How San Francisco's Neighborhoods Got Their Names
San Francisco’s modern history began after the United States claimed California during the Mexican-American War in 1846. The city was originally known as Yerba Buena until Lt. Washington A. Bartlett renamed it the following year. Since then, the city’s seven by seven miles have divided into distinct neighborhoods that have witnessed the height of the Gold Rush to LGBT rights to the current tech boom. But do you know how the city’s neighborhoods got their names? Here’s an extensive (if not quite comprehensive) list of the City by the Bay's origins.
This hyphenated neighborhood is located at the southeastern point of San Francisco. Bayview presumably comes from its proximity to the Bay. Hunters Point is named after John, Phillip, and Robert Hunter, three brothers who acquired José Cornelio Bernal’s land in 1842.
Bernal Heights used to be part of Rincon de las Salinas and Potrero Nuevo. In 1839, the Mexican government granted the land to Jose Cornelio Bernal, a Spanish soldier who was part of the Anza expedition. The land was divided in the 1860s. Soon after, Irish immigrants inhabited the land as dairy farmers.
The Castro is San Francisco’s LGBT mecca, but its name is derived from a Commanding General from the Mexican-American War, José Castro. He led the opposition to the American occupation with Juan B. Alvarado, who served as California’s governor between 1836 and 1842.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest and oldest in North America. The first two Chinese immigrants arrived on the Eagle, an American brig, in 1848. The first Asian church in North America, Old St. Mary’s, was built in 1853. Of course, people came for the Gold Rush, but other immigrants made the journey after natural disasters hit China in quick succession after their loss to Great Britain in the first Opium War.
In the mid-1800s, this neighborhood on the northeastern side of the city was called Spring Valley for its freshwater springs. But it quickly became known for something else: dairy farming. Even though the cows are gone, the name Cow Hollow stuck.
This area is named after Charles Crocker, the man who founded the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s, and was one of the Big Four in Nob Hill. The neighborhood is also named after Amazon Street in the Excelsior District.
Diamond Heights was the last undeveloped area of Rancho San Miguel. However, after the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was established in 1950, this area’s 300 acres became its first development project. Using a combination of federal, state, city, and county funds, the agency called the area Diamond Heights.
The Dogpatch was called "Butchertown" until the 1960s. At the time, slaughterhouses covered the neighborhood. However, it’s unclear how it became known as the Dogpatch. One rumor is hungry canines waited for scraps of meat outside the abattoirs.
Victor Donglaim Duboce was a lieutenant colonel during the Spanish-American War, eventually elected to be part of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After he died in 1900, the other Supervisors named this patch of land after him.
Spanish for "wharf," the Embarcadero saw more than 700 vessels enter the waterfront district between April and December 1849. The Gold Rush wasn’t the only appeal for residents to set up camp here. It served as one of the Barbary Coast’s premiere sites for saloons and prostitution until 1911. Mayor James Rolph cleaned up the area, favoring a produce district over debauchery.
The Excelsior was part of the Rancho Rincon de las Salinas Y Potrero Viejo. The name Excelsior Homestead was filed at city hall on April 15, 1869.
After the United States took San Francisco from Mexico in 1847, the traditional communal landholding system ended. The town commons and waterfront were auctioned off and land was quickly bought. But the Financial District sits on what used to be Yerba Buena Cove. It was filled in the 1850s as San Franciscans abandoned their ships to take part in the Gold Rush and the area quickly became the city’s financial center.
Most locals avoid Fisherman’s Wharf. Aside from astounding views of Alcatraz, it’s littered with novelty shops and souvenirs. But the incredible boats that line the Bay showcase its history. They belong to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Italian fishermen who were drawn to San Francisco during the Gold Rush.
Forest Hill exists on the south and west sides of Twin Peaks. It was originally called Mount Parnassus in 1886 when Adolph Sutro planned for thousands of Bluegum eucalyptus trees to be planted in celebration of Arbor Day. However, 12 years after Sutro died in 1898, his heirs hired A.S. Baldwin to assess the land. He eventually bought the area to be developed by the Newell-Murdoch Company into a residence park, completed in 1913. It became known as Forest Hill for its pines, cypress, and eucalyptus trees.
Golden Gate Park
Golden Gate Park was a wasteland of dunes owned by the United States government until the City and County of San Francisco’s petition for it succeeded in 1866. Surprisingly, the term “Golden Gate,” which is also the name of San Francisco’s famous bridge, doesn’t come from the Gold Rush. Its origins come from John C. Fremont naming the Golden Gate Strait in his 1848 memoirs.
San Francisco’s hippie epicenter got its hyphenated name from two men: Henry Haight, a banker who became the 10th governor of California in 1867, and Munroe Ashbury, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors between 1864 and 1870. Both men were actively involved in the development of Golden Gate Park.
This high-end area of San Francisco used to be full of prostitution and crime. It was named after an Irish immigrant, Colonel Michael Hayes, who allegedly dueled with pistols and supported slavery. He constructed a beautiful Victorian home in the 1880s for individuals to enjoy their vices, but he also had ulterior motives: The home was a bid to extend a streetcar line into the area.
Ingle is Celtic for "fireplace," while an ingleside is the area beside it. That’s why Cornelius Stagg named his new roadhouse The Ingleside Inn in 1885. Within a few years, locals referred to the whole area as Ingleside.
Lakeshore gets its name for its proximity to Lake Merced. Originally named “Laguna de Nuestra Senora de la Merced” (“The Lake of Our Lady of Mercy”) by Captain Don Bruno de Heceta in 1775, the surrounding area was developed in the 1950s after the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department acquired jurisdiction from the Public Utilities Commission.
Directly west of Cow Hollow overlooking the Bay is the Marina. Before its stunning houses were built, it consisted of tidal marshlands and dunes. After the devastating 1906 earthquake decimated parts of the city, residents gathered debris and put it here. It became the area’s foundation. In 1915, the Marina served as the location of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Its close proximity to the water and harbors helped inspire San Franciscans to rebuild and grow their city.
Father Palou was a Spanish priest in the 18th century. He established a church on June 29, 1776 at Laguna de Dolores. It became the first building in the city and was named Mission Dolores. A few years later in 1783, the church moved to what we now know as 16th and Dolores. It’s the base of the Mission today.
Mission Bay describes the neighborhood’s location, which is east of Mission and west of the Bay. The area’s development started in 1998 and showcases San Francisco’s radical growth due to the Internet, with start-up offices replacing the neighborhood’s former rail yards.
Nob Hill is named after its early settlers from the late 1800s. They were reportedly a highly successful, criminal bunch. “Nob” comes from Nabob, a Hindu word describing wealthy, powerful Europeans making their fortunes in the East. The “Nobs” included “Bonanza King” James Flood and James Fair. But perhaps most important were Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Leland Stanford. They were known as the Big Four, a group that invested in the first intercontinental railroad. The neighborhood remains affluent to this day (locals sometimes refer to it as “Snob Hill”).
Pio Pico, the Mexican governor of California in 1846, gave approximately one-sixth of San Francisco to Jose de Jesus Noe. The land was called Rancho San Miguel before Noe began to sell it in 1852. Today, the land he owned includes Noe Valley, the Castro, Glen Park, and more.
In its early days, North Beach was an actual beach until the coast was augmented. Immigrants from Europe, South America, and the Australian penal colonies made their way to the Barbary Coast’s North Point docks. As such, its name is a geographical marker for the neighborhood’s spot in the Bay. The late 1800s saw an influx of Italians making their way to the area, also making it San Francisco’s Little Italy. According to legend, the Italian-Americans allegedly saved the area, draping their houses in wine-soaked blankets to avoid fires caused by the 1906 earthquake.
Pacific Heights is south of the Marina and stands tall at 371 feet. Similar to Russian Hill and Nob Hill, the early residents of the late 1800s were very wealthy. They made their way to the area after the cable-car line was built to the neighborhood.
Don Francisco de Haro, the former Alcalde of Yerba Buena, acquired a land grant in 1835 to graze cattle from the Mission, which sits directly west of the neighborhood. It was called Potrero Nuevo then, which translates to "New Pasture." The area eventually dropped its nature-inspired surname when the city’s mayor, Dr. John Townsend, divided the land into a grid in 1849. Companies like the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company and the Western Sugar refinery made the area their industrial base. Potrero stands 300 feet high.
Presidio means "fortress" in Spanish. Established in 1776, it’s the oldest installation in the western part of the United States. It initially served as an outpost for Spain’s military until Mexico took it over. Twenty four years later, America gained control in 1846. The Presidio was an active installation until it was passed over to the National Park Service in 1994. Two years later, Congress developed a federal agency to preserve its historical and scenic integrity.
An Australian-born art dealer, George Turner Marsh, thought the Inner and Outer Richmond resembled sand dunes from Richmond, Australia. At least that’s how one story goes. Others credit a man named George Fletcher for coming up with the name. The area rose to prominence after the 24th mayor of San Francisco, Adolph Sutro, built transportation services to it.
Russian Hill is known for Lombard Street’s sharp curves, beautiful architecture, and cable cars. It originated in 1850 when a minister, Bayard Taylor, discovered seven marked graves at the top of the hill, which sits at 343 feet. Little is known about who the buried men were. Some say they were merchant sailors, while others say they were fur trappers. But their tombs were inscribed in Cyrillic, giving the hill its name. Unfortunately, the markers were removed during Russian Hill’s development in the 1850s.
SoMA, an abbreviation for South of Market, might sound like a SoHo knockoff to New Yorkers. In a way, it is. Market Street runs from the port of San Francisco into Eureka Valley and the industrial SoMA sits directly underneath. But originally its name was South of the Slot, referring to the apparatuses that carried cable cars.
San Franciscan Behrend Joost was supposed to provide dredging services to create a canal in Panama in the late 1880s. It was a failed attempt, but left him with enough money to start the “Sunny Side Land Company,” which bought and developed the land in the 1890s.
The Sunset used to be called Outside Lands, a name now reserved for the city’s yearly music and arts festival in Golden Gate Park. However, the once barren land remained property of the United States government from 1848 until 1866, and it’s unknown exactly when Outside Lands became The Sunset. Some claim a property owner and developer, Aurelius Buckingham, named it so. A separate theory suggests the California Midwinter Fair of 1894, also called The Sunset City, was the source of inspiration. Still, there’s also speculation it was the result of a neighborhood organization.
Telegraph Hill was a semaphore built in 1849 used to identify ships entering San Francisco. The Spaniards called the area Loma Alta before that, which translates to High Hill. It also has one of San Francisco’s best landmarks, Coit Tower, as well as an invasive species of parrot, cherry-headed conures, originally from Ecuador.
The Tenderloin isn’t far from Nob Hill and Russian Hill. In fact, its boundaries are blurred. Many locals call the northern side underneath Nob Hill the Tendernob. Despite its ritzy neighbors, the Tenderloin gets a bad rap as a home to drug deals, prostitutes, and confrontational strangers. This gritty disposition helped the Tenderloin earn its name. Police officers working there in the 1930s were compensated with higher wages, and they took to calling the area "tenderloin," after the better cuts of meat they could afford.
Twin Peaks was originally called Los Pechos de la Choca in the 18th century, which translates to “Breasts of the Maiden.” The adjacent peaks’ elevation is 922 feet, giving it some of the best views of the Bay Area. The name changed after Americans took control of San Francisco in the 19th century.
Union Square is San Francisco’s main cultural center for retail shopping. There’s also an urban park bordered by Geary, Powell, Post, and Stockton Streets. But it was originally built and named in 1850 by San Francisco’s first mayor, John Geary, inspired by the pro-Union rallies that took place there before and during the Civil War.
Legend has it that Visitacion Valley got its name in 1777 when friars got lost in the Bay Area’s fog. As it lifted, they found themselves in the valley on the same day as the feast of the Blessed Virgin. Some suggest they saw a vision on a rock.
The Western Addition
As San Francisco expanded beyond its west boundary on Larkin Street in the 1850s, the result was the geographically named Western Addition. However, this section of San Francisco can also be broken into different neighborhoods that have their own distinct names. For example, the current Japantown was built in 1968, but its history extends back to the 1920s and 30s when Japanese immigrants filled 30 blocks. They were forced out during World War II, and in the 1950s when the area was being gentrified. The Fillmore District was named after President Millard Fillmore at the end of the 19th century. NoPA, a fairly recent term, is used to describe the area North of the Panhandle, an elongated section of Golden Gate Park.
Spanish naval officer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala called Yerba Buena Island, the small spot that sits between San Francisco and Oakland, Isla de Alcatraces, which translates to “Island of the Pelicans.” Seventy two years later, the United States military began fortifying a different island in the Bay, Alcatraz Island, inspired by Ayala’s pelicans.