Alexander Clark Real Estate

‘The Front Steps’: Whatever Happened To First Avenue?

It’s no surprise that they got rid of 13th Avenue in 1917–people are a superstitious lot, after all. And you might not know if there was ever a 49th Avenue instead of La Playa Street to begin with.

But that leaves one question hanging: Why is there no First Avenue?

The early 20th century fracas around what became Arguello Boulevard gets a fair amount of attention from local historians. But the full story has never quite been told.

Here’s the deal: In the years before the 1906 earthquake, SF’s street names were a mess; not only was there a First Street and a First Avenue, we also had First Avenue South (running through what is today Bayview). This being a time before ZIP codes, accurate mail delivery was basically down to an act of God.

Post-1906, city alders saw an opportunity to rename parts of the grid: In this new vision, the Richmond’s numbered avenues would take on names commemorating various historical Spanish colonizer figures–an easy solution.

Or was it? To the surprise of the Street Naming Commission, Richmond residents came out en masse against not only changing the names but also against Spanish history and language itself.

“The American tongue does not readily accommodate itself to the eccentricities of Spanish consonants” (yikes…) a 1909 editorial in the San Francisco Call complained, insisting that the city “talk United States” instead.

“Why should all these Iberian appellations be hurled down on our district? And all these saints!” one protester complained at a late 1909 hearing, grumbling about “freebooters and cutthroats” in Spanish history.

In one infamous anecdote, a local decried St. Francis of Assisi (after whom San Francisco is named) as “a pirate”–turns out he was thinking of Sir Francis Drake.

The Naming Commission, unprepared for this anti-Spanish brouhaha, caved, and the avenues stayed

All this, as we’ve said, has been reported before–with one omission: First Avenue became Arguello Boulevard in spite of the protests, just as the commission planned. But why?

Modern sources like western neighborhoods historian John Freeman sometimes write that the Arguello renaming was a move to “save face,” but the newspaper reports at the time don’t mention this, or indeed any specific reason why the city pushed ahead with the Arguello name.

(La Playa Street also snuck in, but that was on the grounds that it just means “the beach” and had nothing to do with saints or “freebooters,” and the angry public had to concede that much.)

So we asked Freeman himself. As he assesses it, the anger coalition was victorious in 1909 but also lacked the political capital to keep arguing about just one street.

“Arguello almost snuck in during a closed session of the committee,” Freeman writes. “The enraged neighbors who fought against all the streets in their neighborhood with Spanish names had no fight left.” After all they’d won the day on Second through 48th Avenues already.

The committee had wanted to make First into a special destination–a boulevard rather than a mere street–and they stuck with it even after the “Spanish Town” fiasco. “So Arguello would remain in contra-point to La Playa,” Freeman writes.

As it still does today.

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1 reply »

  1. Thanks for an accurate, and cleverly worded, telling of the street-naming controversy of 1909 that I researched and wrote about for the Western Neighborhoods Project site.
    I will add one small speculative detail about the change to Arguello Boulevard in our map. Jose Dario Arguello had once been a commander at the Presidio and later Governor of Alta California in 1814. . His body is buried in Mission Dolores Cemetery. He clearly had some historic “chops” So who’s to complain that a boulevard that connects the Richmond District to the south entrance of the Presidio and is so-named within it, shouldn’t continue to Fulton Street and Golden Gate Park?


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