How 10 Oakland Neighborhoods Got Their Names

As San Francisco’s cost of living explodes (it’s currently second-highest in the nation, after Manhattan), its residents are increasingly crossing the bay to Oakland. But alongside its rapid gentrification, Oakland is known for its art, music, culture, and political activism on a nationwide scale. Here, we’ll delve into how Oakland’s modern neighborhoods got their start—and their names.

1. SAN ANTONIO

The city of Oakland began as a chunk of the 44,800-acre Rancho San Antonio, owned by Luís María Peralta. A land grant issued to him in 1820 in recognition of his military service to Spain covered present-day Oakland as well as parts of the cities of San Leandro, Berkeley, Alameda, Emeryville, and Piedmont. In 1842, Peralta split the rancho among his four sons; the area we know today as San Antonio was located on his son Antonio Maria’s property. In 1851, James Larue bought some of the land and turned it into its own town, but five years later it joined the adjacent town of Clinton to form a new city called Brooklyn—named after the ship that had brought Mormon settlers to the area in 1846. When Brooklyn was annexed by the city of Oakland in 1872, San Antonio became simply a neighborhood.

2. SEMINARY

East Oakland is home to the diverse Seminary district, with its eponymous Seminary Avenue running through it. The area is mostly known for being a college neighborhood, thanks to its close proximity to Mills College, which is also the origin of its name. The college was founded as the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia in 1852; in 1865 it was purchased by Susan Tolman Mills and her husband Cyrus, and soon rechristened as Mills Seminary. The college relocated to its present site in Oakland in 1871, and received its current name in 1885.

3. JINGLETOWN

Jingletown mosaic of lizard
Fragmentary Evidence, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Jingletown, a vibrant arts community covered in murals and mosaics, lies adjacent to the Oakland Estuary. The name originated long ago, when there were large numbers of Portuguese immigrants living in the area, largely from the Azores in the Atlantic. The story goes that the Portuguese mill workers would stand around on the street corners in the evenings, chatting and fraternizing with one another while jingling the coins they had in their pockets. In the 1950s and '60s, the area saw an influx of families from Latin America, and it was the center of the Chicano civil rights movement of the late '60s and early '70s.

4. THE TWOMPS

The subsection of San Antonio found between 20th and 29th Avenues was once known as "The Rolling '20s" or "The Roaring '20s," but locals today frequently call it "The Twomps." The nickname arose sometime in the 1980s; Twomp is a slang word for "20."

5. BUSHROD PARK

Bushrod Park
Sharon Hahn Darlin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This neighborhood in North Oakland is named after the 10.12-acre park it encompasses. The park itself got its title from Dr. Bushrod Washington James, a Philadelphia philanthropist who donated the land for the park in 1903. (James himself was ostensibly named after George Washington’s nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who pronounced his name “buh-SHRAHD.”)

6. FRICK

First part of the Brooklyn area of Oakland, the Frick neighborhood is named after its first school at Foothill Boulevard and 62nd Avenue. In the early 1900s, the Lockwood School District, short of funds, needed to build an elementary school for the semi-rural community, and local mining and lumber magnate Walter P. Frick stepped up with the land. The W. P. Frick School opened in 1909 with 90 students, grades 1–6, and later was converted into a junior high school. Just months after the school was built, the area was annexed into the City of Oakland.

7. TEMESCAL

One of the oldest parts of the city, the North Oakland neighborhood of Temescal gets its name from Temescal Creek, which runs through the area. The creek’s name, in turn, is derived from a Nahautl word, temescalli, which describes an Aztec sweathouse. When the land was part of Luís María Peralta’s Rancho San Antonio, the vaqueros—ranch hands or cowboys—working there had spotted structures along the waterway that had been built by the native Ohlone tribe and were similar to the Aztec temescalli huts they’d seen in parts of what is now Mexico.

8. LONGFELLOW

North Oakland is home to the Longfellow district, currently seeing an economic boom and a new community of artists. It was once a thriving Italian neighborhood, beginning in the early 1900s and lasting through the 1940 and '50s, when African Americans began to establish communities in the area as well. The name Longfellow comes from the elementary school on Lusk Street, which is named after the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow Elementary closed in 2004, but the name lives on.

9. GASKILL

Gaskill is named after a pair of brothers, Rollin and DeWitt Gaskill, who bought 17 acres in North Oakland from farmer George Parsons in 1869. Many of its street names have a more complicated history, however. After DeWitt bought Rollin out in 1870, he began building roads along the northern and southern borders of Menlo and Parsons Streets, the latter named after the family that had previously owned the land. When the City of Oakland annexed Gaskill in 1897, it applied its own conventions to the street names, putting the east/west streets on the number system and changing the names of several others to avoid duplication with names elsewhere in the city. Menlo Street thus became Aileen Street, Parsons Street became 55th Street, and internal Park Street, running north/south, was renamed after D.W.C. Gaskill himself.

10. FUNKTOWN

Funktown Arts District mural
George Kelly, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Although precise definitions differ, an area of Oakland near the Twomps is officially named Highland Park, but no one really uses that name anymore—the residents overwhelmingly call it Funktown. The name has nothing to do with the 1980 hit single by Lipps Inc., “Funkytown." Instead, this area was once the home base of the violent gang Funktown USA, which was notorious for cocaine and heroin trafficking. After the arrests and deaths of several key members in the late '80s and '90s, the gang fractured and Funktown quieted down quite a bit, but unlike most of Oakland, it’s still far from being gentrified.

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Nolan Nitschke
A Historic Ghost Town in California Is Up for Sale
Nolan Nitschke
Nolan Nitschke

For just shy of $1 million, a ghost town in California’s majestic Inyo Mountains could be yours. Cerro Gordo, a 19th-century mining town that served as the “silver thread” to Los Angeles, is now up for sale via Bishop Real Estate in Bishop, California.

Located in Owens Valley near the town of Lone Pine, the $925,000 property comes with over 300 acres of land, mineral rights, and no shortage of peace and quiet. There are 22 structures on site, including a historic hotel, bunkhouse, saloon, chapel, and museum—plus all of the artifacts that come with it. 

“The site has been extremely well protected from diggers, artifact looters, and Mother Nature herself,” reads the listing, posted on a website specially created for the property that's aptly named ghosttownforsale.com. “Restoration has been undertaken on most of the buildings, and the rest are in a state of protected arrested decay.”

The town of Cerro Gordo has been privately owned for decades, but the family who owns it “felt it was the right time to sell it,” real estate agent Jake Rasmuson tells Mental Floss. No conditions are attached to the purchase of the property, but Rasmuson says “one would hope that some of the history would be maintained and that it would still be open to the public.”

Walking tours of the property can be booked via Cerro Gordo’s website, and those will continue to be offered until the property is sold. The listing was just posted online a week ago, but Rasmuson said the property has already received “quite a bit of interest,” mostly from history lovers who have visited the site before.

Cerro Gordo, meaning “Fat Hill,” received its name from Mexican miners who combed through the area in search of silver before it became a commercial mine, according to the town's website. In 1865, a prospector named Pablo Flores started a mining operation at the nearby Buena Vista Peak. It didn’t take long for word to spread, and within two years prospectors were flocking to Cerro Gordo.

A businessman named Mortimer Belshaw is the man who really put the town on the map, though. In 1868, he brought the first batch of silver to Los Angeles and later built a toll road to supply the burgeoning industry. Within a year, the mine was the largest producer of silver and lead in California. 

“If you look at the history of Cerro Gordo, it was really instrumental in the expansion of Los Angeles,” Rasmuson says. One of structures on the Cerro Gordo property—the Belshaw bunkhouse—still carries on his legacy.

It wasn’t until the 1880s that the mine was finally abandoned after being hit by a fire and falling silver prices. (However, mining operations were revived in 1905 and continued for a couple of decades.) 

The town may be peaceful now, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1860s and ’70s, the town saw a murder per week, according to a Los Angeles Times article from 2006 about the restoration of the property. The property’s late owner, Michael Patterson, told the newspaper that the only sound for miles around “is the whistle of the wind blowing through all the bullet holes in every building up here."

For those who aren't afraid of ghosts, this little slice of Wild West paradise might just be the perfect place to live. Keep scrolling to see more photos and a video of the property.

The Cerro Gordo property
Nolan Nitschke

The Cerro Gordo property
Nolan Nitschke

A former church
Nolan Nitschke

Inside the saloon
Nolan Nitschke
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iStock
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
iStock
iStock

Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

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