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September 12, 2014

The History Behind San Francisco’s Street Names

We love our history. In a city that ushers in the future with innovative technology, we are also just as much defined by our past. Look up and you'll see the well-preserved Victorians and Edwardians that dot our skyline. We celebrate milestones too. The Golden Gate Bridge turned 75 not too long ago and we held 75 different celebrations.

Our streets are also a celebrated part of our history. Not only because of the famous cinematic car chases that have taken place on them (Who can forget Steve McQueen in “Bullitt?”), but also for the bygone people and events for whom they are named. Here is the history behind the names of some our most popular streets:

9. Geary Boulevard

A main thoroughfare for locals and visitors alike, Geary Street snakes through the city from downtown to the Richmond neighborhood. The street is dotted with some of the city's best dim sum joints and is named after John W. Geary, the first mayor of San Francisco.

8. Van Ness Avenue

Van Ness Street is the city's life preserver. Thanks to the width of the street, the fire that ensued after the 1906 earthquake could not jump it, preserving the other half of the city from further damage. Van Ness Street is named after another mayor, James van Ness. 

7. Polk Street

Hop one street over to the east from Van Ness and you've hit the lively Polk Street, populated by many restaurants and bars, and spanning from Nob Hill through Russian Hill. Polk Street is named after James Polk, the U.S. President who led the U.S. to victory in the Mexican-American War, which is how California became part of the U.S.

6. Fillmore Street

Named after another president, Fillmore Street was the national center for jazz in the 1940s and 50s and dubbed the "Harlem of the West." Fillmore is littered with great music venues, boutique shops and delicious restaurants. The president the street is named after is Millard Fillmore, who officially admitted California as a state of the union.

5. The Embarcadero

A heavily-trafficked street, with a spectacular view that just got busier with the opening of the new home of the Exploratorium, the Embarcadero harkens back to the city's Spanish Roots. The word, Embarcadero, comes from the Spanish verb, embarcar, which means to embark.

4. Hyde Street

If you've seen a picture of a cable car traveling down the hill towards Fisherman's Wharf, then you know about Hyde Street. Named after George Hyde, a captain's clerk in the U.S. Navy, Hyde became San Francisco's third alcalde (the equivalent of mayor). 

3. Haight & Ashbury

The epicenter of the counter-culture movement and the Summer of Love, Haight and Ashbury have ties back to the city's early residents. Haight Street is presumably named after Henry Haight, although it is unclear because there were three Haight brothers. Henry Haight was an early pioneer of the city and the manager of Page, Bacon & Co, a reputable bank back in the day.

Ashbury Street is named after Munroe Ashbury, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 1864–1870.

2. Lombard Street

One of the curviest streets in the city (the curviest is actually Vermont Street in Potrero Hill) and the most popular street among visitors has no link to San Francisco. It is actually named after a street in Philadelphia.

1. Market Street

The main artery of the city, Market Street winds its way through everyone's day. Market has seen some history from the parades to marches to celebrations. So what's the history behind the name of our most important street? It is likely named after Market Street in Philadelphia too. Jasper O'Farrell, the civil engineer who surveyed the city in 1847 and named many of today's major streets, used to live there.

Wanna take a deeper dive into the history of our streets? Head over to Noah Veltman's map.

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