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How San Francisco neighborhoods got their names

by admin on July 9, 2018
How San Francisco neighborhoods got their names
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There’s a bit of a cold war brewing over the East Cut and whether or not San Franciscans will accept this moniker for the neighborhood, or indeed if there’s any need for the new name.

But private battles of neighborhood names are older in the region than San Francisco itself. And trying to suss out precisely where such names come from can provoke heated debate.

The truth is that there are no unimpeachably sound or agreed upon explanations for all of the many, many neighborhood names in San Francisco. As such, a truly definitive list isn’t possible. But we’ve compiled as close to the real deal as is possible.

Of course, some disagreement remains likely, so chime in if anything appears to be missing or just amiss.


  • Alamo Square: Alamo Square Park began as a mere watering hole on a horse trail, marked by a standout poplar tree. San Francisco Mayor James Van Ness created both the park and its name in 1857, according to the San Francisco Parks Alliance. “Alamo” means “poplar” in Spanish.
  • Ashbury Heights: According to the Library of Congress, nearby Ashbury Street is named for Munroe Ashbury, former member of the Board of Supervisors.
  • Balboa Park: The park itself is probably named after early 16th century Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa—not to be confused with the park of the same name in San Diego. (Which was definitely named after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa).
  • Bayview: Naturally, the name comes by way of the proximity to the bay, although the San Francisco Travel Association credits the long lost Bay View Racetrack with pioneering the moniker.
  • Bernal Heights: Wealthy rancher José Cornelio Bernal once owned a quarter of present-day San Francisco, conferred on him via a land grant from Mexico in 1839. According to a San Francisco Chronicle obituary, some portion of the land stayed in the family until 1926 and the death of Bernal’s grandson of the same name.
  • The Castro: Several-times governor of various parts of California, General Jose Castro seems to have had a somewhat luckless life, which included losing California to John Sloat and John Fremont with hardly any opposition and then later being assassinated by bandits.
The Castro.
Photo by Eddie Hernandez Photography/Shutterstock
  • Chinatown: The city experimented with a few variations on the theme in the 1850s before “Chinatown” eventually stuck. Once upon a time, Sacramento Street was known as China Street.
  • Civic Center: Present-day Civic Center resulted from an $8.8 million bond ($227 million in modern currency) approved by San Francisco voters in 1912, after the 1906 earthquake devastated the previous Civic Center.
  • Clarendon Heights: Named after nearby Clarendon Avenue, but from where that name derived seems a mystery.
  • Cole Valley: The SF Streets database credits 19th century San Francisco doctor Francisco Cole as the most likely namesake for the street and surrounding area.
  • Corona Heights: Corona Heights Park started off as a quarry dubbed Rock Hill. According to SF Parks Alliance, the city conferred the present name on it when buying land for park space in 1941.
  • Cow Hollow: Yes, once upon a time most of present day Cow Hollow was dairy farms—and, naturally, there were cows.
  • Crocker-Amazon: The Crocker part possibly comes from local railroad tycoon Charles Crocker, who once owned most of this land. Amazon Street may have gotten its name from the Amazon women of Greek myth, whom 16th century Spanish novelist Montalvo recalled in his novel about a far-off island nation ruled by warrior women and dubbed “California,” which is from where the name first came.
  • Diamond Heights: The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency picked the sparkling name when it created the neighborhood from scratch in the 1950s. If there was any particular reason for the diamond moniker—except for the chicness factor—it’s not evident.
Diamond Heights.
Photo by CalBookAddict
  • Dogpatch: Similarly, Dogpatch is proverbial for the nonsensicality of its mysterious name. Other than general speculation that there must once have been a noteworthy number of dogs around, there’s little use in arguing about this one. Another speculation is that the name was derived from barflies who used to frequent an area watering hole.
  • Dolores Heights: One day in 1776, a chaplain accompanying Spanish explorer Juan Batista de Anza’s expedition wrote in his diary, “We arrived at a beautiful creek, which because it was Friday of Sorrows, we called the Arroyo de Los Dolores.” Although it’s no longer clear where Dolores Creek once was, the name has endured long after it vanished.
  • Duboce Triangle: Spanish-American war veteran Victor Duboce was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1899 but served less than a year before dying. Almost immediately after his death, neighbors began stumping to name a park after him, so great was his reputation at the time.
  • Embarcadero: No mystery here: the Spanish word “embarcar” means simply “to embark.”
  • Excelsior: The Excelsior Homestead dates to at least 1869 in surviving San Francisco records. Where that got its name in the first place is less clear, although the word itself is Latin and means (roughly) “ever upward.”
  • The Fillmore: Fillmore Street is named for Millard Fillmore, the former U.S. president who admitted California into the Union.
  • Forest Hill: The name says it all: When opened up for development in the early 1900s, it was mostly forestland.
  • Glen Park: Similarly, the “Glen” name is just a reference to the area’s valley geography.
  • The Haight: Banker Henry Haight came to San Francisco in 1850 and later served as governor. He is credited with founding the University of California.
The Haight.
Photo by Irra/Shutterstock
  • Hayes Valley: San Francisco County Clerk Thomas Hayes owned and developed the land around this neighborhood in the 1860s.
  • Hunters Point: The three Hunter brothers bought this land from the aforementioned Bernal in the 19th century. Note that it’s never “Hunter’s Point”—just “Hunters Point” without the possessive.
  • Ingleside: According to the Western Neighborhoods Project, New York transplant Cornelius Stagg opened his Ingleside (“fireside”) Inn here in 1885. Which, alas, means we were this close to a neighborhood called “Staggstown,” but someone dropped the ball.
  • Jackson Square: As most people could guess, Jackson Street is named for Andrew Jackson, former U.S. president and headliner on the $20 bill.
  • Japantown: Originally “Nihonjin Machi,” San Francisco’s first Japanese enclave settled in what’s SoMa today. After the 1906 earthquake, survivors relocated near the present locale.
  • Jordan Park: Named after late 19th century landowner James Clark Jordan. Imagine if modern San Francisco tycoons got to name neighborhoods after themselves like that: Benioff Heights, Thiel Place, Mount Zuckerberg.
  • Laguna Honda: Yes, there was once a lagoon in this neighborhood, although it’s long since disappeared, along with the Gold Rush speculators who first built the Laguna Honda “almshouse” here.
  • Lake Merced: Another product of Spanish exploration and colonization, they dubbed the namesake lake “The Lake of Our Lady of Mercy” in either 1774 or 1775. (Accounts vary.)
Lake Merced.
Photo by Isabell Schulz/Wikimedia
  • Laurel Heights: In April of 1867, the Daily Alta California newspaper ran the following item: “Lone Mountain Cemetery has ceased to exist as articles of incorporation were filed yesterday by several prominent citizens by which a certain portion of Lone Mountain Cemetery has become legally into possession of the name of Laurel Hill Cemetery. The latter is a much prettier name, but it will be a long time before this generation will consent to the change.”
  • Little Hollywood: Disappointingly, SFGate says that the name stuck simply because folks in the early 20th century thought the homes here resembled those in Southern California.
  • Lone Mountain: It’s more of a hill than a mountain ,of course, but apparently it stood out enough in the relatively flat surroundings to garner a nickname. Note that the aforementioned Lone Mountain Cemetery is probably the reason the name endured.
  • The Marina: There’s a marina here.
  • The Mission: There’s a California mission here.
  • Mission Bay: Modern Mission Bay doesn’t seem particularly close to the Mission, but much of the intervening neighborhoods didn’t exist at the time the name came up, and at one time the waters extended much further inland.
  • Mount Davidson: Adolph Sutro named the peak after George Davidson, who was a founding member of the Sierra Club. Despite the photographic evidence, he was not also a time traveling James Cromwell.
  • Nob Hill: People still argue about this one, but the most popular explanation is that “Nob” is a snarky elision of “nabob,” in reference to the wealthy tycoons who built their mansions here.
  • Noe Valley: Named for alcalde (mayor) of Yerba Buena Jose de Jesus Noe, who had so many great names it’s amazing they managed to pick just one.
North Beach.
Photo by Marshall P/Shutterstock
  • North Beach: There hasn’t been a beach here in generations, of course. That’s infill for you.
  • NoPa: Neighbors usually resist when realtors try to create new neighborhood designations by sheer power of repetition, and many locals still cringe at the NoPa name. But Hoodline contends the name is actually a century old, so who knows.
  • Oceanview: A strange story, as this neighborhood was once called Lakeview, a reference to nearby Lake Geneva. But Lake Geneva no longer exists, so they changed the name to Oceanview, even though only a small part of the neighborhood affords a view of the ocean.
  • Pacific Heights: Note that Magellan conferred the name “Pacific” on the waters of the Western Hemisphere, meaning “peaceful.”
  • Polk Gulch: U.S. Pesident James K. Polk presided over the Mexican-American War, which, with the benefit of hindsight, probably wasn’t such a great thing. But it did mark the transfer of California to the United States.
  • Portola: Gaspar de Portola founded both San Diego and Monterey on his 18th century expedition north through California, which eventually terminated near the present day Golden Gate.
  • Potrero Hill: Turns out the “pasture hill” name is pretty literal, as former alcalde Don Francisco de Haro used the land granted to him to graze cattle. Lucky break that the neighborhood isn’t “Cow Hill.”
  • Presidio Heights: According to Gary Kamiya’s book Cool Gray City of Love, the original Spanish Presidio only survived a couple of years. Turns out adobe architecture was not the ticket for SF’s foggy climate.
Presidio Heights.
Photo by Radoslaw Lecyk/Shutterstock
  • The Richmond: Another one nobody can quite agree upon, the most often cited story is that an Australian immigrant named the neighborhood after his native city, a suburb of Melbourne. Previously, all of the far western reaches were known as the Outside Lands.
  • Rincon Hill: “Rincon” means “corner” in Spanish. However, the geography that provoked the name to begin with no longer exists.
  • Russian Hill: Possibly the most oddball legacy of the lot, Gold Rush settlers discovered a cemetery atop this hill with Russian names inscribed, apparently the remains of unlucky sailors from the westward seas.
  • Sea Cliff: Although now one of the most wealthy SF neighborhoods, in the 19th century what would one day become Sea Cliff was mostly just a village for Chinese immigrant fisherman. “China Beach” could just as easily have become the name of the entire neighborhood rather than just the beach itself.
  • SoMa: For whatever it’s worth, SOMA magazine published a piece noting that editor-in-chief Ali Ghanbarian has long credited himself with making the “SoMa” portmanteau popular. Take from that what you will.
  • South Beach: The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency built South Beach Harbor in 1986, and as the premiums of the surrounding blocks rose they adopted the name to distinguish itself from nearby SoMa.
  • South Park: According to SF Recreation and Parks, San Francisco’s oldest park was “originally conceived as a London-style city garden.” Now, of course, it’s not even particularly far south, by the city’s present borders.
universal play jungle gym
South Park.
Photo by Patricia Chang
  • St. Francis Wood: Italian friar Saint Francis of Assissi, for whom the tony neighborhood is named, is also the namesake for San Francisco.
  • Sunnyside: German immigrant cum developer Behrend Joost, the “Father of Southwest San Francisco,” seemed to be fond of the Sunnyside moniker, naming two of his companies “Sunny Side” before granting the name to the neighborhood.
  • The Sunset: Once, this westernmost neighborhood was actually called “Carville,“ as early SF bohemians built homes out of decommissioned streetcars and other vehicles. The Sunset moniker was the brainchild of later developers casting around for a marketable name.
  • Telegraph Hill: Originally it was just “Loma Alta”—literally “high hill.” But apparently that was too obvious, so the telegraph moniker came by way of the old semaphore that long sat at the peak.
  • The Tenderloin: Named for the neighborhood in New York City, there’s a longstanding dispute over precisely what it means. Popular myth has it that beat cops made extra money for steak dinners working here, though whether they were eating off of hazard pay or bribes isn’t clear. The Tenderloin Museum, on the other hand, suggests that the name refers to the city’s “underbelly.”
  • Treasure Island: The island could hardly have less to do with the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, but even so here it is.
  • Twin Peaks: According SF Recreation and Parks, the Spanish originally dubbed Twin Peaks “Los Pechos de la Choca,” which translates into “the Breasts of the Maiden.” Just “Twin Peaks” is a little nondescript by comparison, but who can blame them?
Twin Peaks.
Photo by Jose Luis Stephens/Shutterstock
  • Union Square: During the Civil War, rabble rousing minister Thomas Starr King would harangue the masses here, calling for an end to slavery and victory for the Union. Maybe the fact that both of those occasions came to pass is the reason the name hung around.
  • Visitacion Valley: Another neighborhood named for the land grant rancho that once stood here, in this case Rancho Cañada de Guadalupe, La Visitacion y Rodeo Viejo.
  • West Portal: Named for the terminus of the Twin Peaks Tunnel. Which poses a Schrodinger’s Cat-style paradox: While the tunnel is closed, is the neighborhood still there?
  • Western Addition: The city created the Western Addition in the mid-19th century as a response to squatters creating ad hoc settlements outside the city’s westernmost borders.
  • Yerba Buena: Yerba Buena is the last holdout of the city of San Francisco’s original name. It translates to “good herb,” which, of course, provokes dank snickering today, but the reference is actually to the wild mint that used to grow on the hillsides.
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