ironclads Merrimac and Monitor was fought in Hampton Roads, off Norfolk.
Norfolk is a major military center. With Portsmouth, it forms an extensive naval complex. The headquarters of the 5th Naval District, the Atlantic Fleet, the 2nd Fleet, and the Supreme Allied Command are there. The operating base is the largest in the United States and includes a naval air station and other facilities. The Norfolk Naval Shipyard or "Norfolk Navy Yard" is in Portsmouth, Virginia. (They could not name it the "Portsmouth Naval Shipyard," because there was already one of those in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.) Several vessels of the Navy have been named USS Norfolk after the city.
General Douglas MacArthur is buried in the city; there is a small museum for him, and a major shopping mall across the street from his burial site is named for him. The city is home to Old Dominion University, Norfolk State University, and Virginia Wesleyan College. The city's public school system comprises 5 high schools, 8 middle schools, 34 elementary schools, and 9 special-purpose/preschools.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 249.4 km² (96.3 mi²). 139.2 km² (53.7 mi²) of it is land and 110.3 km² (42.6 mi²) of it is water. The total area is 44.22% water.
As of the census of 2000, there are 234,403 people, 86,210 households, and 51,898 families residing in the city. The population density is 1,684.4/km² (4,362.8/mi²). There are 94,416 housing units at an average density of 678.5/km² (1,757.3/mi²). The racial makeup of the city is 48.36% White, 44.11% African American, 0.46% Native American, 2.81% Asian, 0.11% Pacific Islander, 1.67% from other races, and 2.48% from two or more races. 3.80% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There are 86,210 households out of which 30.3% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 36.9% are married couples living together, 18.8% have a female householder with no husband present, and 39.8% are non-families. 30.2% of all households are made up of individuals and 9.6% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.45 and the average family size is 3.07.
In the city the population is spread out with 24.0% under the age of 18, 18.2% from 18 to 24, 29.9% from 25 to 44, 16.9% from 45 to 64, and 10.9% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 30 years. For every 100 females there are 104.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 104.8 males.
The median income for a household in the city is $31,815, and the median income for a family is $36,891. Males have a median income of $25,848 versus $21,907 for females. The per capita income for the city is $17,372. 19.4% of the population and 15.5% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 27.9% are under the age of 18 and 13.2% are 65 or older.
Norfolk and the rest of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area (including Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Williamsburg and Poquoson, Virginia) are served by Norfolk International Airport.