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November 21, 2014
Mission Creek

Where San Francisco Neighborhoods Got Their Names Part 2

This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.

The names of San Francisco’s various neighborhoods are important. They not only tell you where you are on a map, they often involve interesting stories about the history of the area. Here is a second survey of San Francisco place names. You can read the first part here.

Bernal Heights

Bernal Heights and its eponymous hill are named for José Cornelio Bernal, grandson of one of the soldiers in the De Anza expedition that established the Spanish presence – including the Presidio and Mission Dolores – in San Francisco. Bernal was one of the lucky winners in the Mexican land grant lottery. In 1839 he was given claim by the governor of Alta California to a giant 4,000+ acre rancho that encompassed most of the south of the present-day city. Bernal Hill, however, has had a few nicknames over the years. “Red Hill,” which arose during the Vietnam War era because of a strong antiwar sentiment among the residents, is a personal favorite. It was also known as “Nanny Goat Hill” because of the goats that used to graze here, and possibly because it was viewed as something of a geographic bookend to Billy Goat Hill just over the way in Noe Valley.

The Excelsior

I once lived at the extreme southern edge of San Francisco. I jokingly referred to the area as “Upper Daly City,” but truthfully I was never sure if I lived in the Excelsior or Crocker-Amazon, and anytime the subject came up with other San Franciscans it nearly always resulted in an argument. That’s probably because I kind of lived in both. Along with Crocker-Amazon, the Excelsior District encompasses the Mission Terrace, Outer Mission, Portola, and, of course, Excelsior neighborhoods. This is because of a quirky San Francisco invention of the 1860s. Homestead associations were a way for developers who wanted to build up outlying areas of the city to do so while mitigating their risk. The associations operated like a joint stock corporation and enabled investors to pool their resources and snatch up large parts of the former ranchos at, as one directory at the time put it, “wholesale prices.” They would then survey the land, lay a street grid, file the resulting map with the city, and maybe even build a few houses. These associations were eventually divided into the neighborhoods we know today. Most of them, anyway. The Excelsior District, perhaps due to its location on the very southern periphery of the city, managed to maintain its moniker even as neighborhoods developed within its borders.

Mission Bay

San Francisco’s newest neighborhood was an actual body of water called Mission Bay until the Southern Pacific railroad began to fill it in during the late 1800s. This process was helped considerably when the city found itself with a great deal of debris in 1906. The area served as a rail yard for much of the twentieth century, but was an underused hole in the map by the 1970s. After a couple decades of corporate and bureaucratic hemming and hawing, the plan for the neighborhood as it has become was approved in 1998, and then the former bay, landfill, and deserted rail yard blossomed into the luxury-condominium-packed biotech capital of the California we know today.

Noe Valley

Along with pretty much all of the southern part of San Francisco that hadn’t already been handed over to José Bernal, Noe Valley was part of the 4,443-acre Rancho San Miguel bestowed upon José de Jesús Noé, the once, future, and final alcalde (mayor) of what was then called Yerba Buena, in 1845. Noé used the rancho mostly as an ATM, selling off pieces large and small when he needed cash. The part that eventually became Noe Valley was sold to early Mormon immigrant John Meirs Horner in 1853 and was originally called Horner’s Addition. Parts of Noe Valley are still listed by the San Francisco Assessor’s Office as “Horner’s Addition East Historic District.” Once streetcar lines began to tie the neighborhood to the rest of the city in the 1880s, row after row of Victorians sprung up filled largely by Irish and German immigrants who settled on the name Noe Valley in the waning years of the nineteenth century.

OMI (Ocean View/Merced Heights/Ingleside/Ingleside Terraces)

OMI is the Voltron of San Francisco neighborhoods. It’s comprised of four smaller, distinct neighborhoods that banded together largely to voice their concerns over quality-of-life issues in the 1960s. If you ever have occasion to talk aloud about this area, be sure to sound out each letter and not pronounce it “oh-me.”

The San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, along with the Railroad Homestead and City Land Associations, jumpstarted the settlement of what was then the middle of nowhere. After the railroad built a couple of train stations in the vicinity in 1864, investors formed homestead companies and began surveying and mapping in 1867. Prior to the railroad’s arrival, developers had tried to sell the idea of San Miguel City but no one bought it. Still, for about 10 years, the neighborhood and its train station were called San Miguel. As they had been using the store-brand labels of either the “Railroad Homestead Tract” or the “City Land Property,” it was a step up to use that of the old rancho (yes, another land grant). At some point around 1880 the name Ocean View stuck. There’s not really much of a story behind it, as it appears to stem from the fact that as passengers headed south they got their first view of the Pacific from that station.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, someone finally got around to building homes in the San Miguel City subdivision. That, and another small subdivision called Columbia Heights, along with the empty ridgeline for which the neighborhood is named, would eventually all come to be called Merced Heights once the neighborhood filled in during the postwar population boom in the late 1940s.

Ingleside gets its name from a roadhouse, The Ingleside Inn, built in 1885. At the time, Ocean Avenue was a dirt track called Ocean House Road and one of the highlights of the area was the abundance of wildflowers. Apparently one of the really fun things to do with your sweetheart in the 1800s was to take the buggy out for fresh air and a hearty round of flower picking. As there was nothing much else in the neighborhood to name it after, it took on the name of the inn. In 1890, Adolph Sutro, who basically owned the entire west side of the city, began to develop the area in earnest, giving it the street grid it has today. He tried to name the area Lakeview (and Grand Ocean Boulevard) but it didn’t catch on very well. In 1895 the Ingleside Racetrack opened and the name for the now-growing neighborhood (and its main street, Ocean Avenue) was set. Ingleside Terraces, a later development planned to be more upscale than its namesake neighbor, was built on the grounds of the short-lived racetrack in the 1910s.

Visitacion Valley

Possibly named for a hallucination, Visitacion Valley has been known by that designation since 1777. The story goes that a group of Franciscan friars got lost in the fog (nice to know it’s an old tradition) on their way to Mission Dolores. When the fog cleared, they saw a beautiful valley and maybe also the Blessed Virgin Mary herself chillin’ on a rock. It’s more probable that the name comes from the fact that this “visitation” supposedly occurred on the BVM’s feast day according to the Catholic calendar. Part of Visitacion Valley is known as Little Hollywood because the turrets, arched windows, and other distinct architectural elements on the houses are said to be reminiscent of those in Los Angeles. Of course, there’s also a garbage dump there, so make of that what you will. 

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