San Diego is famous for its mild weather and laid-back lifestyle, but locals also know the city has a particularly complex web of neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods. In fact, the city has so many nabes that even life-long San Diegans never discover some of them. Here’s a selection of some of the districts with names that have the most interesting origin stories.
1. BANKERS HILL
Take stroll through the stately, mansion-lined streets of Bankers Hill and you’ll get a hint about how it got its name. The hilly neighborhood, which contains some of San Diego’s most beautiful historic homes, seemed so rich that early San Diegans apparently assumed a bunch of bankers lived there, and a name was born.
2. BARRIO LOGAN
Barrio Logan only recently got an old-school-style neighborhood gateway sign, but it’s been a distinct neighborhood since the 1880s. The Logan part pays tribute to Congressman John Logan, an Illinois senator who became popular in the city because of legislation he wrote that was intended to create a transcontinental railroad from Texas to California. The railroad was never completed, but when the land for the planned railroad was sold for development in 1886, one of the main streets was named Logan Avenue in honor of Logan’s efforts (incidentally, Logan was also instrumental in creating Memorial Day nationwide). The neighborhood that bore his name became home to a large concentration of Mexican-Americans over the years, and “barrio” (“neighborhood” in Spanish) became a formal part of the neighborhood name in the 1960s when Logan Heights, as it was once known, was split in two by a freeway. Today, Logan Heights is the northern part of the area and Barrio Logan is the southern.
Blame a clever city planner for Birdland’s name: Most of the neighborhood’s streets are named after bird species, like the blue jay and starling.
4. NORMAL HEIGHTS
You may think the “normal” in “Normal Heights” refers to the neighborhood’s everyday feel, but the name actually comes from the teachers college, San Diego Normal School, that later became San Diego State University (even though, rather oddly, the school was actually located in a nearby neighborhood).
5. CITY HEIGHTS
The “Steiner, Klauber, Choate and Castle Addition” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but such was the original name of what’s now known as City Heights, which was once unincorporated land purchased by developers named Klauber, Steiner, and Castle (a man named Daniel Choate helped them subdivide the land). In 1912, City Heights temporarily ceased to exist when it became its own city named East San Diego. But East San Diego didn’t last long, and in 1923 it was annexed by San Diego, with the City Heights name in use once again. The bigger neighborhood of City Heights is actually comprised of a collection of smaller neighborhoods with names like Teralta, Bay Ridge, and Fairmount Park; however, they’re all called City Heights by the City of San Diego and most residents who aren’t in the know.
Thank a pair of developers for Clairemont’s name. In the late 1940s, Lou Burgener and Carlos Tavares put down money on a bunch of cattle land and decided to turn their acres into tract housing to accommodate the postwar influx of San Diegans. Tavares’s wife, future philanthropist and legendary arts patron Claire Tavares, suggested a family-friendly design for the new community, which had a “village within a city” concept, and they named it in her honor.
7. GASLAMP QUARTER
Today, the Gaslamp is home to some of San Diego’s most vibrant nightlife. But at the beginning of the 20th century, it was called “New Town” as opposed to “Old Town” a few miles away. The neighborhood’s thriving red-light district got the nickname “Stingaree,” a play on “stingray” (probably in reference to the rays in San Diego Bay as well as the dangers of the area), and over the years it developed a reputation for crime, prostitution, gambling, and unsavory characters. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city of San Diego decided it was time to clean up the area’s act, renamed it the Gaslamp Quarter, renovated it, and sold it as a historic district once filled with Victorian gems and flickering gas lamps. (The city also added new gas lamps to encourage the feel.) The neighborhood is now packed with shops, hotels, and pricey eateries that belie the neighborhood’s gritty roots.
8. GOLDEN HILL
Golden Hill got its name not from the rich residents whose houses once lined its streets, but from nature. The area was originally named Indian Hill, but in 1887 a developer named Daniel Schuyler successfully petitioned city trustees to rename the area with the help of a poem that celebrated the neighborhood’s “golden light.” What that golden light was, however, has been subject to debate, with the main guesses being that the sun made Indian Hill shine like gold [PDF] or that the area was once covered with gold-blooming acacias.
PDPhoto.org via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Speaking of hills, the origin of Hillcrest’s name is pretty simple—it’s at the crest of a hill. A woman named Mary Kearney originally owned the land, but from the 1870s through the early 1900s it changed hands multiple times. The name was supposedly suggested by the sister-in-law of a developer long before the neighborhood became the LGBT center of the city.
10. KEARNY MESA
Remember Mary Kearney? She’s not the Kearny in Kearny Mesa. The community was named for a former military base—Camp Kearny—which was later renamed Miramar. And that camp was named after Stephen Watts Kearny, the U.S. Army Brigadier General who helped conquer California during the Mexican-American war.
Known for its luxurious homes, Kensington is said to have been named after a similarly ritzy London neighborhood. The neighborhood was initially called Kensington Park, but the “Park” part was dropped at some point over the years. One of the neighborhood’s subdivisions, Talmadge, has a connection to one of San Diego’s lesser-known roles—as a pre-Hollywood film center. It was named after the Talmadge sisters, a group of silent film stars who opened a real estate development there in the late 1920s (in no small part because Norma Talmadge’s then-husband, studio executive Joseph Schenck, helped finance the development).
12. LINDA VISTA
With its vistas over San Diego Bay and Mission Valley, it’s no mystery why the Spanish name for “pretty view” became Linda Vista’s name. As San Diego’s population boomed during World War II, the southern part of Kearny Mesa was named Linda Vista by housing officials and slated as a place for dense military housing—despite the fact that there were no schools, sidewalks, bus routes, shops, or other accommodations nearby. Eventually it was built out into a proper neighborhood, with a name that keeps its view top of mind.
13. LITTLE ITALY
Italian fishermen were once part of a thriving tuna industry along San Diego’s waterfront. The “Italian Colony” that built up in what is now Little Italy is responsible for its name, though today the neighborhood is better known for its food and festivals than its fishermen.
14. NORTH PARK
You can thank lemons—and a man named James Monroe Hartley—for North Park’s name. Hartley bought the land that is now North Park in 1893 to create a lemon grove. It was part of a parcel of land known as Park Villas, but was renamed “Hartley’s North Park” because of its new owner and its location north of Balboa Park. Eventually, San Diego grew enough that Hartley’s lemon grove became desirable home-building territory. All the better, since Hartley apparently had to truck in water due to a drought that was then hitting the area.
15. OLD TOWN
As its name implies, Old Town has some serious history. It’s where the first non-native settlers of California dug in, building first a Spanish mission, then Mexican pueblos, and finally an American city. However, Old Town was simply known as San Diego until an upstart developer named Alonzo Horton started a nearby settlement he called “New Town” (built on an earlier attempt at a New Town that failed dramatically). That new New Town became Downtown, and Old Town got its present-day name.
16. POINT LOMA
Speaking of old: Point Loma’s name dates from long before California was populated by Europeans. In 1542, an explorer named Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo made the first landing in California, in San Diego Bay, and named its east peninsula “la punta de la loma,” or “hill point.” It took another couple of hundred years for the area to be colonized, but the name Point Loma stuck.
17. SCRIPPS RANCH
Suburban Scripps Ranch doesn’t seem like the kind of place where people would undertake a utopian social experiment, but that’s what happened in 1891 when an up-and-coming newspaper mogul named Edward Willis (or Wyllis) Scripps began building his dream home. He named it “Miramar,” or “sea view,” after the one-time Mexican Emperor Maximilian I’s palace. The entire family moved in to try out communal, idealistic living. Unfortunately, Scripps’ social experiment ended [PDF] when his brother Fred was indicted for sleeping with a 14-year-old girl, but Miramar Ranch—later renamed Scripps Ranch—eventually became a popular place to live. The name would later stick and become attached to the surrounding neighborhood.
Tierrasanta’s name—it means “holy land” in Spanish—is a testament to its holy roots, though the community wasn’t founded until the 1970s. Before that, it was part of the Mission San Diego de Alcála Ranch. There, thousands of indigenous people were enslaved by Franciscan friars, including Junípero Serra, the controversial mission leader who became a Catholic saint in 2015. Allegations that the mission and its ranch were the site of virtual slavery or even genocide aren’t the only explosive things in Tierrasanta: The community was once a military training base and has experienced several issues related to unexploded ordnance.
Black Canyon Road Bridge in Ramona. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Ramona technically isn’t part of the City of San Diego—rather, it counts as one of the county’s “unincorporated places.” But it gets an honorary inclusion on this list because of the strange origin of its name. “Ramona” wasn’t a historical figure but a fictitious one, the heroine of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel by the same name. The 1884 book follows the woes of the mixed-race Native American/Scottish Ramona as she navigates racial tension and romantic tragedy in old Southern California; the book was so popular that some have credited it with largely creating the tourism industry in Southern California.