Street Naming Controversy--1909

Historical Essay

by John Freeman


East Street's new name means Jumping-off place.

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."

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.


Topsy-Turvy Town

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 and Ximenes.

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 neighborhoods.

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 input.

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 all."

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.

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