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"Spanish Town": Street Names in Western San Francisco

by John Freeman

Spanish Clothes

Have you ever driven south from Geary Boulevard on Park Presidio and noticed the names of the streets you pass? The alphabetical streets seem to be in a pattern. The first street is Anza, then Balboa, followed by Cabrillo. You say to yourself "ah, there is an alphabetical pattern here. They named the streets after Spanish explorers." If you are on 19th Avenue or Sunset Boulevard, heading north, you'll observe a similar pattern of alphabetical street names that seem tied to early exploration and settlement by Spaniards in this region.

The theory seems very valid until your reach the streets on the south side of Golden Gate Park lettered I, J, K and L. These are NOT Spanish. They are alphabetical, but they seem an aberration of a pattern. There is an interesting story of how Irving, Judah, Kirkham and Lawton streets got their names.

In the post-earthquake period, there was an attempt to correct a great many street names that were confusing for mail delivery. In 1909, a special commission was created by the Board of Supervisors to address these confusions and recommend changes to the Board. One of the biggest problems the Street Naming Commission encountered was the confusion between the numbered streets running from First Street downtown out to 34th street in the Mission District, and the numbered "avenues" in the western part of the city. After the earthquake and fire there had been a lot of new residents moving out to the avenues and in a pre-zip code era, the mail confusions were greatly increasing. To further complicate matters, the Bayview District was also using numbered streets, but as Avenue, "south" or just "S". The Richmond and Sunset had streets lettered A through X and the Bayview had streets lettered A south through U south (O was never used for a street name there).

To address this numerical and alphabetical confusion, the Commission hit upon a novel solution. They proposed eliminating all the numerical avenues and lettered streets in the Richmond and Sunset and replacing them with Spanish names in alphabetical order. In the Bayview, they proposed a similar elimination, but replacement with names of historic civic and military men in an alphabetical pattern.

The pattern proposed to replace the numerical avenues in the Richmond and Sunset was simple. The streets would run Arguello, Borca, Coronado, De Soto... to Zamorano for 26th Avenue. Some of the proposed names had historical significance; others were Spanish names that fit the pattern. After the 26th letter, the pattern would be Spanish saints, so that 27th Avenue would be San Antonio and 47th Avenue would be Santa Ynez. Unable to find a saint's name for K, Q, W or Z the Commission had two streets left over and recommended Alcatraz and La Playa to end the sequence.

After the proposal had its first reading before the Board of Supervisors on November 8, 1909, the western neighborhoods had an immediate hostile reaction. The more populated Richmond District took the lead and fiery orators were chosen to speak out at the Board meeting a week later. When the Board met on November 15, the speakers from the two western neighborhoods decried the idea of changing streets to these "unpronounceable" Spanish names. Orators got up and berated the Board for "selling out" to the Spanish we had so nobly defeated only a few years previously in the Philippines. The over-riding sentiment was that the accepting of these names would be a humiliation and henceforth the Richmond and Sunset would be mocked as "Spanish Town". Despite the vigorous oratory, the Board of Supervisors voted 12 to 5 to accept the recommended changes.

Outraged, the residents of the western avenues got organized to fight this imposition of Spanish names on their streets. The Richmond District had the oldest continuous neighborhood improvement club and had actively been fighting City Hall for years to get services for its growing population. (They had just won a battle against the Ocean Shore Railroad, which had proposed a steam train system running from the end of the United Rail line at 11th and Fulton, out to the beach.) Meetings were held, petitions were signed and the population of the two neighborhoods was mobilized to fight against this imposition of foreign names for its avenues.

Responding to the intense political pressure, the members of the Street Naming Commission agreed to a community meeting at Richmond Hall on Saturday November 20. The residents spoke passionately against street name changes and the Commission backed down. They agreed to go back to the Board of Supervisors with a new recommendation. The "save face" compromise was that the two western neighborhoods could have back their numbered avenues, but would retain two of the Commission's changes. Since La Playa is Spanish for "beach" no objection was raised. Two choices were suggested for First Avenue, either Arguello or St. Francis Boulevard.

At one of the meetings in late November, a lawyer got up and attempted to read a letter from one of the Arguello family, complaining about the slandering of their honored name. When the Chairman ruled him out of order he yielded the floor reluctantly, pausing before taking his seat to shout angrily, "Talk about Arguello being a bandit! Let me remind you that when you propose to call First Avenue 'St. Francis Boulevard' you suggest giving it the name of one of the very worst pirates who ever sailed the seas. That's what your St. Francis was."

"St. Francis a pirate?" queried the dazed Chairman. "Why, of whom are you talking, Sir?"

The attorney shot back "I mean St. Francis Drake, the pirate!"

"But our St. Francis," the chairman mildly reminded, "was St. Francis of Assisi, a priest, not a sea rover." Amid uproarious laughter, the lawyer beat a hastily exit from the chambers. This was indicative of the farcical tenor of the hearings. Since it seemed like the new park to be made from the City Cemetery at 33rd Avenue and Clement would likely get named St. Francis Park, Arguello was recommended for First Avenue.

With a compromise on Avenues completed, the attention turned to the cross streets in the Richmond and Sunset Districts. There remained the question of the alphabetical streets A through X to be named. A - C would need to be named. D Street was already being called Fulton, since it was an extension from downtown. Golden Gate Park had eliminated E - G. It was suggested that H Street be renamed to honor President Lincoln with no objection. That left I - X in the alphabetical sequence to be named.

There was a solidarity pact between the two neighborhoods now. Still stinging from the "Spanish Town" controversy, the mood in the neighborhood was for names of American heroes. The Richmond only had 3 streets to name, the Sunset had 16. The Richmond toyed with "Custer" for it's C street, but ended up giving it back to the Bayview District (Although only suggestions, many patriot American names had been assigned to the Bayview.) Instead the Richmond went with three Spanish explores, Anza, Balboa and Cabrillo.

The Sunset had a more difficult task. The powerful Parkside Realty Company, who were developing the southern portion of the Sunset, had already been using Pacheco, Quintara, Rivera, Santiago, Taraval , Ulloa, Vicente and Wawona for its tract. That left I through N to name, plus X. Xavier had been passed by the Board, but was deemed too confusing to pronounce and it was dropped for Yorba. The Sunset representatives borrowed two names from the proposed Bayview street name list and suggested Irving and Judah.

A literary American, Washington Irving was deserving of recognition. Theodore Judah, the engineering genius who got scant credit for the monumental task of planning the transcontinental railway through the Sierra to link the East and West, was an ironic choice. The railroad tycoons who made the fortunes eclipsed him, but he was the most deserving of recognition for his truly heroic contribution to the West. Ralph Wilson Kirkham had the right credentials as a general from the Civil War and Mexican War, so his name was chosen. Henry W. Lawton was an Army general recently killed in the Philippines, so he more than met the American patriot criteria.

The Sunset men had made their point by choosing names of Americans. We can only assume they had no fight left in them when it came to the last three letters (M-O). Moraga had been second in command under Anza. Noriega had been the commander of both the Santa Barbara and Monterey presidios. Ortega deserved credit for discovering San Francisco Bay while on the Portola expedition.

On November 29, 1909 the final vote on the street name changes for the entire city (with the exception of the Bayview) was unanimously approved. The Richmond and Sunset street names had used up so much time and energy, that the Board of Supervisors delayed those name changes until there was full community input from the Bayview District. (see http://sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/s/streetNaming.html)

The streets that run east and west through the Richmond and Sunset Districts do have a pattern. There is alphabetical integrity and there once was an attempt to maintain recognition of our Spanish heritage. But in attempting to create that pattern, the bureaucrats offended the residents. The Sunset District asserted their muscle and proudly chose four American-born heroes to represent them.

Read a fuller account from John Freeman on the Street Naming controversy on the Encyclopedia of San Francisco site.

Images: The Sunset District objects to wearing the "Spanish Clothes" put on by the Committee on Street Names while Mayor Taylor looks on. Cartoon from the San Francisco Examiner, November 23, 1909.

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