Excerpt from San Francisco's Sunset District

by Lorri Ungaretti

Introduction

The development of San Francisco’s Sunset District is one of startling change over a relatively short period of time. Other, more well-known neighborhoods of San Francisco, such as Chinatown, North Beach, and downtown, developed early. By 1900, houses in these areas lined graded streets where transportation lines ran. In contrast, unpaved sand dunes covered most of the Sunset District in 1900.

In the 1800s, what we now call the “Sunset” was in the area called “The Outside Lands.” This land was not part of the City of San Francisco. It was Mexican land until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave it to the United States Government in 1848.

In 1850, San Francisco incorporated for the first time, describing its western boundary as Larkin Street and what is now 9th Street. (Note: This was 9th Street, not 9th Avenue.) One year later, in 1851, the city re-incorporated, changing the western boundary to Divisadero Street, giving a new neighborhood its name: the Western Addition. No mention is made of the Outside Lands as part of San Francisco until 1852, when the city petitioned the federal government for ownership of that area. After various court battles and rulings, an Act of Congress in 1866 confirmed that the land belonged to the City of San Francisco.

At that time, the Outside Lands were virtually unoccupied, except for some squatters. People considered the western side of San Francisco uninhabitable, with its rolling sand dunes and frequent fog and wind. A few hearty souls set up ranches and farms. A few others built vacation homes, road houses (of varying reputations), and bordellos out along the beach. Some moneyed San Franciscans purchased acres of sand dunes in the Sunset, hoping to make money from their investments.

Long before many people moved to The Outside Lands, maps displayed a grid-like arrangement  of streets. For example, the 1875 Langley map (see page 11) showed all the streets laid out in the Sunset, even though most of the area was still unpaved sand dunes. The streets running north-south were numbered and called “avenues” to differentiate them from the “streets” on the eastern side of the city. (This gave rise to another term for the Sunset District: “The Avenues.”)


The streets running east-west, parallel to Golden Gate Park, were simply an alphabetical list. Starting north of the park with A Street, the names continued south of the park to W Street. In 1909, the Board of Supervisors approved the renaming of streets, in part to eliminate confusion from duplicate street names around the city. The new names reflected Spanish, American Indian, and other contributors to California history. The planners chose to keep the alphabetical order of the streets. Except for Lincoln, which had been called H Street, all the streets from I to W kept their initial letters: Irving, Judah, Kirkham, Lawton, Moraga, Noriega, Ortega, Pacheco, Quintara, Rivera, Santiago, Taraval, Ulloa, Vicente, and Wawona.

Events that spurred growth in the Sunset included the construction of Golden Gate Park, beginning in 1870; the establishment of the Affiliated Colleges (now University of California) in 1898; and a devastating earthquake and fire in 1906 that drove many San Franciscans west.

The final critical element needed for Sunset District growth was transportation. Most people did not have cars; they needed to live in neighborhoods that had public transportation to downtown jobs. When the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened in 1918 and the Sunset Tunnel opened in 1929, streetcar service downtown made residency in the Sunset feasible, even desirable. People began building houses in large numbers in the 1920s, and more houses were built in the Sunset in the 1930s than at any other time.

Today’s Sunset District is bounded on the south by Sloat Boulevard, on the west by the Great Highway (along the ocean), and on the north by Lincoln Way. The eastern boundary jogs a bit, starting at Lincoln and Arguello (or First Avenue) but excluding the University of California, as well as the Forest Hill and West Portal neighborhoods.

Long before the development of suburban areas outside San Francisco, city residents considered the Sunset to be the suburbs. It seemed far from the “action” and from work. Many families wishing to get away from the busy, dirty, dangerous downtown saw the Sunset as an affordable and attractive place to live.

To Order the Book

To order San Francisco's Sunset District, go to your local bookstore, or visit the Arcadia Publishing website.