Street Naming Controversy - 1909
Entry Author: John
In the late spring of 1909, a street renaming commission
was appointed by Mayor Taylor to clear up the long-standing
confusion from similar or duplicate street names. Street naming
had been done with very little coordination or planning as
San Francisco developed from the Mexican Village of Yerba
Buena through the dramatic metamorphosis of the gold rush
into a city. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, with new
construction in the burned area and the development of new
housing tracts with subsequent population expansion in the
western and southern sections of the city, it seemed like
an optimal time to address the street name confusion.
There were four thoroughfares named Church and Virginia,
all with different endings (avenue, street, boulevard, etc.).
There were streets that were continuous, but changed names
after a block or two, such as Grant Avenue into Dupont Street.
There were three sets of numerical streets. First through
Thirty-first streets ran from downtown into the Mission District.
The growing Richmond and Sunset Districts had First through
Forty-ninth avenues. The Bayview District had a similar list
of avenues, First through Forty-fifth, which were suffixed
as "Avenue, South." In a pre-zip code era, these
variations in designations for numbered or lettered byways
just added to the other street name confusion in the city.
The Post Office estimated that 500 letters a day were mishandled
due to the problem of street names in San Francisco. It was
time to address the confusion.
Supervisor Charles Murdock served as chairman of the commission,
aided by two other supervisors, a representative of the Board
of Public Works, a Post Office delivery superintendent, and
a historian and an editor from Southern Pacific's Sunset magazine.
The commission began their work by establishing some working
guidelines. The highest priority was to aid postal delivery,
so the task was to do away with any duplication of names;
even names close in spelling to other streets. Chairman Murdock
wrote that their mission was to correct only the most flagrant
name confusions, "leaving undisturbed much that is to
be regretted but can be endured." Many minor streets
and alleys were named "avenues" and the commission
established the principle that the word "avenue"
should be reserved for important streets or for thoroughfares
at right angles with streets. Attempts would be made to keep
names short, easily pronounceable and pleasant to the ear.
The commission sought to use names of persons with historical
or patriotic significance, wishing to avoid any name that
hinted at favoritism by using no names of living persons.
Lastly, the chairman took a strong stand against streets named
only by numbers or alphabetical letters by stating that their
use "is a cheap and indefensible expedient resorted to
only when imagination is lacking."
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The street naming commission worked through the summer and
into the fall of 1909 correcting uncontroversial things like
restoring the correct Spanish spelling to Divisadero Street
from the former "Devisadero" and renaming the northern
extension of Montgomery Street, called Montgomery Avenue,
to Columbus Avenue. Two members of the commission were particularly
partial to the idea of enshrining the Spanish and Mexican
origins of California with street names. The name of the waterfront
street from which travelers embarked when heading east was
inconsistent with the commission's goal of simplicity. It
was split in two directions from the Ferry Building and named
East Street North and East Street South. These compass designations
would have to go. "The Embarcadero" was suggested.
In the same spirit of honoring the Spanish language origins
of the state, the commission undertook what would be the most
contentious of its proposals.
The commission sought to address the confusion of numbered
streets in the established area of the city versus the numbered
avenues in the growing sections west of the cemeteries and
the sparsely populated southern section of the city designated
as "avenues, south." They worked at finding distinct
names for all the numbered or lettered streets. In the Richmond
and Sunset districts they devised a full set of Spanish names
to conform to an alphabetical pattern for each of the numbered
avenues. The scheme called for First Avenue to become Arguello,
Second Avenue to become Borcia, Third Avenue to become Coronado,
continuing for all 26 letters of the alphabet. Starting with
Twenty-seventh Avenue, the streets would be designated by
male or female saints, starting with San Antonio and ending
with Santa Ynez at Forty-Seventh Avenue. Unable to find Spanish
saints with names beginning with K, Q, W, X or Z, they chose
first Alcatraz, then Ayala for Forty-eighth Avenue and La
Playa for Forty-ninth Avenue.
For the east-west streets in these neighborhoods that were
lettered, two breaks in the alphabetical pattern were already
in place. "D" Street had already been made an extension
of Fulton Street from downtown and the development of Golden
Gate Park had eliminated streets bearing the letters E, F
and G over thirty years previously. Since there were three
minor streets named for Lincoln, the commission wanted to
change the names of those streets and rename "H"
Street to honor President Lincoln with the more prestigious
thoroughfare that bordered the park. The commission then chose
eight names for the remaining streets in the Sunset District
as Ignacio, Joaquin, Kaweah, Linares, Moncado, Noriega, Ortega
and Pacheco. They had only to name the first eight streets,
because the Parkside Realty Company had already been using
the last eight names, Quintara, Rivera, Santiago, Taraval,
Ulloa, Vicente, Wawona and Xavier streets for the area it
was developing. In the Bayview District in the southeast corner
of the city, an alphabetical sequence of names commemorating
patriotic military or civic heroes were suggested for both
the numbered avenues and lettered streets.
When the San Francisco Chronicle first published Charles
Murdock's ideas of changing the numbered avenues to names
a year earlier on October 4, 1908, there was no notice taken
by the neighborhood newspapers. The suggestion was speculative
and suggested names of explorers, generals or statesmen for
avenues in the Richmond, Sunset and Bayview. On November 8,
1909, the Commission on the Changing of Street Names submitted
its suggested changes to the Board of Supervisors for first
reading and it got an immediate reaction. All the daily newspapers
showed full support for the changes. The Examiner published
the entire list for all the public to read. The Call's editorial
said, "some of the suggested Spanish names may be a little
difficult of negotiation by the American tongue" but
suggested that the city schools could address that problem
as part of the history curriculum.
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The Chronicle showed its support with the argument that "if
we are ever to emulate our enterprising neighbor, Los Angeles,
in attractiveness" employing "musical Spanish names
which our history entitles us to appropriate" might even
bring in tourist dollars to San Francisco. Despite the positive
spin given by the newspapers, the idea of changing all the
numbered avenues in the Richmond and Sunset Districts to Spanish
names brought immediate negative reaction from the residents
of those neighborhoods. Yet when the Board of Supervisors
met one week later to address the street-naming issue, the
two offended western neighborhoods argued that the names were
so repugnant that if approved the "avenues" would
forever be known as "Spanish Town." The Spanish
"heroes" were vilified as robbers and freebooters
and Spain was called "one of the worst nations that ever
tyrannized over the human race." There were comical attempts
at saying the "unpronounceable" names of Xavier
Despite the heated rhetoric, the Board voted twelve to five
in favor of the changes, and over 250 street names were altered
as recommended. When this news got back to the Richmond and
Sunset districts, action was immediate. The Richmond had the
oldest continuously operating neighborhood improvement club
in the city and had been fighting the downtown bureaucracy
for years to get services. They were politically savvy and
would not tolerate being treated like squatters out in the
sand dunes. Since the earthquake and fire, the district had
experienced tremendous growth, and most of the new residents
were homeowners. They were a force to be reckoned with. The
neighborhood newspaper, The Richmond Banner, editorialized
on November 19: "If the wishes of the twelve of our "patriotic"
supervisors are carried out, our Sunset and Richmond districts
will soon be known as the Spanish Town of San Francisco, and
'The Spanish will then have taken San Francisco' notwithstanding
Dewey's victory at Manila Bay several years ago."
The editorial contrasted the twelve who voted for the name
changes against the five "true Americans" who resisted
the proposal to "Spaniardize" the districts. "The
people of Sunset and Richmond are fully aroused and will never
submit to the insult and injustice heaped upon them by the
majority of the Board of Supervisors." In closing, the
editor pledged, "Sunset and Richmond districts will stand
together and fight this miserable surrender of American names
to a finish." The districts didn't have much time to
"fight." The commission was to decide quickly, since
it faced dissolution at the end of December and the new P.
H. McCarthy administration, which would take office in January,
had a labor agenda and may not want to waste time on frivolous
street-naming. A week of public and private meetings in the
Richmond and Sunset districts brought results. Lobbying and
pressuring of public officials brought the naming commissioners
to a special Saturday meeting to hear the concerns of the
The following morning the Examiner reported that "thirty-five
thousand residents of the Richmond and Sunset districts arose
en masse yesterday and voiced such a protest against having
the names of their avenues and cross streets changed, that
the commission was forced to capitulate." Bowing to the
pressure, the Commission agreed that the avenues could remain
unchanged except for First Avenue and Forty-ninth Avenue and
the alphabetical cross-streets would be the only other western
district streets to be renamed, except for the Geary Street
extension. The name of Point Lobos was removed from most of
the Richmond, but would be given to the curving road that
extended from Fortieth Avenue to the Cliff House.
The indignation rally scheduled for the next afternoon at
Richmond Hall was turned into a huge victory party for the
Richmond, but was bittersweet for the Sunset. Neither neighborhood
would lose its numbered avenues, but there was still the issue
of the un-American streets to deal with. The Sunset District
felt it wasn't getting a fair shake, since it had sixteen
streets to be renamed while the Richmond only had three. At
the Board of Supervisors' meeting on the next day, the spokesmen
for the Sunset Improvement Club presented the argument and
pleaded for names of Americans "that reflect glory and
luster upon our civilization." Additional speakers made
it clear that the two western neighborhoods, through their
efforts in fighting the attempt to make wholesale changes
to their numerical avenues, were now unified and supporting
each other for the next round.
The Board essentially had thrown the street naming to the
neighborhoods. The historian from the commission, who had
championed and researched the names of Spanish explorers and
pioneers, was so incensed by the compromise that he resigned
to protest the capitulation. Now the horse-trading for street
names was on. Anza had true historical significance to San
Francisco's origins and was agreed to by all. "B"
Street became an extension of Turk Street. "C" Street
was Starr King for a while, but they kept alphabetical order
and settled on Custer, for the "hero" killed at
the Battle of Little Big Horn. Lincoln Way met with everyone's
approval. Ignacio remained on the list at first reading, rejecting
Irving for fear of confusion with Irwin Street.
John Jay, statesmen and first Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, was decided upon for the next street in the alphabetical
sequence. Two American generals, Kirkham and Lawton, were
chosen next. Moraga seemed acceptable to the residents because
he'd been Anza's lieutenant and first commander of the Presidio.
Noriega had been a commander of the Monterey Presidio so that
seemed close enough to stave off local opposition. Ortega,
as a scout who was credited with the discovery of San Francisco
Bay, relaying the news to Portola, made him a logical choice
for a street name. Pacheco, while only a foot soldier in the
Anza expedition, at least had stayed on as an early settler
in the area.
The remaining names had been chosen by the powerful Parkside
Realty Company and were already in use, but one name was objected
to. Xavier had been a source of pronunciation controversy,
so it was decided to break the alphabetical pattern and move
to the next letter. Yorba had been a sergeant in Portola's
expedition of 1769, and with those credentials, was a better
choice to be honored with a street name. First Avenue's new
name was unsettled between Arguello and St. Francis Boulevard.
La Playa, Spanish for "the beach," was adopted without
"avenue." Before the Board met on November 29 for
final reading, some negotiation had taken place in the commission
because Balboa and Cabrillo had been restored and Irving and
Judah, originally proposed for the Bayview District, were
substituted now for Sunset District streets. The Sunset had
stood its ground and settled for Lincoln Way and four "American"
names for streets "I" through "L."
There was no more opposition to the use of "Spanish"
names for the rest of the streets in the district, which were
essentially unoccupied in 1909 anyway. Since the commission
had reached agreement with the demands of the western neighborhoods
and there was little opposition for the other citywide street
name changes, but no opportunity to deal with the Bayview
District over new street names, a split ordinance was brought
to the Board of Supervisors. On December 6, 1909, the Board
approved all street name changes except for the Bayview neighborhood,
which would have a hearing and be voted on after community
The neighborhood in the southern section of the city, which
had been known as South San Francisco, was making the transition
to calling itself the Bayview. In 1908, the former town of
Baden, just south of the San Bruno Mountains, incorporated
as South San Francisco and essentially stole the "identity"
of the southeast corner of San Francisco. For years, this
sparsely populated area had named its forty-five streets running
east-west as numerical avenues, with "South" attached
in the hope of avoiding confusion with the numerical streets
running from downtown southward or the numerical avenues in
the Richmond and Sunset districts. Initially the district,
represented by the Bayview Improvement Association, agreed
with the need to change from "avenues, south" to
other names of people or places.
Led by Father O'Sullivan of All Hallows Parish, and Father
Ford, a Jesuit from St. Ignatius College, the Bayview attempted
to influence the street name selection. The first contention
was over the use of the name of the "patriotic"
Thomas Paine, of American Revolutionary and "Age of Reason"
fame. When Paine was suggested for Sixteenth Avenue, South,
Father O'Sullivan protested vehemently against naming a thoroughfare
after someone they branded an atheist. The Examiner quoted
O'Sullivan as saying, "He was an infidel, and in South
San Francisco we are all Christians." The secretary of
the Bayview Improvement Association urged a compromise for
this famous American and suggested, "his name be given
to an out-of-the-way avenue on the hillside where nobody lived."
But according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the commission
refused to bury Paine on the hillside or to use his name at
The two Catholic priests vigorously protested names such
as Belfast and Cromwell, and these were scrapped in favor
of Bancroft and Carroll (the only Catholic signer of the Declaration
of Independence). Father Ford protested naming Thirtieth Avenue,
South as Fitzgerald Avenue: "I object to making a hero
of the author of pagan literature." He was overruled
when it was argued that Edward Fitzgerald was merely the translator
of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, not the author. In a final
vain attempt to insert his Irish and Catholic prejudice, Father
Sullivan objected to renaming Twenty-third Avenue, South as
Wallace Avenue, saying "he was a Scotch hero - and we
are Irish down South, three quarters of us anyway." In
the last hearing on December 13, Father Sullivan vowed that
no matter what changes the Board of Supervisors dictated,
"you can't make us do it," and the people of the
Bayview would "continue to call our avenues by their
numerical names." The final straw in the two clerics'
attempts to assert their nationalist and religious bias came
when Father O'Sullivan suggested that the chairman, Supervisor
Murdock, seemed to show strong inclinations to give English
names to streets. He cited the choice of Admiral Nelson, the
British naval hero, for Thirty-eighth Avenue, South. Chairman
Murdock's usual patience ended and he exploded: "I object
to being made out a liar. I have already said that the street
has not been named after Admiral Nelson." He stated that
the purpose was to honor General William Nelson of Kentucky,
not an English naval hero.
When the dust cleared, and the final vote was taken on December
21, the commission did placate the priests by naming one street
for Padre Palou (instead of Payne), another for Charles Carroll
(instead of Cromwell), and a third for the California historian
Hubert Howe Bancroft (instead of Belfast, the Protestant city
in North Ireland), although Bancroft was still living. The
north-south streets in the Bayview were lettered "A"
Street, South, through "T" Street, South, with the
letter O omitted. These were renamed using mostly prominent
San Francisco pioneers, but met with no protest. Two non-pioneers'
names were chosen: Colonel George H. Mendell, who was responsible
for laying out much of the coastal defense system and had
just recently died, and William Keith, the popular California
artist, the only other living person to have a street named
in his honor.
The street naming of 1909 started with the noblest of motives.
It soon took on the atmosphere of a farcical comic opera.
The outraged citizenry made exaggerated claims rife with bombastic
racism, nationalism and religious partisanship. By the final
curtain, the players had settled their differences and chosen
names that removed some of the confusion of streets with similar
letter or number designations. Almost all of these street
names are still in use today. A few of the streets in the
Bayview have disappeared with the construction of freeways
or the reconfiguration of thoroughfares in Hunter's Point
shipyard. The alphabetical pattern of the names of Spanish
explorers and early settlers that start with Anza and continue
south ending with Yorba have a strange grouping of four names
in the alphabetical sequence that seem inconsistent. The streets
named Irving, Judah, Kirkham and Lawton were a reaction to
a larger attempt to name all the avenues in the Richmond and
Sunset districts with Spanish names. These four street names
are a long-forgotten "patriotic" assertion of unity
by an emerging western neighborhood.