From Lick to Main: Noah Veltman on his amazing interactive SF street name history map


When I saw Noah Veltman's interactive SF street (and landmark) name history map pop up on feed last week, I was instantly engrossed. (It was especially refreshing after staring at this depressing interactive map of Ellis evictions.) Of course I looked up my own street immediately, duh.

Many of us have encountered various bits of street name history along our travels, but here was a comprehensive aggregator that was fun to play with, and covered James Lick Freeway to Main Street, all in one handy spot. Did you know that Baker street was named after Edward Dickinson Baker, the lawyer who defended accused US Marshal killer Charles Cora, before Cora was lynched by the Vigilance Commitee in 1856? Or that Moraga was named for José Joaquín Moraga, founder of San Jose? Or how about Germania -- it's actually named after German people!

(One thing you do realize after a couple of minutes is that most of the streets are named after dudes, both military and wealthy. Maybe going forward, SF will institute gender parity naming regulations, like Berlin just did.)

I wanted to talk to Noah more about what inspired him to make the map, where he got his info from, and if the SF map -- and the mapping project as a whole -- would continue to grow. So I sent him an email. Here are the smart, and smartly civic, things he had to say

"I'm a Web developer by trade, I've always made interactive graphics like this for fun, although this is probably my most ambitious (you can see some of my other side projects here). I grew up on the peninsula, and lived in San Francisco for the last 4 years, but I moved to London in January for a one-year fellowship doing interactive graphics and data journalism at the BBC.

"I made the map because I thought it would be a neat way to take San Francisco's colorful history and connect to everyday experience, give you a new sense of your neighborhood and your city. I used to walk down these streets all the time and never had any idea that they all pointed to so many larger-than-life characters and pivotal events. The names tell stories that you couldn't make up if you tried: duels,
saloon shootouts, mob justice, espionage, overnight millionaires, explorers, tycoons, battles, rebellions. They also give you a lot of insight into people who in some cases literally built the city, people who created its skyscrapers or its railroads or its parks. That kind of local history has an immediacy you don't get when you're learning about something like the Founding Fathers. You walk past it on your way to work every day.

"There were a number of surprising histories to me, like the fact that Main Street isn't a generic name, it's named after Charles Main. I also never knew Crissy Field used to be a military airfield - I'm sure there's a plaque explaining that somewhere but I had never come across it. Some other favorites:

Green Street
Broderick Street
Woodward Street
Guerrero Street


"I got the information from lots of places -- a few different books, but also old news clippings, military records, historical society sites, that sort of thing. Usually I would start with a claim that a street was named for somebody, and then find as much corroborating evidence as I could, and if it seemed solid, research for other colorful details about the person's life. Needless to say it was a time-intensive process.

"I'll definitely be adding more to the map over time, there are lots of histories missing, and I've gotten lots of helpful tips from others since posting the map. Some streets are left out by design though. Many are self-explanatory or don't have a historical component (for example, lots of names are just Spanish words or trees or foreign cities), I wanted to focus on ones that would be interesting and not clutter up the map with the rest. I also had to leave out a lot of ones with potentially interesting histories that were hard to verify. I wanted to be careful about not presenting rumor as fact, and there's plenty of rumor to go around when it comes to how the streets got their names. It's a tough balancing act, a lot of judgment calls, and I'm sure I still got a few wrong.

"This wasn't originally meant to be a larger project, but once I got deeper into it I realized that I'd really like to expand it to other cities, so I'm going to be working on that in the coming weeks. I'd like to work on additional cities myself (maybe LA and London next) but I'd also like to generalize the template and create blank versions for lots of cities in the world and open them up for others to work on. I've gotten tons of feedback from folks who would be excited to make something similar for their home cities, and I'd love to help make that happen.

"As far as other upcoming projects, in addition my work at the BBC and taking the street name map beyond San Francisco, I'm hoping to start on a project to visualize diasporas from different countries around the world."

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