Alphabets in San Francisco street names

San Francisco: Alphabet City

Alphabets in San Francisco's Street Names

By Dave Schweisguth (email: dave at schweisguth dot org)

The San Francisco street grid is like a basket of cross-cut fries, each an island of streets laid out at the same time, ragged at the edge where it runs up against water or hills or an older neighborhood or a freeway. This is true not just of the streets themselves but of their names. Each new survey or subdivision named a swath of the city by some system or another, sometimes interrupted here or there by a single older or newer name, sometimes obscured altogether by a later mass renaming and barely visible at the bottom of the historical basket.
        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, universities, the street names of other cities -- they sometimes had trouble coming up even with an original theme. Successive surveyors repeatedly resorted to the "cheap and indefensible expedient"1 of naming streets merely by number or letter.
        Though several rounds of renaming2 replaced some runs of numbered or lettered streets with proper names, in some cases the original patterns can still be detected. It would be too unnatural, when renaming numbered streets, to leave behind one or a few old numbers amid the new names, and a single letter would look silly in a grid of full words, but the letters -- which after all are what make up words -- might stay around. In fact there are no less than eleven complete or partial alphabets embedded in San Francisco's street grid:
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 boast so many. It would be easy to blame our hills, but I like to think that our street 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.

1 Freeman, John. "Street Naming Controversy - 1909". In Encylopedia Of San Francisco.
2 Loewenstein, Louis K. Streets of San Francisco, 3e. Wilderness Press, Berkeley, CA, April 1996.
3 Chevalier, August. The "Chevalier" Map of San Francisco. August Chevalier, San Francisco, CA, 1911. In the David Rumsey Map Collection.
4 Sunnyside District. Updated 27 March 2012. On the Western Neighborhoods Project's outsidelands.org.
5 Map of the Reis Tract. T.B. Potter Realty Co., June 21, 1905. In the collection of the Visitacion Valley History Project.
6 City and County of San Franciso Department of Public Works. Key Maps.
7 Poskanzer, Jef. letter streets. May 15, 2012.

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