In San Francisco, we have a lot of streets with no-nonsense names, like Pine, 3rd Street and Broadway. But what about Geary? Divisadero? Castro? Do you know what they’re named for?

There’s a map for that.

A new interactive map from Noah Veltman, a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow at the BBC, gives the history behind the names of San Francisco’s streets and parks. If you’re interested in San Francisco history in the slightest, this map is a goldmine.

“It’s a very interesting window into the layers of San Francisco history,” Veltman said. “You have the mission era, the gold rush, railroad tycoons,” and many others represented in the city.

See the interactive map here. It lets you filter by categories and neighborhoods, or you can type in a place of interest.

Screen shot: History of San Francisco map by Noah Veltman.
Screen shot: History of San Francisco Place Names by Noah Veltman.

Veltman said worked on the map for two months. He used Open Street Map, an open-source depository of world map data, and he designed and built the map himself.

The hardest part, he said, was the historical research.

Reliability was an issue, he said. He tried to cross-check all his facts, because often one source would tell one story and another source would tell it slightly differently.

“It’s a lot of just manual legwork,” Veltman said. “Looking at old archives, school books, old newspaper articles from The Chronicle, checking out historical society pages. There were certainly no shortcuts.”

Learn more:

Two of Veltman’s favorite resources were “San Francisco Street Secrets” by David Eames and “Streets of San Francisco” by Louis Loewenstein.

Interactive Map: A History of San Francisco Place Names 30 April,2013Rachael Bale

  • The map’s elements simply link to Wikipedia, a very uneven and sometimes outright unreliable source of historical information.

    • Statistical analysis of Wikipedia articles show them more reliable than print encyclopedias. But that is neither here nor there. The information (eg, look at Bernal Hill) is NOT from Bernal Hill. It is original content about Bernal Hill:

      “Presumably named after José Cornelio Bernal, but may have been named
      after his grandfather, Anza expedition member Juan Francisco Bernal.”

      and then there is a link to an interesting link to “Rancho Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo” which talks about Juan and José Bernal. Noah isn’t making an encylopidia, rather, he is creating original content and using a repeatable (to the majority of the population) sources. He would be recreating the wheel if he linked to anything other than Wikipedia.

      My question is this: how do we add more information Noah?

  • Pammylaala

    Love this kind of thing! How about adding a crowd sourcing layer to the application to gather more facts photos and stories!?

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  • ItsTom

    I thought Polk street was named for Willis Polk, the architect.

  • Guest

    I love it but I wish it had real detail which would take some research. Many streets are just the names of landowners but I would still like to know the history. Every time I see a girl’s name, I wonder if it was some major property owner’s daughter…that kind of thing.

  • Zann Goff

    Love it! There’s misinformation on several streets, and many streets with easily-found histories are omitted completely (Laguna, Shotwell, etc.) I’m such a nerd. Yeah, I sent him a message with corrections and links. 🙂 There’s a great list that was compiled in 1901 that fills in many gaps:



Rachael Bale

Rachael Bale is researcher and reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting and occasional contributor to KQED News and The California Report. A California native, she has a bachelor's degree in political science from Reed College and a master's degree in journalism from American University.

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