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Harrisonburg is an independent city in the Shenandoah Valley region of the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the population was 48,914, with a census-estimated 2016 population of 53,078. Harrisonburg is the county seat of the surrounding Rockingham County, although the two are separate jurisdictions. The Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the city of Harrisonburg with Rockingham County for statistical purposes into the Harrisonburg, Virginia Metropolitan Statistical Area, which has a 2011 estimated population of 126,562.
Harrisonburg is home to James Madison University (JMU), a public research university with an enrollment of over 20,000 students, and Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), a private, Mennonite-affiliated liberal arts university. Although the city has no historical association with President James Madison, JMU was nonetheless named in his honor as Madison College in 1938 and renamed as James Madison University in 1977. EMU largely owes it existence to the sizable Mennonite population in the Shenandoah Valley, to which many Pennsylvania Dutch settlers arrived beginning in the mid-18th century in search of rich, unsettled farmland.
The city has become a bastion of ethnic and linguistic diversity in recent years. Over 1,900 refugees have been settled in Harrisonburg since 2002. As of 2014, Hispanics or Latinos of any race comprise 19% of the city's population. Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) students speak 55 languages in addition to English, with Spanish, Arabic, and Kurdish being the most common languages spoken. Over one-third of HCPS students are English as a second language (ESL) learners. Language learning software company Rosetta Stone was founded in Harrisonburg in 1992, and the multilingual "Welcome Your Neighbors" yard sign originated in Harrisonburg in 2016.
The earliest documented English exploration of the area prior to settlement was the "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe Expedition", led by Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood, who reached Elkton, and whose rangers continued and in 1716 likely passed through what is now Harrisonburg.
Harrisonburg, previously known as "Rocktown", was named for Thomas Harrison, a son of English settlers. In 1737, Harrison settled in the Shenandoah Valley, eventually laying claim to over 12,000 acres (4,900 ha) situated at the intersection of the Spotswood Trail and the main Native American road through the valley.
In 1779, Harrison deeded 2.5 acres (1.0 ha) of his land to the "public good" for the construction of a courthouse. In 1780, Harrison deeded an additional 50 acres (20 ha). This is the area now known as "Historic Downtown Harrisonburg."
In 1849, trustees chartered a mayor–council form of government, although Harrisonburg was not officially incorporated as an independent city until 1916. Today, a council–manager government administers Harrisonburg.
On June 6, 1862, an American Civil War skirmish took place at Good's Farm, Chestnut Ridge near Harrisonburg between the forces of the Union and the forces of the Confederacy at which the C.S. Army Brigadier General, Turner Ashby (1828–1862), was killed.
When the slaves of the Shenandoah Valley were freed in 1865, they set up near modern-day Harrisonburg a town called Newtown. This settlement was eventually annexed by the independent city of Harrisonburg some years later, probably around 1892. Today, the old city of Newtown is still the home of the majority of Harrisonburg's predominantly black churches, such as First Baptist and Bethel AME. The modern Boys and Girls Club of Harrisonburg is located in the old Lucy Simms schoolhouse used for the black students in the days of segregation.
A large portion of this black neighborhood was dismantled in the 1960s when – in the name of urban renewal – the city government used federal redevelopment funds from the Housing Act of 1949 to force black families out of their homes and then bulldozed the neighborhood. This effort, called "Project R4", focused on the city blocks east of Main, north of Gay, west of Broad, and south of Johnson. According to Bob Sullivan, an intern working in the city planner's office in 1958, the city planner at the time, David Clark had to convince the city council that Harrisonburg even had slums. Newtown, a low socioeconomic status housing area, was declared a slum. Federal law mandated that the city needed to have a referendum on the issue before R4 could begin. The vote was close with 1,024 votes in favor and 978 against R4. After the vote, the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority was formed. All of the members were white men. The project began and, due to eminent domain, the government could force the people of Newtown to sell their homes. They were offered rock bottom prices for their homes. Many people couldn't afford a new home and had to move into public housing projects and become dependent on the government. Likewise, many of the businesses of Newtown that were bought out could not afford to reestablish themselves. Kline's, a white-owned business, was actually one of the few businesses in the area that was able to reopen. The city later sold the land to commercial developers.
In early 2002, the Harrisonburg community discussed the possibility of creating a pedestrian mall downtown. Public meetings were held to discuss the merits and drawbacks of pursuing such a plan. Ultimately, the community decided to keep its Main Street open to traffic. From these discussions, however, a strong voice emerged from the community in support of downtown revitalization.
On July 1, 2003, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the mission of rejuvenating the downtown district.
In 2004, downtown was designated as the Harrisonburg Downtown Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places and a designated Virginia Main Street Community, with the neighboring Old Town Historic District residential community gaining historic district status in 2007. Several vacant buildings have been renovated and repurposed for new uses, such as the Hardesty-Higgins House and City Exchange, used for the Harrisonburg Tourist Center and high-end loft apartments, respectively.
In 2008, downtown Harrisonburg spent over $1 million in cosmetic and sidewalk infrastructure improvements (also called streetscaping and wayfinding projects). The City Council appropriated $500,000 for custom street signs to be used as "wayfinding signs" directing visitors to areas of interest around the city. Another $500,000 were used to upgrade street lighting, sidewalks, and landscaping along Main Street and Court Square.
In 2014, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance was named a Great American Main Street by the National Main Street Association and downtown was designated the first culinary district in the commonwealth of Virginia.
Norfolk southern also owns a small railyard in Harrisonburg. The Cheseapeke and Western corridor from Elkton to Harrisonburg has very high volumes of grain and ethanol. The railroad serves two major grain elevators inside the city limits. In May 2017 Norfolk Southern 51T derailed in Harrisonburg spilling corn into blacks run. No one was injured.
Shenandoah Valley Railroad interchanges with the NS on south side of Harrisonburg and with CSX and Buckingham branch in North Staunton.
Harrisonburg has won several awards in recent years, including "#6 Favorite Town in America" by Travel + Leisure in 2016, the "#15 Best City to Raise an Outdoor Kid" by Backpacker in 2009, and the "#3 Happiest Mountain Town" by Blue Ridge Country Magazine in 2016.
The creative class of Harrisonburg has grown alongside the revitalization of the downtown district. Contributing to Harrisonburg's cultural capital are a collection of education and art centers, residencies, studios, and artist-facilitated businesses, programs, and collectives.
Some of these programs include: Larkin Arts, a community art center that opened in 2012 and has four symbiotic components: an art supply store, a fine arts gallery, a school with three classrooms, and five private studio spaces.
Old Furnace Artist Residency (OFAR) and SLAG Mag: Artist residency and arts&culture quarterly zine focused on community engagement and social practice projects started in 2013.
The Super Gr8 Film Festival, founded in 2009. The 2013 festival featured more than 50 locally produced films, and all of the films in the festival were shot using vintage cameras and Super 8 film.
Arts Council of the Valley, including the Darrin-McHone Gallery and Court Square Theater, provides facilities and funding for various arts programs and projects.
OASIS Fine Art and Craft, opened in 2000, is a cooperative gallery of over 35 local artists and artisans exhibiting and selling their work. It offers fine hand-crafted pottery, jewelry, fiber art, wood, metal, glass, wearable art, paintings, and photography.
The Virginia Quilt Museum, established in 1995, is dedicated to preserving, celebrating, and nurturing Virginia's quilting heritage. It features a permanent collection of nearly 300 quilts, a Civil War Gallery, antique and toy sewing machines, and rotating exhibits from across the United States.
In addition to the Thomas Harrison House, Harrisonburg Downtown Historic District, and Old Town Historic District, the Anthony Hockman House, Rockingham County Courthouse, Lucy F. Simms School, Whitesel Brothers, and Joshua Wilton House are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 17.4 square miles (45.1 km2), of which 17.3 square miles (44.8 km2) is land and 0.1 square miles (0.3 km2) (0.3%) is water.
As of the census of 2010, 48,914 people, 15,988 households, and 7,515 families resided in the city. The population density was 2,811.1/mi2 (1087.0/km²). The 15,988 housing units averaged 918.9/mi2 (355.3/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 78.4% White, 6.4% Black or African American, 0.3% Native American, 3.5% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 8.2% from other races, and 3.1% from two or more races. Hispanics or Latinos of any race were 15.7% of the population, up from 8.85% according to the census of 2000.
Of the 15,988 households, 22.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 32.7% were married couples living together, 10.1% had a female householder with no husband present, and 53.0% were not families. About 27.3% of all households were made up of individuals, and 17.4% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.59, and the average family size was 3.06.
In the city, the population was distributed as 15.0% under the age of 18, 48.9% from 18 to 24, 21.2% from 25 to 44, 13.2% from 45 to 64, and 9.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 22.8 years. For every 100 females, there were 87.3 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $37,850, and for a family was $53,642. The per capita income for the city was $16,992. About 11.5% of families and 31.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 19.6% of those under age 18 and 9.5% of those age 65 or over.
Like most of the Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg has traditionally been a Republican stronghold. It was one of the first areas of Virginia where old-line Southern Democrats began splitting their tickets. The city went Republican at every presidential election from 1948 to 2004. In 2008, however, Barack Obama carried the city by a margin of 16 percent—exceeding the margin by which George W. Bush carried it four years earlier. The city has gone Democratic in every presidential election since then, and has become one of the few Democratic bastions in one of the more conservative parts of Virginia.
Serving about 4,400 students (K–12), Harrisonburg City Public Schools comprises six elementary schools, two middle schools, and a high school. Eastern Mennonite School, a private school, serves grades K–12 with an enrollment of about 386 students. Notwithstanding, the city has a 12% illiteracy rate, and less than 16% of residents have college degrees if one excludes the transient population of college students at JMU.
The climate in this area is characterized by brief hot, humid summers and generally mild to severe cool winters. Harrisonburg has a humid subtropical climate, Cfa on climate maps according to the Köppen climate classification but has clear 4 seasons that vary significantly, if not having brief changes from summer to winter. The USDA hardiness zone is 6b, which means average minimum winter temperature of −5 to 0 °F (−20.6 to −17.8 °C).
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