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The dogged search for a neighborhood’s name


The size of San Francisco never changes, because of its geographic location on a peninsula. Yet new neighborhood names continue to be created (NoPa, TenderNob, etc.), to describe places carved from existing locations. There’s one exception, though, south of Market (SoMa) and east of Potrero Hill. That place is Dogpatch.

In Colonial days the Spanish simply called it “Potrero”, which means “field”, or “pasture”, because that’s where cattle for the Mission grazed. The area was highly industrialized by the late 1860s, when it was known as the Central Waterfront. Hills were leveled and shantytowns sprang up to house the workers laboring in the nearby shipyards. Heavy industry dominated this part of town through World War II and beyond.

“This was the most important location of heavy industry in California in the 19th Century,” says Christopher VerPlanck, an architectural historian and preservationist who has surveyed every home and business in this section of town.

VerPlanck also notes that the Dogpatch neighborhood around Third and 22nd Streets has some of the oldest existing homes in San Francisco, dating to the 1870s “because it survived the fires after the 1906 earthquake.”

One would think that such a long-established community would have an equally well-established name. But, one would be wrong.

When VerPlanck first surveyed the neighborhood, he says they called it the Dogpatch survey, “and a lot of realtors and others who were invested in selling property in the area were really quite horrified.”

They never imagined they could convince anyone to pay over half a million dollars for a one-bedroom condo in a place called Dogpatch.

Those earlier inhabitants probably didn’t bother to call the place anything special; “Third  and 22nd,” the main intersection, seemed to do well enough. It was a transient community where such niceties were left to others.

The Dogpatch name probably came from outsiders, people not living there. The earliest printed reference that VerPlanck found was in a newspaper from around 1940.

VerPlanck sees only one likely source, and an unexpected one at that: “My sense is that the origin of this name was from the comic strip, “Li’l Abner.” The community where these hillbilly characters lived was called Dogpatch.

“What I was told,” he says, “was that the name referred to a particular block of Tennessee Street; it was unpaved, it was a dead end, and was where a lot of Dust Bowl workers lived.”

Dustbowl refugees – “actually my ancestors,” adds VerPlanck – were drawn to the factory jobs, which they saw as better than field work in central California.

If you can’t picture the original residents of Dogpatch, with their bare feet, patched overalls and moonshine, just think of the better-known “Beverly Hillbillies” TV series from the 1960s. All of the main characters were clearly inspired by the “L’il Abner” comic. That strip began in 1934 and became extremely popular in a few years – right around the time VerPlanck found that newspaper reference to San Francisco’s own woe-begotten southeastern corner.

The area was largely African-American by the 1950s, and they didn’t use the term, VerPlanck says, because Dogpatch was a derogatory term for a poor white neighborhood.

“A lot of older black residents I talked to called the area simply ‘Lower Potrero’, ‘The Potrero’. Or some people actually called it ‘22nd and Third’.”

Now that population is largely gone, and current residents try to fight, or adapt to, the rapidly rising home prices in this once dirt-poor neighborhood.