San Francisco has a lot of history for a US city and each neighborhood has its own share of stories, legends and half-truths. I took the historical walking tour of my neighborhood, Dogpatch, this past weekend with about a dozen other people. I went to learn more history about the neighborhood I’ve lived in and around for almost 20 years, while everyone else (from SF and the peninsula) came to see what all the hype was about. This is a small former industrial area that wasn’t written about in many history books and unknown to many in SF until recently. Our old formerly isolated Victorians and warehouses have gained new transportation options, restaurants and bars, sky-high real estate values, and the tag of hot, “new” neighborhood.
The tour had some great information I wasn’t aware of (all the city’s cable cars are repaired in the nondescript building I walk past every other day), but also underscored how history gets forgotten. This is illustrated well by the name Dogpatch. It’s a pretty good one; kinda edgy, mysterious, a little old-fashioned, short and punchy. Nothing in it to describe the location (hill, heights, beach) or historic architecture (like the Mission) or historic figure (Bernal, Castro) like our other neighborhoods. The problem is, no one really knows where it came from. This was not a neighborhood most people paid attention to. People came for work and left for better lives when they could. Our tour guides gave our group five theories for the name, I’ve heard at least four over the years and Wikipedia has an additional one that was new to both lists. Was it from Li’l Abner’s fictional home town or from the roaming packs of dogs who stole meat from Butchertown to the south or from the once-common growths of dogfennel?
Some stories are exciting and some are dull, but the name itself is certainly part of the appeal for us here in 2014. Nonsense names have become the norm now that they must have their own distinct URLs. Dogpatch is its own type of nonsense, but carries a hint of historic romance with it. We can embrace the story of roaming packs of dogs as “cool” now that the streets are clean, houses sell for over a million, and even the Hells Angels stand in line for lattes at the local cafe.
Dogpatch as a brand is being created. Internal and external forces are working (sometime at odds) over what the neighborhood will be. Instead of an identity built on a logo, signature color and consistent typography, Dogpatch has an identity of streets, houses, businesses and people. Ideally, the identity elements stay the same while the brand evolves according to its audience, but when the audience is actively participating in stories about who your company / neighborhood are, what happens?
We’re all wrestling with this in identity design. Companies become more social and as a result, more “owned” by their users. We can set companies up with great stories and names and looks, but it’s still up to the audience to decide what story it likes best. Right now, the story of Dogpatch is bigger than the neighborhood, like an overhyped start-up who has yet to launch.
I see the slight disappointment on friends faces when they visit for the first time expecting teeming streets, cool boutiques and dozens of hip restaurants. That isn’t what they find. It’s a sleepy few blocks with a few old houses, a couple of lofts, some industrial buildings and a some places to grab a bite and a drink. I love it just as it is, but the future is coming and the past is a story on a walking tour.
O, and please don’t call it “The Dogpatch,” it’s just Dogpatch. We aren’t fancy people (yet).
Lindsay Gravette is Creative Director of MetaDesign San Francisco.