That Odd Bend in Precita Avenue, Explained

The machinations of the San Francisco Department of Public Works are obscure and mysterious, but after a long hiatus, work has resumed on Precita Avene’s sexxxy sewer replacement and street repaving project. The action is now happening just west of the sharp bend that redirects Precita on the stretch between Shotwell and Mission Streets.

But wait… why does that bend exist at all? The hook to the left certainly seems arbitrary, given the flatness of the terrain.  So what’s up with that? And why is the entire length of Precita so ziggity-zaggedy?

Happily, this question was answered — and answered well! — by Burrito Justice, the leader of the La Lengua separatist movement. When he is not fomenting geo-cultural secession from the Dominion of Bernalwood, Burrito Justice is also a bit of a map geek, and his work in this area is impressive (as we shall soon see).

Precita is a very old street by San Francisco standards, because it was first laid down sometime during the early 1850s, just a few years after the 1849 Gold Rush that transformed San Francisco from a podunk outpost into a burgeoning city. The street ran alongside a freshwater stream called Precita Creek that flowed from springs near Twin Peaks down to the wetlands that occupied present-day Bayshore.

Here’s some revealing cartography from 1876:

During the 1880s, Precita Creek was replaced by an underground sewer pipe that runs under today’s Cesar Chavez Boulevard (which is now being replaced). But before all that, Precita Avenue shadowed the banks of its eponymous waterway so closely that the road meandered in tandem with the creek.

You can see that clearly in this 1859 Assessor’s Map (click to enlarge):

Other things to notice on the map: Army Street (today’s Cesar Chavez) didn’t exist yet. Also, 26th Street was called Navy Street. Also also, the little green/park on Coso just off Precita was originally a gravel pit. But most revealing of all, perhaps, is the fact that there was another street on the northern side of Precita Creek that also shadowed the stream.

That parallel road was called Serpentine, and as Burrito Justice explains:

Serpentine followed the old stone wall marking the northern border of Jose Bernal’s giant plat of land.

Serpentine Ave. endured even after Precita Creek was paved over to create Army Street, as you can see in this map from 1905:

In later decades, of course, Serpentine Ave. disappeared as the land beneath it was opened up to development. Yet the weird bend in Precita Avenue survives, hinting at all the geography and topography that once defined the area. Meanwhile, one teeny-tiny stretch of Serpentine Ave. still exists, and it even parallels the bend on Precita.

And where is that?

Now called Capp Street, the last remnant of Serpentine, which used to run alongside Precita Creek, now juts out at that weird angle right alongside our own Palace Steak House:

SPECIAL THANKS: Burrito Justice

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49 Responses to That Odd Bend in Precita Avenue, Explained

  1. Sharon says:

    The explanation for the “bend” in Precita Avenue was most interesting. I’ve always been curious to know how Army Street got its name.

  2. Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

    I love this stuff!

  3. Erik says:

    wow thanks for the info. Actually, I’ve always wondered about the Capp St. offshoot off Mission. I always walk down it when I go that way, just because.

  4. Eric Fischer says:

    Great piece!

    I think there is actually another survivor of Serpentine Avenue, though — there is a weird little diagonal branch off of the west side of Potrero south of 25th Street that I think also corresponds to the old road.

  5. Jeff says:

    Does this explain why is 3395 Cesar is at such a jaunty angle?

  6. This is great stuff. I always assumed that the stub at the end of Capp was just another remnant of an old railroad right-of-way. I never realized that it mirrored the bend in Precita.

  7. Eric Fischer: Actually, I’ve wondered about that too. The odd angle at the northern border of Rolph Park could very well be a scar of Serpantine Avenue. In the 1876 map above, there’s a little “hockey stick” bend in Serpentine Avenue between Hampshire and Potrero, which is still present along the northern edge of Rolph Park, as shown here:

  8. Mike Burns says:

    Good thing the 1905 Map was never built out. We wouldn’t have Bernal Park and Esmerelda Ave would go over the top of the hill from Coleridge to Holladay.

  9. Nessa Speirs says:

    San Francisco is dreamy. I don’t live there, but wish I did. Thank you for such an interesting post!

  10. Cecily of Shotwell St. says:

    This is fascinating and so much fun to learn about…thanks!

  11. It’s also worth noting that the severe bend in Shotwell Street between 26th and Cesar Chavez corresponds to the former intersection of Shotwell, Serpentine, and “Bernal St.” in the 1876 map.

  12. Thanks! Great post. That nub of Serpentine Ave surprisingly shows up on Google Maps.

    Been meaning to dig into the old businesses along Serpentine / Precita – lots of breweries and tanneries. North Star, of course, and you can also see a “California Brewery” along with several tanneries in this quick and dirty 1886 Sanborn overlay I made when Jason and I were trying to figure out how interesting that recently exposed brick sewer was that you can see from the Hampshire St footbridge.

  13. benadamx says:

    that stretch of brick wall that was uncovered recently during the cesar chavez excavations, mayhaps that was part of the ‘old stone wall’ marking bernal’s land?

  14. Gale says:

    Fellow map geekess!–I love this. Thank you DPW for replacing the sewer pipe and stirring up the ghosts of the past along with the effluent of the present.

  15. benadamx: I think the brick wall under Cesar Chavez is a little too far south (and way too neatly constructed) to be Bernal’s stone wall. I think the consensus is that the uncovered brick wall is likely from sewer work done between 1880 and 1920.

  16. No – not the right spot. I have a previous comment with links to maps still awaiting approval (ahem, Todd).

  17. SER says:

    Another interesting tidbit from the 1905 map is that “Buena Vista” was apparently renamed to the more Franco-English-sounding “Bonview” at some point.

  18. Art Siegel says:

    per this article “The legislature in 1878 authorized the board of supervisors to construct a sewer in the channel of the creek and to abandon all of Serpentine Avenue. Pursuant to this, Army Street was extended westerly over the former channel of the creek, the course of which is indicated by Army Street as it now exists.”

  19. And some context on the push for sewers and public health in that era — in 1876-1878 San Francisco got hit by a pretty brutal diphtheria outbreak. At one pount, over 100 people were dying a month, and a thousand kids died.

  20. Greg Braswell (alocalsewerhistorian) says:

    interesting timing… just missed our “sewer tour” bicycle tour (I did refer to these blogs, hopefully sufficiently), we travelled the entire extent of this discussion. just to add to the fun… check out the “precita swamp” down at Potrero/Utah and Army st: and the Sanborn 1905 maps. This is all part of the lawsuits Eric’s referencing, part of which included lawsuit about isolating the lots near the park and last nub of serpentine in JohnnyO’s post above and suits about not completing the Potrero sewer (they just let it run over the private property because the owner wanted too much money to sell the land to open the street).

    all kinds of fun

  21. miles says:

    greg what a great tour! can you clarify “that stretch of brick wall that was uncovered recently during the cesar chavez excavations, mayhaps that was part of the ‘old stone wall’ marking bernal’s land?” that benadamx mentions?

  22. Brillo says:

    Also, 26th used to be called Navy Street, to go with Army Street. I wondered if there was an Air Force Street somewhere… but there wasn’t an Air Force back them.

    RIP Precita Place… looked like a nice little plaza.

    • Eric Fischer says:

      Army and Navy are from the Horner’s Addition (Castro/Noe Valley) grid. The full series goes:

      Ridley (Duboce), Tracy (14th), Sparks (15th), Centre (16th), Corbett (17th), Ford, Falcon (18th), Hancock, Eagle (19th), Columbia (Cumberland), Franklin (20th), Liberty, Alta (21st), Hill, John (22nd), M (Alvarado), Horner (23rd), Elizabeth, Park (24th), Jersey, Temple (25th), Clipper, Navy (26th), Army (Cesar Chavez), Figg (27th), Duncan, Yale (28th), Valley, Dale (29th), Day, Grove (30th), Stream (unbuilt), Brook, and several more unbuilt: Poplar, Cedar, Ash, Spruce, Locust, Olive, Willow, Almond, Walnut.

  23. Matt Fuller says:

    Awesome article! Thanks for the history trip.

  24. Tony T. says:

    Mirabel used to be “California Av” Who knew?

  25. Smurf says:

    Neat stuff! Thanks for this!

  26. Bronwyn Ximm says:

    So cool. Next time I bike on that little bendy bit of Capp, I’ll think to myself, “I am turning onto Serpentine,” and I’ll try to picture a creek instead of Cesar Chavez.

  27. Marko says:

    Thank you for this fascinating piece on the neighborhood! Living on Precita it means even more! Very cool stuff….

  28. The sewer tour was excellent: informative, well attended, perfect weather.
    Since lots of people ask, I want to also add that the name “Precita” probably meant weir or small diversion dam. It seems to date back to pre-Spanish times, likely, from what I recall reading, a structure built by the Ohlone Yelamu group in SF until Europeans changed everything. There are no recognized examples of irrigation for agriculture among Ohlone, so the weir was likely either to direct fish into nets and traps or to pool water as an assistance to fishing, or some other activity. The Yelamu were very water-based in lifestyle, washing multiple times per day and collecting much of their cooking technology raw material (rhizomes for boiling baskets) from creekside embankments. Serpentine was either reference to the green rock, or, my guess, reference to the shape of the street.

  29. Pingback: Precita Creek Returns (Briefly) As Truck Strikes Fire Hydrant | Bernalwood

  30. Pingback: A Brief History of How Cesar Chavez/Army Street Became So Awful in the First Place | Bernalwood

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