The Ghost Streets of San Francisco

castro_duncan_ghosts0803.jpgGhosts cavort where Castro Street should be!

Intrepid explorers of San Francisco regularly stumble upon the many ghost streets that still hide all over town, rewarding the patient pedestrian for their diligence. Mostly they are on hillsides where steep grades impeded road building at earlier moments in history, but they’re still presented as if they were through-streets on the maps.

A tour begins with an old map and lots of photos below the break.

se_sf_ghost_streets.jpg1909 map of southeastern San Francisco. Most of the streets here are still under water, awaiting a bayfill effort.

Other ghost streets can be found not on foot but by exploring old maps, where one can enjoy the strange city that extends well into the bay off the southeastern shoreline. I’ve heard rumors, or maybe I saw a story in the Chron decades ago, about families that continue to pay their property tax annually on parcels that are well into the bay and thoroughly under water. On this 1909 map of the Yosemite Creek area, streets going NW/SE are numbered and alphabetized but they later got real names. The perpendicular grid of alphabetized streets were eventually given real names (similar to what happened in the "outside lands" of the Richmond and Sunset). But on this 1909 map, Jennings, Ingalls, Hawes, Griffith, and Fitch (J, I, H, G, F) are followed southeast into the bay by E, D, C, B, and A streets, and five further blocks with the names, Ship, Dock, Tevis, Von Schmidt, and Pollock before arriving at "Water Front" boulevard. Obviously these streets were never created since the bayfill on which they depended never happened.

harry_steps_adjacent_garden0764.jpgSpectacular garden adjacent to Harry "Street."
harry_steps_down0771.jpgHarry "Street" in its forest.

harry_and_laidley0751.jpgWhere Harry Meets Laidley.

My favorite ghost streets are short blocks, usually either bedecked with amazing gardens tended by loving neighbors, or else just odd stubs that continue to defy the rigid grid-imposing city planners of days gone by. In these small patches of nature, sometimes groomed, sometimes not, we can free our imaginations from the sterile symmetry imposed by endless blocks of asphalt crisscrossing the city. When we whisper to each other "One Lane for Food" or other equally "preposterous" depaving notions, the ghost streets echo back to us a knowing wink with a survivor’s resilience. Probably the best patch of ghost streets in town is the Filbert Steps and its cross "streets" Napier Lane and Darrell Place. The Grace Marchant Garden that fills most of the Filbert right of way on the east side of Telegraph Hill is one of the true ecological treasures of San Francisco, home too to a big flock of much-celebrated parrots.

filbert_steps_0157.jpgFilbert Steps on Telegraph Hill, Grace Marchant Garden to right in photo.

I live near 24th and Folsom which gives me a good staging area for visiting the ghost streets of Potrero Hill, Bernal Heights, and both Noe and Eureka Valleys. There are many more than I can fully list or display here, and yes, you can take that as an invitation to get out there and explore! But a couple of my favorites on Potrero Hill are Kansas between 22nd and 20th, and 19th Street between Rhode Island and DeHaro. Potrero Hill in particular used to be a favorite walk many years ago when you could walk up the hillside below McKinley Square and visit the amazing community garden at Vermont and 20th, or take this Kansas ghost path uphill, continue to 19th, and then go right (east) to the ghost of 19th, popping out above the high school and then skirting the Potrero Commons that once graced the slopes above the old Northwest Pacific railroad tunnel (the train’s right of way makes another ghost of transit past, cutting diagonally northwest from Potrero Hill through the Showplace Square area before petering out in the confluence of Potrero, Division, 10th, and Brannan Streets…).

kansas_lower_stairs_0429.jpgKansas "Street" just north of 22nd Street.
kansas_street_from_above_0430.jpgView south from top of Kansas "Street".
19th_and_rhode_island_easterly_0446.jpg19th "Street" at Rhode Island.

A real undiscovered treasure close to the intersection of Corbett and Clayton that I wrote about not long ago in the context of historic water wars and the charming garden that’s been planted on the corner, is Al’s Park. This curious ribbon of whimsy and nature rises from the mural on upper Market Street (next to the pink historic Joost House) and emerges on Corbett. My 1995 Thomas Bros. map has it labeled as 19th Street (multiple ghostly incarnations for 19th!) but Google’s Satellite map doesn’t show there as being any public right of way there. Enter Al’s Park from Corbett and enjoy a strange, almost 19th century-feeling slice of eccentric San Francisco land use.

als_park_redlined.jpgAl’s Park along the thin red line between Market and Corbett. It is on some maps labeled "19th Street."
als_park_or_19th_street_0852.jpgAl’s Park or 19th Street?
als_garden_front_0826.jpgThe entrance to Al’s Park on Corbett Street.
faucet_tower_0876.jpgAl’s Park is a veritable museum of oddities.
als_park_fence_0875.jpgAl’s Park boundary.
view_down_at_market_st_mural_from_als_park_0872.jpgMarket Street below Al’s "19th Street" Park.

Not too far from Al’s Park on the northern slopes of Eureka Valley is the ghost of Saturn street that plunges from a cul-de-sac where the street seems to end into a slope with view benches, two staircases, and a lovely landscaping that accompanies one down to Ord Street. Just a few hundred feet to the north are the Vulcan Steps, another of San Francisco’s many amazing public stairways serving private homes with cool, inviting porches and elegant, tree- and flower-filled gardens.

saturn_steps_0919.jpgSaturn "Street" with views across Eureka Valley.

Back on Bernal Heights, where hundreds of new stairs have been installed in the past few years, especially around the rim and the eastern slope, there’s a long legacy of ghost streets. Peralta and Franconia both start and stop from north to the summit and in the case of Peralta all the way down to the Alemany Farmers’ Market, punctuated by incredible views, stairways, and gardens all the way. An east-west street near the southern edge of the hilltop is Powhattan and it has its own ghost block between Gates and Ellsworth. Further to the southeast Tompkins Street also has a ghost block between Nevada and Putnam. And probably the best known ghost street on Bernal is Esmeralda, which has a brief life as a thoroughfare on the east side of the summit, but is one of the hill’s most glorious stairways down the west side.

esmeralda_above_elsie0727.jpgEsmeralda above Elsie Street.
harrison_w_view_0358.jpgI only found this ghost of Harrison Street beneath Ripley a few weeks ago, missing it for years on many walks up Bernal.
Tompkins_and_Nevada_easterly_0019.jpgTompkins and Nevada on southeastern slopes of Bernal Heights.
peralta_above_rutledge_view_north0691.jpgPeralta "Street" looking north.
powhattan_and_ellsworth_easterly_9916.jpgPowhattan at Ellsworth looking east.

I joined the India Basin Neighborhood Association for a guided tour of their shoreline on August 8, and enjoyed the fantasies and plans of the neighbors juxtaposed to the designs of the Redevelopment Agency for that long-lost corner of the city. India Basin is a favorite haunt of mine, home to Heron’s Head Park, India Basic Open Space, and the historic Albion Brewery. It’s been the main access to the Hunter’s Point Naval Base, but these days, with the rebuilding starting and the naval shipyards long gone, the area is just beginning its gentrification process.

albion_brewery_0976.jpgHistoric Albion Brewery, now a private residence.
egret_and_long_billed_curlew_0984.jpgLong-billed Curlew and Egret share some chow time along India Basin shore.

A big roadblock to full-scale upscaling are the dozens of 1940s barracks-style public housing projects at Westbrook and Hunters View. I was struck by the ghost streets here too, staircases filling the zone that could have been Fitch Street or Griffith Street. But out here the landscape is parched, the neighbors indifferent, and the possibilities of flourishing, permaculturally designed corridors along the stairs remote at best. Even as native species habitat it was pretty bereft.

westbrook_housing_project_at_fitch_st_0974.jpgWestbook Public Housing at Fitch Street above Innes Avenue.

Interestingly, the Neighborhood Association presented many ambitious development plans for the area, including a "restaurant row" along Jennings, more offices and shops near the open shoreline at the south side of the basin, and another idea that some of us found a bit disturbing: Hudson Street is a ghostly presence out there, like a derelict alley running east-west just north of Innes Avenue, the main boulevard. But where it should cross Innes and continue westward up the hill into the Hunters View Projects, there is only a fence to mark the city’s "right of way." The slope here is a hotspot of native habitat, so aficionados of plants and insects of our original eco-niche are especially interested in saving this hillside from becoming a through street. The Neighbors, for their part, saw a through Hudson Street as a way of relieving the heavy traffic on Hunters Point Blvd and Innes Avenue.

hudson_ave_fence_on_slope_0953.jpg"Hudson Street" (the fence) above Hawes and Innes.
hudson_avenue_west_0979.jpgFrom a quarter mile further west, looking back along Hudson Street towards same hillside as photo above.

Another ghost street, mostly a specter of fantasizing urban planners, is Earl Street, which runs along the fence separating the India Basin Open Space and some private properties from the former Naval Base. As you can see it’s just a footpath along the fence for a good part of its life, and where it is a street, it’s more like a private driveway.

earl_street_along_hp_fence_0992.jpg"Earl Street" at edge of Hunters’ Point Naval Shipyard.
earl_street_north_1001.jpgLooking north along Earl from Innes.

So that’s my far from complete tour of some of San Francisco’s Ghost Streets… feel free to chime in with your own favorites and maybe we can develop an whole alternative map of the city for Phantoms, Apparitions and Utopians Only!

  • g

    nice article and interesting images, though some of them took a long time to load on the screen,

    at one point an mta person reviewed pedestrian fatalities and noticed that one was in the bay. the police had marked and unsolved apparent murder as a pedestrian fatality on the corners of one of the submerged streets. someone was pushed over board on a ship or otherwise dissappeared there.

  • Charles

    Very nice. I like this a lot. Very, very minor point. I am pretty sure that that is a whimbrel, not a long-billed curlew.

  • brownbuffalo

    Excellent article — appreciate all the time & effort that must have gone into it. Makes me want to visit SF again after 18 years. But what I especially love is that Charles wrote to comment on the curlew/whimbrel! God bless the intertubes & long may they . . . exist. Thanks again!!

  • Pi Ra

    You missed 100 Clarendon Ave & Stanyan St. It is the entrance of stair/dirt segment of Stanyan St.

  • One additional interesting twist about “Al’s Park” on 19th Street is that that right-of-way used to be (until 1933) mapped as part of Mono Street instead of as part of 19th, and the sidewalk inscription at the upper entrance still says Mono.

    Anyone who is really interested in “paper streets” should definitely download the Street Centerlines file from the recently-announced datasf.org, which includes all the pedestrian-only streets, unimproved public rights of way, and paper streets (including those under water or under freeways).

    My favorite from the pure mapping weirdness perspective is the inaccessible but still mapped intersection of 31st Street (yes, 31st!) and Burnett Ave, up the cliffside from O’Shaughnessy Blvd.

  • Wow, Chris, what fantastic portraits of many old “friends” — many old friends I’ve been sadly too busy to visit for a few years, no matter how many miles I walk. Thank you. By the way, have you read Rand Richards’ “Mud, Blood and Gold”? It’s a history of San Francisco in the year 1848. It’s a great read and talks a bit about land plots that extend out into the bay. –Megan

  • friscolex

    Great write-up! I was on the wonderful Penny Lane this morning; Glen Park is such a fabulous place to WALK. That first shot is my favorite part of Castro Street… Thanks to the other commenters for some great tips.

  • Great historical piece! I have not been around San Francisco that much, but this makes me want to strap on a good pair of walking shoes and explore!

  • Danny

    Chris, thanks for the fascinating post on a pet topic of mine!

    One of my favorite ghosts is Clover Lane, which is identified as such on official city maps but has no street signs marking it. It starts as the steps next to 101 Caselli Avenue, across the street and down a bit from Clover Street. It crosses Thorp Lane (an alley between Caselli & 19th that’s also unmarked), crosses 19th Street, and continues as the crumbling stairway near Seward Street that climb to the foot of Kite Hill. At that point, the stairs end and a dirt trail begins that immediately veers right and runs up to the top of the hill. But according to the SF parcel map, Clover Lane doesn’t stop where the path starts–it continues straight up the side of the hill to Corwin Street!

    By the way, I discovered recently that before it was 19th Street, and before it was Mono Street, the street where Al’s Park lies was called Moss Alley.

  • excellent photo and post! thanks for this!

  • Amy k

    Wonderful look at some of my favorite bernal secrets!

  • R’chard

    Wonderful! Visit Port Angeles, WA, sometime and take their underground tour. A little world that was covered up when they regraded their waterfront decades ago.

    BTW, I believe that’s a whimbrel, not a long-billed curlew.

  • erquirk

    There are also many interesting stair or “ghost” streets in Los Angeles, about which it would be interesting to explore. These streets, or at leasts the ones with which I’m familiar, are located in the hilly terrain of the Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Mount Washington areas.

    I actually lived on a stair street for a few years. I found it to be the most neighborly of all of the places in LA in which I’ve lived.

  • Peter

    I think many of you may know the book “Stairway Walks of San Francisco” by Adah Bakalinsky, but if you don’t, you should definitely get a copy. It covers a number of the streets mentioned here, as well as a bunch of other stairways and “ghost” streets.

    My wife and I find that taking any of these walks is a true joy and have done most of them by this point. Most walks are an hour or so at a leisurely pace, and I highly recommend it for urban walkers. We find it especially nice to take the Muni to the start of the walk, so we can learn some new Muni lines as well.

    I see it is available on Amazon, including used editions, but I think many local bookstores have it as well.

  • James

    I live next door to the person who owns the sculpture in the first shot and this isn’t doing her justice. She has some amazing sculptures, about 2 dozen total, all over her yard. They are all different, and blend together beautifully.

  • Omri

    If I may quibble over semantics, please: the quote marks are unnecessary. Even if it’s not passable by a car, it’s still a street.

  • Cereal

    “If I may quibble over semantics, please: the quote marks are unnecessary. Even if it’s not passable by a car, it’s still a street.”

    I’m not so sure about this statement.

    Car access is certainly not a requirement of street-ness, I agree.

    But -if it’s not paved, is it still a “street?” Or perhaps a path?

    If it’s incredibly narrow, wouldn’t it be more like an alley or a passage (at best) than a street? The narrow space between a pair of buildings, if navigable, surely isn’t a “street?”

    If there is no flat surface underfoot, i.e. it’s all stairs, isn’t it something other than a street?

  • Omri

    “If there is no flat surface underfoot, i.e. it’s all stairs, isn’t it something other than a street?”

    No. A street is a public right of way. Plenty of streets around the world are too narrow for cars, or composed of steps (e.g. the Spanish Steps in Rome, or some spots on the northern tip of Manhattan). In the Arab World, some streets have roofs (the casbahs).

  • Legally, even some waterways in San Francisco are officially streets! (Channel Street for Mission Creek, Islais Street for Islais Creek)

  • throgers

    Neat post! If you want to take the dorking out to a new level, the DPW key maps (http://bsm.sfdpw.org/subdivision/keymap/) can be used to figure out if an area is technically part of the public right-of-way.

  • A very enjoyable article, Chris! I actually saw a link to it on the Flickr group Guess Where SF, which I’ve mentioned to you before, and I suggest you join (I think you would be really good at it). The previous two commenters I recognize from that group as well.

  • Danny

    I second throgers! Those keymaps are an amazing cache for the detail-oriented. Other useful maps can be found at http://bsm.sfdpw.org/subdivision/dpwweb/.

  • What a fantastic post! Thanks so much for sharing these. I’m chipping away at a many year project of walking every street, every block in San Francisco and these are some great treasures to seek out as I fill things in.

    Perhaps a bunch of us SF street geeks should get together sometime for a ramble?

  • jefferson

    hey Chris,
    glad I stumbled on this. alot of fun.
    maybe I’ll run into you at a Giants game again next year.

    jefferson

  • Chris I really enjoyed your blog and photo,along with the comments from your readers. I grew up in S.F. and many of the areas I have traveled. Does anyone know where I can find photo of the Crocker Amazon Naval Housing Projects that were up in the 1950’s? I recall that area and remember the housing behind the now beautified Crocker Amazon Park.

  • Mary Ellen

    Found your blog while looking for a San Francisco “lost” street. The name is Fout Avenue and was somewhere near Al’s Park. Came across the name in 1920 US census record and voter registration. Mrs. Catherine Workman 20 Fout Ave. It is near 328 Corbett Ave. Have you ever heard of it?

  • The “Fout Avenue” also appears in the 1920 city directory (http://www.archive.org/stream/sanfranciscocali1920polk#page/1648/mode/2up)

    The index describes it as “Fout Avenue, off Eighteenth, from S of Clarendon Ave, S to Pemberton Pl.” I think it is now Twin Peaks Boulevard but can’t find a map to confirm that right now.

  • Andy

    One of my favorite ghost streets is tiny Reno Street in North Beach. Though it does have a street sign, it barely qualifies as a “street” or even an alley; it just seems like a little strip to leave the trash cans, or to access a couple apartments. Great post!

  • The great thing about Reno is that it actually goes right through a building! I can’t think of any other San Francisco streets that do that.

  • I always was amazed by that Reno. It looks like an entrance to the back of the building, but it has a street sign like Andy mentions. I love the two stories above it too. Wonder if that was more common before the earthquake and fire.

  • Sharon Johnson

    Good Morning,

    Does anyone happen to know the name of the Alley Way between Casselli Avenue and 19th Street between Douglas and Yukon Streets in San Francisco’s Eureka Valley Neighborhood. Thank you.
    Floragrace

  • Dexter Wong

    One of my favorites is the area near Larkin and Francisco Streets on Russian Hill. At Chestnut Larkin splits to become a brick-lined cul de sac on one side and a narrow curved street that leads to Francisco. At the end of the curve there is a fork that leads to another cul de sac that is the driveway to a secluded house, then becomes a pedestrian path that borders a reservoir and leads to Hyde Street. There is also the Larkin Street steps that go from the first cul de sac to the curved street, a second set of steps that lead to the house and a third set of steps that end in a park and connect to a path that leads toward Larkin and Bay Streets.

  • Heather

    These “ghost streets” or “unaccepted streets” as the Department of Public Works calls them, are absolutely fascinating. The neighbors who have decided to engage with these spaces have been really imaginative. This kind of investigation of unusual spaces is exactly what Dubord and the Situationists wanted. They wanted people to seek out alternative possibilities to what exists “through practices such as the derive and pschyogeography ” (Pinder, Visions of the City).The maps that de Monchaux have created are “attempts to ‘undo’ elements of the current socio-spatial order and defend, articulate and promote other values” (Pinder, Visions of the City). In this case, the neighbors took it upon themselves to replenish and maintain their surrounding urban spaces with greenery. De Monchaux’s psychogeographical maps can be used in various hypotheses or attempts to outline new social spaces. The grids of San Francisco were very rigidly planned and implemented, but there are many slivers and nooks of spaces that don’t fit. There are a lot possibilities and opportunities for how these areas can be used, but it requires people to get off of their spectator’s seat and do some wandering. A more mobile engagement with the city allows for people to gain a better understanding how theses space were used in the past and also to imagine multiple future possibilities. It is very much a bottom-up, experimental, social, and local approach to urbanism.

  • Monte Thrasher

    I lived in San Francisco in the 1980s and explored around Carona Heights Park, a haunted raw hill with a natural mini-Stonehenge of red rocks, it figures in Fritz Leiber’s book our Lady of Darkness, which really captures the chilly mystery of the city. The red hill had been dug away ages ago for a brick factory, so it’s a cliff on one side, and the bricks were used all around the neighborhood in little staircases and streets. I went looking today online, with no succcess) for the only street name I remember, Mono St. It was only accessible, I think, by brick staircase, no room for car, no driveway. It was very odd, with a single black house, numbered (not that there was a need to number it) 1. Has anyone seen this street?

  • LesB

    One of these ghost streets would be a great location for a murder mystery!

  • Wow. What a great post. fwiw, I have ridden or walked my bike on many of these “streets” on my quest to ride every road in SF. See rideallofsf.tumblr.com As I’m riding more and learning more. So awesome.

  • ardee2x

    Drove a paramedic van in SF studying for my PhD. There are places you can’t imagine, like Jack Kerouac Alley.

  • sewtheconking

    Clover Lane!

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