Hey Area: The case of San Francisco's missing O Street

Oct 4, 2016

It’s easy to navigate the streets in San Francisco’s Bayview District once you realize that they’re alphabetical. Avenues, for example, go McKinnon, Newcomb, Oakdale, Palou, etc. Streets go Mendell, Newhall, Phelps. 

No, I didn’t leave out an “O” Street. The city did. And that’s why listener Zeke Cullen contacted the KALW “Hey Area” project. He lives near the missing “O” street. Where did it go? Why did this happen?  That’s exactly the question I asked local historian John Freeman, author of an article for the online “Encyclopedia of San Francisco” titled “Street Naming Controversy – 1909.”  He has a theory. But first some background.  

There was no master plan to early San Francisco, so the name of a street could change to something totally different in the next block, for no reason. Or it could have the same name as something else nearby.

Every church would be on Church Street, Freeman says. Or Church Alley. Or Church Lane. Something had to be done, and the Board of Supervisors saw the city’s rehabilitation after the 1906 earthquake as the time to do it. 

What is now called the Bayview was Butchertown a century ago.  “That’s where the slaughterhouses were. [And] they were curing leather and all this kind of stuff,” says Freeman. “It was the least desirable part of town.”

There was almost no infrastructure — effluent went straight into the Bay — and the city saw no reason to devote funds to this part of town.

Historian Freeman checked old maps. “And I also double-checked to see what the city directory would say. … There’s nothing in the city directory that ever even talks about this portion of the city.”

But it doesn’t cost much to put up a street sign. Why is the Bayview missing one starting with an “O”? Freeman’s research finds only one possibility: “My conclusion is that it was just left out, accidentally.” 

He explains the misplacement of an entire street like this: “This is way out in the margins of the city. It did not have … gridded ways of putting in houses and so forth. … So nobody was paying attention to that kind of thing.”

That sounds possible. But it also sounds unlikely, since the head of this street re-naming commission was Charles Murdock, a member of the Board of Supervisors, and a quality printer by trade. Quality printers take special note of proper spelling and dropped letters, so how could he allow this?

Freeman defends the chairman by saying missing streets were beyond the responsibility of his commission. 

“He’s taking what he was given. He was given an 1876 map that had taken the ‘O’ out anyway. And he worked with what he had. He wasn’t going to get creative, and say, ‘Oh, you know what? We need to have another meeting and let’s put an ‘O’ in there.”

Chairman Murdock himself wrote that the job of the re-naming commission was to correct only the most confusing of the street names, "leaving undisturbed much that is to be regretted but can be endured."

“It’s a very unsatisfying answer,” laments questioner Cullen. “And I can’t imagine in all that back-and-forth between the city and the residents that an entire street would be left out.” Yet, that’s where the facts point. 

I have a further disappointment for Cullen, though.  I ask him to open the authoritative Thomas Guide of maps that I’ve brought along. 

Cullen turns to the Index and thumbs the L section, since he lives on LaSalle. There’s a LaSalle Canyon, “but that’s not in San Francisco.” Continuing to stare at the page does not make his street materialize. Slowly, sadly, he realizes, “The street where I actually live, my address is not in the Thomas Guide.” 

And neither are any of the other streets of the Bayview. 

There was no mention of this portion of the town in the city directory a century ago, and that tradition lives on today in this major book of maps.

This story is a part of Hey Area, KALW's collaborative reporting project. Got a question for Hey Area? Ask it below.

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