A History Tour of San Francisco's Street Names

Click on a street in this delightful interactive map, and a history lesson pops up.

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Noah Veltman

In Washington, D.C., there's no great mystery to the names on our street grid. With a minimum of creativity (but a kind gesture toward future tourists), the capital was long ago laid out with a simple taxonomy: North-South streets are numbered in ascending order away from the center of town; East-West streets follow the same pattern using the alphabet; and the maddening diagonals are named after states. Resulting locations are for the most part easy to find just about anywhere in town: Anyone who knows the alphabet can get to the corner of 15th and R Northwest.

There's an elegance to such a legible street-naming system. But maybe we lose out in Washington on the subtle lessons from history and culture that are embedded, say, at the intersection of Portola Drive and O'Shaughnessy Boulevard in San Francisco. Michael O'Shaughnessy? He was an important civil engineer in California history. And Portola? That would be Gaspar de Portolà, the Spanish explorer who led an expedition to San Francisco Bay in 1769.

This trivia comes from a delightful interactive map of the history behind San Francisco's street names, created by Noah Veltman (hat tip to Flowing Data for pointing us to it). Click on a street, and a history lesson pops up.

Castro Street, for instance, may not be the Castro you are thinking of:

The head shots are a nice touch. Some of our other favorites unearthed from the city's map:

We'd love to see something like this in any number of other cities (perhaps D.C. notwithstanding).

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.