Juiz de Fora, also known as J.F., is a city in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, approximately from the state border with Rio de Janeiro. According to 2012 estimates the current population is about 525,225 inhabitants. The geographical area of the municipality is .
The city's location was a key factor in its economic and demographic development since it is situated between the three most important financial and economic metropolises of southeast Brazil (and also the three largest urban sprawls of the country): Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and São Paulo. Major highways connect Juiz de Fora with these three metropolitan areas, the most important being the BR 040 which connects Brasília with Rio de Janeiro via Belo Horizonte. The city is built on the Paraibuna, a major tributary of the Paraíba do Sul river.
The origins of Juiz de Fora can be traced back to the beginnings of the 18th century, when the Caminho Novo (New Way) road was opened linking Rio de Janeiro to the gold rush area of Minas Gerais around Vila Rica (now Ouro Preto). The region was covered with dense forest (hence its name; "Zona da Mata", Forest Zone). Despite the opening of the new route, the area remained largely uninhabited, and most of its scarce settlement was centered around the road itself. The first permanent inhabitants of the municipality were merchants and farmers who supplied the travelers' needs on the long road from the harbor to the gold region and vice-versa.
Further development would only take place after the decline of gold mining in the central zone of Minas Gerais. The capital previously invested in the mines was now invested in coffee plantations, and the region of Zona da Mata became a fertile ground to invest in. The position of the village then called Santo Antônio do Paraibuna was favorable due to the road connection with the capital of the country and its harbour.
In 1850, the small village was officially elevated to city status. Progress continued in 1861 with the completion of the first macadamized road in Latin America, the Estrada União e Indústria (Union and Industry), replacing the Caminho Novo. Its name reflected the new found wealth of the city, for industry replaced coffee-related agriculture as its economic heart. Five years later a new railway, the Estrada de Ferro Dom Pedro II reached the city and in 1889 the first hydroelectric powerplant of Latin America (Marmelos Zero) was built on the Paraibuna river, on the outskirts of the city, along the Estrada União e Indústria.
As both foreign and domestic capital fueled the industry boom, the city became a major center (it then became the largest urban area of the state); so much so that in the first decade of the 20th century, Juiz de Fora was among the main textile and industrial centers in South America, and in Brazil particularly, the city's wealth was second only to centers such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. As the coffee rush frontier moved southwestwards, it reached the state of São Paulo and its immensely fertile plateaus. As the State became the richest in the federation, industry flourished, as had happened to Juiz de Fora itself. The city of Juiz de Fora saw itself, then, as the only major industrial center in a state that was being much surpassed by São Paulo in industrial output and worse still, much of the wealth generated by the state (a large bulk by Juiz de Fora itself) was being used in the building of the new state capital, Belo Horizonte (replacing Ouro Preto, at the center of the gold region), founded by the end of the 19th century and intended to be the largest of the state, following the Brazilian and Latin-American tradition of centralization. The Great Depression of the 30's worsened the city's decadence, which would only be overcome five decades later. By the 1940s, the city had lost its nation-wide influence, due to the continued growth of Belo Horizonte and the loss of industry.
The city's decay can be seen in the figures for its population, which remained stagnant from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, the city started to experience new growth, which continues to this day. This new era began with the establishment of a federal university (UFJF) in the city and the decision by the Brazilian military junta, (1964–1985) to promote the city as a major military center. This sparked a phenomenon rarely experienced by post-industrial towns: the industrial rebirth of the city, this time following Brazilian industrialization itself, based on heavy-industry, such as steel and engineering.
Recently, the city seems to be experiencing a new era in its history, again following a boom in Brazilian economy, and is reinventing itself as a major center for services (such as telecommunications, with an important call center) and education (following the federal university, private colleges have been established in the city).
Today Juiz de Fora is an important commercial center for the surrounding region and is the core of an unofficial metropolitan area of more than 1 million inhabitants.