San Francisco: Alphabet City
Alphabets in San Francisco's Street Names
By Dave Schweisguth (email:
dave at schweisguth dot
The San Francisco street grid is like a basket of cross-cut fries, each
island of streets laid out at the same time, ragged at the edge where
up against water or hills or an older neighborhood or a freeway. This
not just of the streets themselves but of their names. Each new survey
subdivision named a swath of the city by some system or another,
interrupted here or there by a single older or newer name, sometimes
altogether by a later mass renaming and barely visible at the bottom of
The pressure of choosing many
names all at once for a new neighborhood must
have been great. Even though the namers of nearly every section of San
Francisco relied on some theme or another -- pioneers, battles,
the street names of other cities -- they sometimes had trouble coming
with an original theme. Successive surveyors repeatedly resorted to the
and indefensible expedient"1 of naming streets merely by
Though several rounds of renaming2
replaced some runs of numbered or lettered
streets with proper names, in some cases the original patterns can
detected. It would be too unnatural, when renaming numbered streets, to
behind one or a few old numbers amid the new names, and a single letter
look silly in a grid of full words, but the letters -- which after all
make up words -- might stay around. In fact there are no
less than eleven complete or partial alphabets embedded in San
That makes, if we count Arguello as a one-letter specimen and count the
east-west streets in the Bayview as two, no less than eleven alphabets,
full or partial
or remnant, in San Francisco's street grid. Surely no other city can
many. It would be easy to blame our hills, but I like to think that our
names reflect our citizenry, as of course they must: practical when
necessary; in love with our past, but prone to experimentation and
changing our minds;
and much given to decoration and ornamentation.
- San Francisco's best-known street alphabet is in the east-west
streets of the
city's west side, from Anza in the Richmond District through the Sunset
Yorba in the Parkside. It began as a plain alphabet to which was
mostly Spanish historical names in the great renaming of 1909. The
commission also chose two alphabets worth of names for the numbered
but this part of the plan was dropped except for the renaming of First
to Arguello and 49th Avenue to La Playa (one of a few names in the
avenues for which the commission didn't want to start a third alphabet).
- The same renaming turned the Bayview's numbered Avenues South
neighborhood's east-west streets) directly into alphabetized names,
(at Islais Creek) to Yosemite, then Armstrong to Olney (next to Bayview
Meade is now the farthest south street which remains from this series).
Avenue in the Hunter's Point Naval Reservation, its only numbered
be a survivor of this renaming, although it is ten blocks southwest of
of 6th Avenue South (now Fairfax). At the same time the lettered
Streets South were renamed to Alvord (it and Boalt are gone, but
remains) through Upton.3
- The north-south streets of the streetcar suburb of Sunnyside,
surveyed in 1890,
were given an eclectic collection of mostly geographic names,
Acadia in the east to Hamburg (later renamed Ridgewood) in the west.4
- In Visitacion Valley, Alpha and Delta Streets stand out as
missing the rest of
their exotic alphabet. When the Reis Tract, the part of Vis Valley
Leland, was laid out in 1905, its north-south streets included Alpha,
part of Rutland), Delta, Elliot (still present), Fay (now part of
Sawyer) and Going and Hamlin,
which if they were ever built have since been erased.5
- Even the few street names required for the Ingleside Terraces
sent its surveyors fleeing to the inspiration of the alphabet: four
south edge are named Alviso, Borica, Coronado and De Soto.
- The Navy wasted no effort naming the streets in
outposts, giving the north-south streets of Treasure Island the letters
through N and those in the Hunter's Point Naval Reservation the letters
through J, plus an unexpected R.
- And finally, a group of streets off of Owens Street in the city's
neighborhood, Mission Bay, carries on the tradition with the handful of
streets named A, B1, B2, B3 and C. They're not on San Francisco's
Department of Public Works maps6, and online map services
vary as to which if any exist, but recent fieldwork by Jef Poskanzer7
confirms that A, B, B3 and C streets are still in place.
- 1909". In Encylopedia Of San Francisco.
2 Loewenstein, Louis K. Streets of San Francisco, 3e.
Wilderness Press, Berkeley, CA, April 1996.
of San Francisco. August Chevalier, San
Francisco, CA, 1911. In the
David Rumsey Map Collection.
District. Updated 27 March 2012. On the Western Neighborhoods
5 Map of the Reis Tract. T.B. Potter Realty Co., June 21,
1905. In the collection of the Visitacion Valley History
and County of San Franciso Department of Public Works. Key Maps.
letter streets. May 15, 2012.
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