How 19 San Diego Neighborhoods Got Their Names

San Diego is famous for its mild weather and laid-back lifestyle, but locals also know the city has a particularly complex web of neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods. In fact, the city has so many nabes that even life-long San Diegans never discover some of them. Here’s a selection of some of the districts with names that have the most interesting origin stories.

1. BANKERS HILL

Take stroll through the stately, mansion-lined streets of Bankers Hill and you’ll get a hint about how it got its name. The hilly neighborhood, which contains some of San Diego’s most beautiful historic homes, seemed so rich that early San Diegans apparently assumed a bunch of bankers lived there, and a name was born.

2. BARRIO LOGAN

Jamie Lantzy via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

 
Barrio Logan only recently got an old-school-style neighborhood gateway sign, but it’s been a distinct neighborhood since the 1880s. The Logan part pays tribute to Congressman John Logan, an Illinois senator who became popular in the city because of legislation he wrote that was intended to create a transcontinental railroad from Texas to California. The railroad was never completed, but when the land for the planned railroad was sold for development in 1886, one of the main streets was named Logan Avenue in honor of Logan’s efforts (incidentally, Logan was also instrumental in creating Memorial Day nationwide). The neighborhood that bore his name became home to a large concentration of Mexican-Americans over the years, and “barrio” (“neighborhood” in Spanish) became a formal part of the neighborhood name in the 1960s when Logan Heights, as it was once known, was split in two by a freeway. Today, Logan Heights is the northern part of the area and Barrio Logan is the southern.

3. BIRDLAND

Blame a clever city planner for Birdland’s name: Most of the neighborhood’s streets are named after bird species, like the blue jay and starling.

4. NORMAL HEIGHTS

 
You may think the “normal” in “Normal Heights” refers to the neighborhood’s everyday feel, but the name actually comes from the teachers college, San Diego Normal School, that later became San Diego State University (even though, rather oddly, the school was actually located in a nearby neighborhood).

5. CITY HEIGHTS

The “Steiner, Klauber, Choate and Castle Addition” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but such was the original name of what’s now known as City Heights, which was once unincorporated land purchased by developers named Klauber, Steiner, and Castle (a man named Daniel Choate helped them subdivide the land). In 1912, City Heights temporarily ceased to exist when it became its own city named East San Diego. But East San Diego didn’t last long, and in 1923 it was annexed by San Diego, with the City Heights name in use once again. The bigger neighborhood of City Heights is actually comprised of a collection of smaller neighborhoods with names like Teralta, Bay Ridge, and Fairmount Park; however, they’re all called City Heights by the City of San Diego and most residents who aren’t in the know.

6. CLAIREMONT

Thank a pair of developers for Clairemont’s name. In the late 1940s, Lou Burgener and Carlos Tavares put down money on a bunch of cattle land and decided to turn their acres into tract housing to accommodate the postwar influx of San Diegans. Tavares’s wife, future philanthropist and legendary arts patron Claire Tavares, suggested a family-friendly design for the new community, which had a “village within a city” concept, and they named it in her honor.

7. GASLAMP QUARTER

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Today, the Gaslamp is home to some of San Diego’s most vibrant nightlife. But at the beginning of the 20th century, it was called “New Town” as opposed to “Old Town” a few miles away. The neighborhood’s thriving red-light district got the nickname “Stingaree,” a play on “stingray” (probably in reference to the rays in San Diego Bay as well as the dangers of the area), and over the years it developed a reputation for crime, prostitution, gambling, and unsavory characters. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city of San Diego decided it was time to clean up the area’s act, renamed it the Gaslamp Quarter, renovated it, and sold it as a historic district once filled with Victorian gems and flickering gas lamps. (The city also added new gas lamps to encourage the feel.) The neighborhood is now packed with shops, hotels, and pricey eateries that belie the neighborhood’s gritty roots.

8. GOLDEN HILL

Golden Hill got its name not from the rich residents whose houses once lined its streets, but from nature. The area was originally named Indian Hill, but in 1887 a developer named Daniel Schuyler successfully petitioned city trustees to rename the area with the help of a poem that celebrated the neighborhood’s “golden light.” What that golden light was, however, has been subject to debate, with the main guesses being that the sun made Indian Hill shine like gold [PDF] or that the area was once covered with gold-blooming acacias.

9. HILLCREST

PDPhoto.org via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
Speaking of hills, the origin of Hillcrest’s name is pretty simple—it’s at the crest of a hill. A woman named Mary Kearney originally owned the land, but from the 1870s through the early 1900s it changed hands multiple times. The name was supposedly suggested by the sister-in-law of a developer long before the neighborhood became the LGBT center of the city.

10. KEARNY MESA

Remember Mary Kearney? She’s not the Kearny in Kearny Mesa. The community was named for a former military base—Camp Kearny—which was later renamed Miramar. And that camp was named after Stephen Watts Kearny, the U.S. Army Brigadier General who helped conquer California during the Mexican-American war.

11. KENSINGTON

 
Known for its luxurious homes, Kensington is said to have been named after a similarly ritzy London neighborhood. The neighborhood was initially called Kensington Park, but the “Park” part was dropped at some point over the years. One of the neighborhood’s subdivisions, Talmadge, has a connection to one of San Diego’s lesser-known roles—as a pre-Hollywood film center. It was named after the Talmadge sisters, a group of silent film stars who opened a real estate development there in the late 1920s (in no small part because Norma Talmadge’s then-husband, studio executive Joseph Schenck, helped finance the development).

12. LINDA VISTA

With its vistas over San Diego Bay and Mission Valley, it’s no mystery why the Spanish name for “pretty view” became Linda Vista’s name. As San Diego’s population boomed during World War II, the southern part of Kearny Mesa was named Linda Vista by housing officials and slated as a place for dense military housing—despite the fact that there were no schools, sidewalks, bus routes, shops, or other accommodations nearby. Eventually it was built out into a proper neighborhood, with a name that keeps its view top of mind.

13. LITTLE ITALY

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Italian fishermen were once part of a thriving tuna industry along San Diego’s waterfront. The “Italian Colony” that built up in what is now Little Italy is responsible for its name, though today the neighborhood is better known for its food and festivals than its fishermen.

14. NORTH PARK

You can thank lemons—and a man named James Monroe Hartley—for North Park’s name. Hartley bought the land that is now North Park in 1893 to create a lemon grove. It was part of a parcel of land known as Park Villas, but was renamed “Hartley’s North Park” because of its new owner and its location north of Balboa Park. Eventually, San Diego grew enough that Hartley’s lemon grove became desirable home-building territory. All the better, since Hartley apparently had to truck in water due to a drought that was then hitting the area.

15. OLD TOWN

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As its name implies, Old Town has some serious history. It’s where the first non-native settlers of California dug in, building first a Spanish mission, then Mexican pueblos, and finally an American city. However, Old Town was simply known as San Diego until an upstart developer named Alonzo Horton started a nearby settlement he called “New Town” (built on an earlier attempt at a New Town that failed dramatically). That new New Town became Downtown, and Old Town got its present-day name.

16. POINT LOMA

Speaking of old: Point Loma’s name dates from long before California was populated by Europeans. In 1542, an explorer named Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo made the first landing in California, in San Diego Bay, and named its east peninsula “la punta de la loma,” or “hill point.” It took another couple of hundred years for the area to be colonized, but the name Point Loma stuck.

17. SCRIPPS RANCH

 
Suburban Scripps Ranch doesn’t seem like the kind of place where people would undertake a utopian social experiment, but that’s what happened in 1891 when an up-and-coming newspaper mogul named Edward Willis (or Wyllis) Scripps began building his dream home. He named it “Miramar,” or “sea view,” after the one-time Mexican Emperor Maximilian I’s palace. The entire family moved in to try out communal, idealistic living. Unfortunately, Scripps’ social experiment ended [PDF] when his brother Fred was indicted for sleeping with a 14-year-old girl, but Miramar Ranch—later renamed Scripps Ranch—eventually became a popular place to live. The name would later stick and become attached to the surrounding neighborhood.

18. TIERRASANTA

Tierrasanta’s name—it means “holy land” in Spanish—is a testament to its holy roots, though the community wasn’t founded until the 1970s. Before that, it was part of the Mission San Diego de Alcála Ranch. There, thousands of indigenous people were enslaved by Franciscan friars, including Junípero Serra, the controversial mission leader who became a Catholic saint in 2015. Allegations that the mission and its ranch were the site of virtual slavery or even genocide aren’t the only explosive things in Tierrasanta: The community was once a military training base and has experienced several issues related to unexploded ordnance.

19. RAMONA

Black Canyon Road Bridge in Ramona. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain  

Ramona technically isn’t part of the City of San Diego—rather, it counts as one of the county’s “unincorporated places.” But it gets an honorary inclusion on this list because of the strange origin of its name. “Ramona” wasn’t a historical figure but a fictitious one, the heroine of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel by the same name. The 1884 book follows the woes of the mixed-race Native American/Scottish Ramona as she navigates racial tension and romantic tragedy in old Southern California; the book was so popular that some have credited it with largely creating the tourism industry in Southern California.

The Florida Beach Town Where the Amish Go on Vacation

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In the coming months, with the arrival of low temperatures and the slowdown of the farming season, thousands of Amish people in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania will pack their bags and head south to a snowbird paradise that has attracted Plain People since the early 20th century—Pinecraft, Florida.

Located on the Gulf Coast, Pinecraft is an idyllic place nestled a few miles from the crystalline beaches of Sarasota, dotted with cozy white bungalows and oak trees strewn with Spanish moss. The Amish first arrived in Pinecraft in the 1920s, back when the area was little more than a tourist campground. At first, farmers hoped to plant celery in the region, but the soil proved to be better suited as a spot to lounge in the sun than it did for gardening. In 1946, the Tourist Mennonite Church in Florida was established in Pinecraft so that the Amish could “take vacations without breaking their beliefs,” Atlas Obscura reports. Over the coming decades, word of mouth spread up north. Today, approximately 5000 Amish and (some) Mennonite people visit Pinecraft every year to relax during the winter months.

Most Amish visitors make the long trip by charter bus. In 2012, Miki Meek of The New York Times hopped on one such bus in Ohio and traveled 19 hours to Florida. She described the scene aboard: “Stiff black hats are gingerly stowed in overhead bins as the bus winds its way through hilly farm country ... grandparents, neighbors, sisters, and childhood friends ... talked into the night, using conversation as entertainment instead of movies or music.”

Down in Pinecraft, crowds of Amish people welcome the arrival of each bus. There, visitors can expect to see men and women in traditional dress. “Clothing choices clue you in to hometowns,” Meek wrote. “Men from Tampico, Illinois, wear denim overalls; girls from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, cover their dresses with black aprons; and women from northern Indiana have neatly pressed pleats on their white bonnets.” It’s one of the few places in America where different communities of Amish have the opportunity to mingle.

However, the rules here are much more lax, with vacationers often showing much more skin than usual. Many of the rental homes, which sometimes have to be booked a year in advance, have electricity. (Overall, the restrictions preventing the Amish from connecting to the public power grid aren't as tight when a home is temporary.) Rather than riding in a horse and buggy, many people move around Pinecraft on tricycles. Most days are punctuated by fish fries, auctions, yard sales, and fierce bocce matches, with shuffleboard, the nightly women’s volleyball game, and live musical performances being the biggest draws.

As Meek reported, many people joke that the village is the closest thing the Amish have to Las Vegas: “What happens in Pinecraft, stays in Pinecraft.”

15 U.S. Town and City Names With Unusual Backstories

Michael Swigart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Michael Swigart, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While many towns and cities in the United States were named after historical figures or nearby topographical features, some monikers have origin stories that are a little more unusual. Here are 15 names with backstories that range from the curious to the downright bizarre.

1. TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NEW MEXICO

Originally named Hot Springs, this New Mexico spa town changed its name to Truth or Consequences on March 31, 1950, in reference to the popular game show of the same name. Host Ralph Edwards had promised to host the show in the first town that changed its name to Truth or Consequences. Hot Springs obliged, and Ralph Edwards kept his promise. But rather than change their name back to Hot Springs once the novelty wore off, residents voted to make the name permanent in 1967.

2. ZILWAUKEE, MICHIGAN

An exit sign for Zilwaukee, Michigan
Ken Lund, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

If you noticed that the name Zilwaukee sounds a little bit like Milwaukee, that’s no coincidence. Zilwaukee, Michigan wasn’t just named after Milwaukee as a tribute to the Wisconsin city, but to trick potential settlers who were interested in moving to Milwaukee. Started in 1848 by New Yorkers Daniel and Solomon Johnson, the settlement initially consisted of little more than a few houses and a sawmill. In need of workers, the Johnson brothers decided the best way to attract settlers was through deceit. They named their little riverside settlement “Zilwaukie” (later changed to Zilwaukee) and waited for settlers to start pouring in. It’s unclear whether their plan was successful; settlers did eventually arrive, though it may have been the general desire for work (the founding of the town happened to coincide with an influx of German immigrants), rather than the Johnson brothers' clever scheme, that attracted the town’s residents.

3. PORTLAND, OREGON

If not for a momentous coin toss, Portland could have been named Boston. Founded by Massachusetts-born lawyer Asa Lovejoy and Maine-born Francis Pettygrove, the 640-acre site that would become Portland was originally known only as “The Clearing.” When it came time to give the town a real name, Lovejoy and Pettygrove began to argue. While Pettygrove insisted the town be named Portland after the city in Maine, Lovejoy wanted to name the settlement for his hometown, Boston. In order to settle the dispute, the two founders decided to flip a coin. Winning two out of three tosses, Pettygrove got his way, and gave Portland its name.

4. EGG HARBOR, WISCONSIN

While there are a few theories regarding Egg Harbor’s origins, one of the most popular (and well-documented) centers on the great battle that took place just offshore in 1825. According to an 1862 recounting, a group of traders traveling in a handful of small boats to Mackinac Island decided to take shelter in an unnamed harbor overnight. As they paddled toward shore, a friendly race broke out, with each boat trying to overtake its neighbor. In order to slow each other’s progress, the traders began tossing bits of hardtack (a type of biscuit or cracker) at each other. But they soon realized they might need the hardtack later, and so they started throwing eggs. According to one witness, the fighting didn’t stop once the traders reached shore. Instead, they repeated their egg fight on land, stopping only once they ran out of eggs, and had “laughed until exhaustion.” The next day, speeches were made commemorating the great egg battle, and Egg Harbor was given its name.

5. NAGS HEAD, NORTH CAROLINA

Some believe Nags Head was named for one of the several towns of that name on the English coast. Others, however, believe Nags Head has a more nefarious backstory. According to legend, recounted in the 19th century by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, pirates once used the beach at Nags Head to lure in their prey. They’d attach a lamp to the neck of an old horse (or nag), which would slowly walk the beach at night. Mistaking the nag’s lantern for the lights of another boat, ships would sail toward the light, grounding themselves in the shallow waters near the beach and making themselves a perfect target for pirates.

6. BASTROP, LOUISIANA & BASTROP, TEXAS

A sign in Bastrop, Texas
Wil C. Fry, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Another town name with a criminal backstory is Bastrop. The two towns with the same title in Louisiana and Texas were named for Dutch nobleman Felipe Enrique Neri, the Baron de Bastrop, who played an important role in settling the future Lone Star State. Only it turns out the Baron de Bastrop wasn’t a baron at all: Historians now believe the self-proclaimed Dutch nobleman was actually one Philip Hendrick Nering Bögel, a former tax collector who left Holland after being accused of embezzlement. Bogel fled to America with a 1000 gold ducat price on his head and reestablished himself as a Dutch nobleman. He went on to help establish several Anglo-American colonies in Texas, and even acted as a representative to the state of Coahuila and Texas in the 1820s.

7. MODESTO, CALIFORNIA

From towns and cities, right down to buildings and park benches, people seem to love naming landmarks after themselves; it’s the nature of the human ego. Which is why the story behind Modesto, California's name is particularly surprising. Founded in 1870 and incorporated in 1884, Modesto was the last stop on the Central Pacific Railroad line. Town residents decided that they wanted to name their new town after financier William Chapman Ralston, to honor the man who brought them the railroad and connected them to the rest of the country. But Ralston was too humble, and asked the town to find a more suitable namesake. Instead, residents decided to call their town Modesto, in honor of Ralston’s modesty.

8. CHICKEN, ALASKA

A town sign in Chicken, Alaska
J. STEPHEN CONN, FLICKR / CC BY-NC 2.0

Originally a mining town, Chicken got its unusual name from a group of gold miners who weren’t great at spelling. The miners wanted to call the town Ptarmigan, after the grouse-like bird that inhabited the area, but couldn’t figure out how to spell the word. So they settled on naming the town for an easier-to-spell bird: the chicken.

9. FROG EYE, ALABAMA

According to legend, Frog Eye was named after a ceramic frog. During the prohibition era, the proprietor of a local saloon kept the little frog sculpture in his shop window at all times: When police officers were in the bar, he’d close one of the frog’s eyes so that customers would know not to order illegal liquor.

10. HOT COFFEE, MISSISSIPPI

A sign in Hot Coffee, Mississippi
Jimmy Emerson DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Mississippi community known as Hot Coffee was, you guessed it, named for its damn fine cup of coffee. According to a WPA history of Mississippi written during the Great Depression, a Civil War veteran named J.J. Davis built a store at the intersection of two major thoroughfares in Mississippi, hoping to attract travelers. “He hung a coffee pot over his door, and served coffee that was both hot and good, made of pure spring water and New Orleans beans,” explains the WPA historian. “He used molasses drippings for sugar and the customer could have either long or short sweetening; he refused to serve cream, saying it ruined the taste.” The 19th-century coffee connoisseur soon developed a reputation for his superior beans, and both travelers and local politicians would frequent his shop. According to legend, Davis started calling the community Hot Coffee after a traveling salesman burnt his mouth trying to drink Davis’s coffee too quickly, calling out, “Mister, this is hot coffee!”

11. SLAUGHTER BEACH, DELAWARE

There’s some debate as to how Slaughter Beach got its name. While some believe the bayside community was named for local postmaster William Slaughter, others claim it was named after the hordes of horseshoe crabs that lay their eggs on the beach of the Delaware Bay each spring. Because of unpredictable tides, the horseshoe crabs often ended up stranded on the beach, at the mercy of predatory animals like foxes and raccoons—which resulted in something of an annual horseshoe crab slaughter.

12. KITTS HUMMOCK, DELAWARE

According to local legend, the little Delaware community now known as Kitts Hummock was originally named Kidd’s Hammock, after Captain William Kidd. The notorious pirate terrorized America’s east coast during the 17th century, and though there is little historical information to tie him specifically to the community of Kitts Hummock, legends of Kidd’s treasure buried somewhere in Delaware persist to this day.

13. TELEPHONE, TEXAS

Back in the 1880s, having a telephone was a really big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that one Texas community decided it was worth naming their town after. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the tiny community of Telephone was established in 1886. General store owner Pete Hindman submitted a series of town names to postal authorities, but all were already in use. Frustrated, Hindman submitted the name Telephone, in reference to the fact that the only telephone in the area was in his store.

14. TIGHTWAD, MISSOURI


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According to Tightwad residents, the little Missouri town’s name dates back to the early 20th century, when the local mailman asked the local grocer to set aside a watermelon for him while he made his rounds. The postman came back after delivering the community’s mail only to find that the grocer had sold the watermelon to a customer who had agreed to pay 50 cents more. The postman accused the grocer of being a tightwad, and apparently the rest of the community agreed, and even embraced the accusation. They unofficially called the little community Tightwad until the village was incorporated in the 1980s, making the title official.

15. JIM THORPE, PENNSYLVANIA

Originally two towns called Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, this Pennsylvania town became one and changed its name to Jim Thorpe after the legendary turn-of-the-century Olympic athlete, baseball player, and football star in the 1950s. The two towns didn’t have any pre-existing connection to Thorpe, who was from Oklahoma and had played for Milwaukee and New York teams. Rather, after Thorpe’s death, his third wife made a deal with them. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were looking for a way to promote tourism; at the same time, Thorpe’s wife wanted what she considered a proper memorial for her husband, so she essentially sold the towns on rebranding themselves as Jim Thorpe. The towns merged, bought Thorpe's remains from his widow, built him a monument, and became Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Two of Jim Thorpe’s sons then fought a legal battle to have his remains returned to Oklahoma, but in October 2015 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving in place the appeals court ruling in favor of the town.

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

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