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September 21, 2015

San Francisco Neighborhoods: Where on Earth Did That Name Come From?

By some counts San Francisco has more than 140 different neighborhoods – some of which are more attitude than latitude. Names are often based on historic land grants, and occasionally coined by residents. To the first-time visitor, they can be a little confusing. To help you navigate some of our major neighborhoods, we consulted a number of sources including Gerald Adams’ “The Neighborhoods of San Francisco.” Adams, a former staff writer for the San Francisco Examiner and later a contributor to San Francisco Chronicle whose beat included Planning Commission hearings and urban planning, tried to clear up what he called “a mess” in a definite guide appearing as a supplement in 1977 to the San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle. We also turned to the San Francisco Almanac, published in 1995 by Gladys Hansen, the city archivist for the San Francisco Public Library for 47 years, as well as Wikipedia.

The neighborhoods below correspond to areas covered on our official maps which denote popular visitor attractions as well as content on our website. Just one more aside, many of the names are of Spanish origin including San Francisco, which is Spanish for St. Francis, known as the patron saint of animals and the environment.

Alamo Square
The setting for San Francisco’s famous “postcard row” of Victorians back dropped by downtown skyscrapers was named in the 1860s; Alamo is the Spanish word for cottonwood or poplar. 

The name for Bayview, one of the southeastern-most neighborhoods, is derived from an 1864 racetrack, Bay View Track.

Bernal Heights
Imagine owning 4,446 acres in present day San Francisco. According to Wikipedia this Mexican land grant was given to José Cornelio Bernal in 1839. The grant consisted of two grants: Rincon de las Salinas ("corner of a salty marsh" around Islais Creek) and Potrero Viejo ("old pasture"). Rincon de las Salinas encompassed the present day south San Francisco neighborhoods of Bernal Heights, Excelsior and the outer Mission. Potrero Viejo included today’s Bayview and Hunters Point.

Central Market
Carolyn Diamond, who has been with the Market Street Association for some 30 years, believes that San Francisco’s Market Street — and in this particular notation, we’re talking about the area referred to as Central or Mid-Market and more recently as the “Twitterhood” because of its high tech tenants — derives its name from Philadelphia’s main stem which was originally called High Street.

Castro is named for the street which bears the name of the family of Mexican general Jose Castro (1808-1860), this area northeast of Twin Peaks has been the center of San Francisco’s LGBT community since the 1970s. 

“Little China,” “Chinese Quarter,” “Little Canton” and as far back as the 1850s, Chinatown, the historic heart of San Francisco’s Chinese American community, grew up around China Street (now called Sacramento). 

Civic Center
City Hall and a number of federal and state buildings make this area the “civic” heart of the San Francisco where the business of being a city (and county) is handled.

Cole Valley
R. Beverly Cole, a former city appraiser circa 1916, is honored in this neighborhood bordering the Haight where the median value of homes is now $1.7 million. Cole would be a happy man. 

Cow Hollow
Named in the 1870s because of a proliferation of dairy farms in the area, this is now a playground for millennials who frequent the boutiques and bars along Union Street.

Adams defers to Hansen on this one and attributes the name to packs of dogs that once roamed the area. Today it’s attracting art galleries and performing arts groups and is the “Do” in DoReMi, the new nickname for a 10-block area that includes parts of Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and the Mission.

Running along the edge of San Francisco Bay, the Embarcadero derives its name from a Spanish word that means “landing” or “quay.” Nowadays more than 80 cruise ships call annually and ferries go to Marin County, Vallejo, Oakland, South San Francisco and Alameda.

In her book, Hansen conjectures that the name might be attributed to a Greek word, excelsior, which means “ever upward.” A popular sentiment in the 19th century, the name dates back to 1869 when the Excelsior Homestead Association was formed.

Named after Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the U.S. (July 9, 1850-March 4, 1853) the street supports a diverse range of businesses from jazz clubs to high end boutiques from its inception in the Lower Haight to where it ends in the Marina District. 

 Financial District
The Financial District is a little more straightforward than most; traditionally it refers to Montgomery Street between Market and Columbus. Bank of America and the Transamerica Pyramid are among the more notable structures in the area as well as the former home of the Pacific Stock Exchange at 301 Pine St.

Fisherman's Wharf
Fisherman's Wharf east of Aquatic Park dates to 1900; one of the most popular visitor attractions in the city, it is home to fishing boats, seafood restaurants and historic ships.

Glen Park
Easily reached by BART, Glen Park was the promotional name for this area picked by the Crocker Estate Company in 1910 and refers to a nearby canyon, or “glen” favored by local dog walkers (and the occasional coyote).

There is a Haight Street. There is an Ashbury Street. And the intersection where Haight-Ashbury meets has come to symbolize a transformative era in San Francisco history. The area became famous in the late 1960s when Flower Power, the Summer of Love and hippie culture changed the city and many would agree, the U.S. Along with the Outside Lands Commission, Henry H. Haight, the 10th governor of California (Dec. 5, 1867-Dec. 8, 1871), negotiated the land deal permitting the establishment of nearby Golden Gate Park in 1870. Stanyan was named for one of the commissioners.

Hayes Valley
Named in 1850 for Col. Thomas Hayes, a landowner and developer, Hayes Valley near the Civic Center is lined with galleries, book nooks, cafes and stores with carefully curated wares.

Hunters Point
Not named for hunters as many have surmised. After many decades of Spanish appellations, it was dubbed Hunters Point in the 1860s after two local landowners: Robert E. and Philip Hunters.

Developed in the 1930s the oval footprint of the Ingleside Racetrack which opened here in 1895 is still visible in the neighborhood around Urbano Drive. The word itself comes from British dialect meaning “fireside.”

According to the Japantown Merchants Association, many Japanese and Japanese Americans relocated to this area near Geary and Laguna after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Originally Japantown was referred to as “Nihonjin Machi” or Japanese People’s Town which spanned 30 blocks. After WWII when many of the former residents had relocated because of the internment camps, the neighborhood changed to reflect the more dispersed character of the postwar community, from Nihonjin Machi to Nihonmachi, or Japantown.

One of the more aptly named neighborhoods in San Francisco, the Marina which gets its name from the Spanish or Italian word for shore or coast, and more recently as a dock for small boats has an abundance of all three. 

Mission Bay
Salt marshes and lagoons were the order of the day until 1998 when city officials focused on the area as an opportunity for development. It is now a medical and biotechnology headquarters and the future home of the Golden State Warriors.

Mission Creek
Much of the creek is channeled through underground culverts except for a small section that drains into China Basin.

Mission District
Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded June 29, 1776, under the direction of Father Junipero Serra and is both the oldest original intact mission in California and the oldest building in San Francisco. This building is the origin of the Mission District.

Nob Hill
Home to luxurious hotels and crisscrossed by two cable car lines, it was once home of Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, and three other wealthy members of the Big Four (Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker). The word “nabob,” an Anglo-Indian word for a conspicuously wealthy man, was adapted for the posh population and eventually shortened to Nob Hill.

Noe Valley
José de Jesús Noé, the last Mexican alcade (mayor) of Yerba Buena (now known as San Francisco), owned what is now called Noe Valley as part of his Rancho San Miguel. He sold the land in 1854 to a Mormon immigrant, John Meirs Horner.

The folks at Hoodline did a lot of digging to source the name of this neighborhood which is shorthand for North of the Panhandle, the long “panhandle” of Golden Gate Park which extends about eight blocks before it joins the main park. The name has been around for a long time but became more popular in 2006 when the popular restaurant, Nopa, opened.

North Beach
Visitors should note that there is no beach in North Beach; this Italian-accented neighborhood gets its name because it follows the northern shore of San Francisco Bay. 

North Point
This is a bit of a guess on our part, but this street which cuts through Fisherman’s Wharf probably refers to the North Point dock on the north side of Telegraph Hill built in 1853.

Pacific Heights
After a long perilous journey Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan entered unfamiliar waters and dubbed them pacific, “peaceful.” Combine that with the lofty heights of this prestigious neighborhood, and you have the name, Pacific Heights.

 Parnassus Heights
Greek in origin, this hill is only about 400 feet high vs. Mt. Parnassus in central Greece which soars more than 8,000 feet. 

Park Merced
A planned community near San Francisco State University derives its name from Lake Merced which was originally christened Laguna de Nuestra Señora de la Merced (Lady of Mercy) by Captain Don Bruno de Heceta in 1775.

Polk Gulch
This section of Polk Street, named for James K. Polk, the 11th president of the U.S (March 4, 1845-March 4, 1849), falls between Geary and Union streets.

Potrero Hill
Spanish missionaries used to graze cattle on this hill and dubbed it Potrero Nuevo which means “new pasture.”

This word in Spanish refers to a fortified area or fortress. The Presidio of San Francisco site dates to 1776 and was originally a Spanish fort established by Juan Bautista de Anza.

According to Hansen, early maps of the area designated this as the “Great Sand Waste,” all the more reason to enjoy Golden Gate Park’s lush green acres. One of the neighborhood’s earliest residents, George Turner Marsh, an Australian immigrant and art dealer, called his home “the Richmond House” after a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.

Russian Hill
As the story goes, several Russian sailors were buried here. Settlers in the Gold Rush era discovered a small Russian cemetery at the top of the hill.

Old-timers used to refer to anything south of Market Street, as “south of the slot.” Author Jack London, who was born in this area at 615 Third St., wrote in the May 1909 edition of The Saturday Evening Post: “The Slot was an iron crack that ran along the center of Market street, and from the Slot arose the burr of the ceaseless, endless cable that was hitched at will to the cars it dragged up and down.”

South Beach
Most sources describe this as a newly developed area; however, it does include the South End Historic District. Airbnb cites “great transit, stunning views and dining” as the hallmarks of the area which includes AT&T Park and a marina.

Ironically one of the foggier neighborhoods in the city is called the Sunset. Historians, according to Wikipedia, differ on the origin of the name. Developer Aurelius Buckingham may have coined the name or it could stem from the California Midwinter Exposition in 1894 also known as “Sunset City.” 

This is an old term and visitors can learn more about the origin of the name at the Tenderloin Museum; a neighborhood in New York known for graft and/or the “soft underbelly” akin to the cut of meat is one theory. Others attribute the name to a police captain who claimed he’d be eating a better grade of meat when he was transferred to this New York neighborhood.

Treasure Island
This mostly man-made island was the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition commemorating the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge; the name is homage to Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of buried gold and buccaneers.

Twin Peaks
This one is fairly self-explanatory. Look up Market Street and there they are – two peaks, north and south, each about 900 feet (274 meters) high. At the beginning of the 18th century, Spanish conquistadors called the area “Los Pechos de la Chola” or “Breasts of the Indian Maiden” and the area was used for ranching.  

Union Square
Named for pro-Union demonstrations on the eve of the Civil War, Union Square was built and dedicated by San Francisco’s Mayor John Geary in 1850.

Visitacion Valley
Back to San Francisco’s Spanish heritage to a word that means “visitation.” The valley name comes from a large land grant called Rancho Cañada de Guadalupe la Visitación y Rodeo Viejo.

West Portal
The Twin Peaks tunnel opened in 1918; used by several Muni streetcar lines (K, L and M) it exits in this neighborhood at the “west portal,” or entrance.

Western Addition
Everything west from Larkin Street was designated the Western Addition in the 1850s due to the Van Ness Ordinance. Some 500 blocks fell under this measure.

Yerba Buena
Yerba Buena was the original name of the Mexican settlement that became San Francisco. It comes from a plant (Yerba Buena or “good herb”) which was plentiful in the area.  

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