Then & Now: How 6 San Diego Neighborhoods Got Their Names

san diego neighborhoodsSan Diego is a city full of stories; ripe with oddities and character, there is no shortage of secrets to unearth about our coastal town. From Spanish conquistadors to land sharks and seedy Red Light Districts, the community monikers we’re familiar with today are steeped in a rich and colorful history. The origins of much of the city’s population and development boom can be traced back to 1886, when San Diego’s first transit system, the San Diego Street Car Company, was introduced. Just a few months later, the city’s first streetcars begin operating over a two-mile track on Broadway and neighborhoods began popping up across town. We did a little research and found six San Diego neighborhoods that are named for very specific (and a few eccentric) reasons, people, and events; keep reading for a slice of San Diego history.

North Park

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In the summer of 1893, a San Diego merchant named Joseph Nash sold 40 acres of land northeast of Balboa Park to businessman James Monroe Hartley, who came up with the idea to turn the area into a moneymaking lemon grove. James and his family began the labor-intensive process of clearing the land, but irrigating the young trees proved to be a problem: barrels of water actually had to be hauled from downtown San Diego up a wagon trail, a path that would eventually become known as Pershing Drive. As the city grew and the population increased, buildings closed in on the Hartley lemon grove. Unfazed, Hartley deemed his little pocket of town “Hartley’s North Park;” the name stuck, and during development decades later the City remained true to their lemon-adoring founder and referred to the new suburb as simply “North Park.”

Balboa Park0.

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San Diego’s famous park was originally named City Park, from the time of its dedication in 1869 until the fall of 1910 when Park Commissioners announced plans to re-name it. The public was eager to participate, and several potential names were thrown out; including San Diego Park, Silver Gate Park, Horton Park and Miramar Park. After months of discussion about something that had rapidly become a public interest case, the Park Commissioners decided on the name Balboa Park – chosen in honor of Spanish-born Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean while on exploration in Panama. A descendant of the lord mason of the castle of Balboa, he was an avid adventurer who spent the majority of his life exploring foreign territories and was largely motivated by the journeys of the famed Christopher Columbus.

Normal Heights

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The ‘normal’ part of “Normal Heights” refers to the State Normal School, the teacher’s college predecessor to San Diego State University. The school was founded in 1899 and located in the adjacent University Heights neighborhood; the former State Normal School building now serves as the central office for the San Diego Unified School District.

At the time San Diego was founded, Normal Heights was largely covered in brush and populated only by rabbits. Later it had a few farms, but development was limited by lack of water. Speculators became interested in the area during the San Diego land boom of the 1880s, and several land development companies were actively working in the area by the 1900s. Around 1905 a reservoir was built in University Heights, which led to a slow but steady increase in the little area’s growth; the community was officially founded in 1906.

SEE ALSO: The Stories Behind 4 Historical Landmarks in La Jolla

Barrio Logan

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In 1871, Congressman John A. Logan wrote legislation to provide federal land grants and subsidies for a transcontinental railroad ending in San Diego. A street laid in 1881 was named Logan Heights after him, and the name came to be applied to the general area. Plans for a railroad never successfully materialized, and the area was predominantly residential by the turn of the century, becoming one of San Diego’s oldest communities. Its transformation began in 1910 with the influx of refugees of the Mexican Revolution, who soon became the majority ethnic group. For this reason, the southern part of the original Logan Heights neighborhood came to be called Barrio Logan.

City Heights

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University Ave & 43rd St. in City Heights, then and now.

City Heights was originally called Teralta and Teralta Heights, possibly from the Spanish word meaning ‘high ground.’ In the 1880s, two entrepreneurs named Abraham Klauber and Samuel Steiner purchased over 240 acres of unincorporated land that sat 400 feet above sea level north of Balboa Park in hopes of developing the area. They were true adventure seekers looking for a new home in the West, and were drawn to City Heights because of its higher elevation and year-round Mediterranean climate. Today, the neighborhoods bordered by El Cajon Boulevard, the I-15, and University Avenue are still called Teralta East and Teralta West, and a park at Orange Avenue and 40th Street also carries the Teralta name.

SEE ALSO: Community Spotlight: The History Room at the La Jolla Library

In 1912, residents voted for City Heights to become an incorporated city known as East San Diego; the population subsequently boomed from 400 to 4000. In 1923, the City of East San Diego ceased to exist and was annexed into the main City of San Diego, and the continuously changing area became known as simply City Heights. Interestingly, the city’s founding fathers set rather strict rules for the community, and outlawed liquor sales, gambling, dance halls, carrying guns, and driving faster than fifteen miles an hour. These rules and the fact that there was no jail, no arrests, no hobos, and no idle rich was why the community was nicknamed “The Golden Rule City.”

Gaslamp Quarter

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When development of the area began in the 1860s, the Gaslamp Quarter was known as New Town – in contrast to Old Town, which was the original Spanish colonial settlement of San Diego and remains so named today. The years between 1889 and 1910 were incredibly formative ones for the Gaslamp; in 1867, commercial developer Alonzo E. Horton (Horton Plaza’s namesake) purchased the land between Front, A Street and Commercial and began renovations with a wharf off 5th. By 1900, 5th Avenue – now bustling with electric street cars, lofty arc lamps, and extremely bold architecture – was the commercial hub of San Diego. The Stingaree and the Redlight District were south of Market, imparting that edge of the Quarter with a bit of a seedier feel thanks to a host of x-rated adult bookstores, cheap motels, and 19th-century edition strip clubs.

The name Gaslamp Quarter stems from, not surprisingly, the number of gas-fueled lamps that lit the streets of downtown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Four new gaslamps have been installed at the intersection of Market Street and 5th Avenue as a tribute to that time in San Diego’s history.san diego weekend events

Did you know? The Gaslamp Quarter now features a “pedestrian scramble” (like the one shown above) at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Market Street – which is a pedestrian crossing system that stops all vehicular traffic and allows pedestrians to cross an intersection in every direction, including diagonally, at the same time.

[source: San Diego History CenterHistory of the GaslampSouth Park Historical SocietySan Diego History JournalBalboa Park]

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Emily Ruchlewicz

Emily Ruchlewicz

News & Feature Writer at
Emily Ruchlewicz is a News and Feature writer at Blue Book Publishers and has written more than 100 La Jolla-related articles. Follow her blogs to stay informed about new businesses, read exclusive interviews with local business owners, and keep up with community events. (

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