In 1889, Bernal Heights Was a Confusing Mess of California Avenues

1889 map thumbnail

Last week, map maven Eric Fischer zapped a tweet to La Lengua’s rebel spokesblogger Burrito Justice, sending him a link to an odd 1889 map of Bernal Heights:

In addition to proving that La Lengua has always been part of the Dominion of Bernalwood, the map showed a certain lack of creativity among those who took it upon themselves to name the streets in those days.

On this 1889 map, present-day Coleridge, Mirabel, Shotwell, Esmeralda (from today’s park eastward), Peralta (north of Esmeralda), and Holladay were all called California Avenue. There are even three places where one California Avenue intersects another California Avenue.

1889 map annotated

It’s also a reminder of the tendency of planners to try to impose street grids onto terrain that makes building straight-line streets impossible — a folly which has resulted in the disconnected un-streets seen in another recent Bernalwood post.

I wrote about that phenomenon’s effect on Peralta Avenue last year, and I happen to live at one of the former intersections of California and California (Peralta and Esmeralda).These “paper streets” were a persistent feature on old maps, even as the names of the aspirational streets changed.

In this 1924 map, California Esmeralda goes over the top of Bernal Hill:

Despite the lines on the map, that part of Esmeralda remained wisely unbuilt when Harrison Ryker took aerial photos of Bernal Heights in 1938:

By 1948, unbuilt “paper streets” (map via Eric Fischer again) were shown as dotted lines:

Such visionary views of Bernal Heights are always good for a few knowing chuckles and “what-ifs.” Yet if you think it’s hard trying to get a cab or order a pizza today if you live on an odd stretch of Esmeralda, just imagine how much worse it would have been if you had to give directions that involved a delivery to the intersection of California and California.

19 thoughts on “In 1889, Bernal Heights Was a Confusing Mess of California Avenues

  1. Among the more interesting things (well, things that interest me, anyway) are that Bayshore was then the San Bruno Road. I’m a geek on San Bruno Road/Avenue, which starts at Division in South of Market and eventually winds up in San Bruno, after being renamed, diverted, cut off, and going through lots of permutations. Also, notice that Barneveld is one continuous street, not the two disjointed unrelated streets we see today. I am curious, though about Navy Street. I thought Navy had been 26th under Horner’s Addition, but it’s not named Navy. When did the name change? Prior to 1889?

    • That’s a really good question about the now-numbered Horner’s Addition streets. From maps in the David Rumsey collection, it can be narrowed down: they were still named in 1861 but numbered by 1873. The Langley city directory for 1861 says that the South of Market streets were numbered since the previous edition, so maybe that’s when the whole system was rationalized.

  2. I think the most shocking thing in this map is that Cortland was spelled Courtland with a U!

  3. I moved to Coleridge Street in 1975, I had learned/heard a long time ago that Coleridge was once California Avenue, and that the present site of Big Lots was the original streetcar barn for the California Avenue line. I lived in different flats on Coleridge within 6 houses of each other: 87, 89 and then 132B, finally had to leave in August, 2011 due to the Ellis Act.

  4. What I want to know is…what happened to erase the fabulously named Serpentine that snaked along the other side of Army, and how did it come to be so compellingly undulated in the first place.

    • Burrito Justice has a detailed history of Serpentine Avenue, but in summary: it snaked because it followed the line of the old Precita Creek, and it disappeared because there was considerable legal doubt over whether it was officially a street in the first place, so people bought parts of it and built buildings over it. A few pieces survive, like the weird southern end of Capp Street.

  5. It’s not commonly known, but La Lengua actually seceded back in the 1920s when it became clear you guys weren’t treating the hill we let you name very seriously.

  6. I’m going to guess that “California Avenue” was a placeholder name, conventionally used by this map-maker to mean “Yet Unbuilt and Unnamed Street”

  7. My great grandfather lived at 152 California Avenue from about 1899 until sometime in 1909. Turns out it was very convenient since the family owned a bar/saloon (Dolan Bros) at 3311 Mission Street which was almost directly behind the California Avenue residence. When I first found the address I thought it was a typo and that it must be California Street having no idea there was an “Avenue”. It took me a while to figure it out. I have three photos that look like they might be California Ave in the early 1900s.
    I emailed Bernalwood two old articles I had about street name changes; both talk about California Avenue.

    • I currently live on Bonview St, & I have an old map of the city from a time when this street was called “Buena Vista”. (& It shows Esmerelda going over the hill)

      • Interesting that the old Spanish name was half Anglicized and half Frenchified.

        Also interesting (to me, anyway) is the fact that the past participle of “to see” in English, French, and Spanish sound like “scene,” “view,” and “vista,” respectively: I’ve seen. J’ai vu. He vista.

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