Garbage service in Oakland started 100 years ago when scrappy Italian immigrants began collecting trash from backyards. This business bloomed into a multi-million dollar industry with roots at the intersection of 51st and Telegraph Avenue. Find out more below and listen to oral histories of the men who were part of this community.
By Sierra Filucci
Trash to Treasure:
The History of the Oakland Scavenger Company
Louis Alberti sits with his back against the wall, a pile of black and white photographs spread out in front of him. He points to a picture of a man standing on the back of an old garbage truck, trash can hooked over his shoulder. “This is how we used to carry the barrels,” he says. As he pages through the photos, talking about horse-drawn carriages and recycling, a group of well-dressed folks begins to gather around the table. “Aren’t they wonderful?” says Rose Cosso, pointing to a photo of four men standing in front of an ancient garbage truck, with wide grins and cocky poses. “They worked 7 days a week. They never, ever complained,” she says.
At tonight’s gathering of the Ligure Club, an 80-year-old social club for men with family ties to the northern Italian region of Liguria, nearly everyone has some connection to the Bay Area’s history of garbage collection.
Alberti’s uncle was one of thousands of Italians who immigrated to the Bay Area around the turn of the century, many of whom got into the garbage business. “What they tell me is my uncle came to San Francisco in 1905 and there was an earthquake the next year, so he took his team of horses on a barge and came to Oakland and started picking up garbage,” he says.
But Alberti’s uncle wasn’t the only one with this moneymaking idea. “There was several different Italian families picking up garbage, and they were always fighting,” says Alberti. “So they decided, in 1915 or 16, to quit fighting and start a co-op.”
This co-op eventually became the Oakland Scavenger Company. At the same time in San Francisco, two similar companies emerged from the hundreds of independent operators there to form the Scavenger’s Protective Association and Sunset Scavenger Company.
Garbage companies became lifelines for Italian immigrants, who arrived in steady numbers from the mid-1800s until 1924 when stricter immigration laws took effect. “It was really a magnet,” says Robert Biasotti, a third-generation garbage man as he sits in a conference room at Waste Management’s Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro, where he now works. Like today, he says, immigrants would arrive with little more than a name in their pocket. More established immigrants would take them in and point them toward a job that required little English or training. “So many people became involved in garbage that way,” Biasotti says.
These new immigrants were doing the work no one else wanted to do, says Joe Brignole, a longtime North Oakland businessman who traces his family’s arrival in California to the 1850s. And though few were educated, the Oakland Scavengers created something valuable and lasting. “From honesty, hard work and intelligence — and they were intelligent — they created this huge enterprise,” he says. Their innovative efforts included recycling and composting in the 1920s — way before anyone else was doing this. “The paper went one place,” Brignole says. “They had ranches with hogs and they would feed them stuff out of the garbage. They had a glass facility.”
Oakland Scavenger grew to include several auxiliary businesses like the Bay City Bottle Supply Company, where workers would wash and sterilize bottles and sell them to wineries, and a rag company where cloth was bundled and sold to petroleum companies in Richmond and Rodeo. Alberti says the company once owned 13,000 hogs who noshed on residential and commercial kitchen waste.
John Cosso, looking sharp in a black turtleneck and blazer, sits across from Alberti and his photos and recalls his first years with Oakland Scavenger in the early 1950s. “I remember getting up early, going out in the driving rain, picking up trash, putting it into the barrel, taking the barrel and putting it on my back and climbing the seven steps to heaven and putting it into the truck,” he says. Cosso followed two brothers and two brothers-in-law into the company. He worked in several divisions and ended up as manager of the Davis Street Transfer Station. He retired in 1993.
Alberti’s photos help memories unfurl for Cosso and many others who stop by to admire the pictures, which were in danger of being thrown away after Waste Management bought the company in 1986. Many of the Ligure Club members grew up in the Temescal neighborhood, which was the center of the Italian-American community in Oakland beginning in the early 1900s. Before that, many lived in San Francisco and West Oakland, but the 1906 earthquake shifted populations around, bringing San Francisco’s Italians across the bay, and African Americans to West Oakland.
The area around 51st St. and Telegraph Ave. became Oakland’s “Little Italy” commercial hub. “There was just all kinds of Italian small businesses there and that’s where we mostly patronized,” says Alberti, who recalls the meat market that went up at the intersection after the Key System’s car barn was torn down, as well as the furniture store, the barber, the paint shop, the hardware store – all owned by Italian immigrants. “We were a really tight neighborhood.”
Though most remnants of Little Italy have long since disappeared, two businesses continued to have an impact on the neighborhood through the present day. Until recently a Bank of America sat on the corner of 48th St. and Telegraph. The founder of the bank, originally called Bank of Italy, was A. P. Giannini, whose business took off after the 1906 earthquake when he reportedly set up shop at the Embarcadero and lent to many Italian immigrants whose homes and businesses had been destroyed by the post-quake fires. He opened a branch in the Temescal neighborhood, where he lent to and employed locals – Alberti’s cousin was a branch manager.
Genova Delicatessen – a popular sandwich shop with a growing frozen foods business – has been in the neighborhood since 1926. Originally the shop was at 4937 Telegraph Ave. until it moved to the Walgreens shopping center right at the intersection of 51st and Telegraph in 1997.
Dominic De Vincenzi came into the business in 1951, after working periodically with his father at Oakland Scavenger Company. In his office above the deli, De Vincenzi sits surrounded by duck hunting paraphernalia and family photos, including a picture of his father in front of an Oakland Scavenger truck with three other men. De Vincenzi almost went into the garbage business himself. “I tried it for about six months and then my mother threw my clothes away and wouldn’t let me go,” he says. “Because I’d come home and be exhausted. She said, ‘You’re not going to do this kind of business.’”
De Vincenzi, Alberti and many other children of garbage collectors went to school together in the Temescal neighborhood. Though neither man admits to feeling looked down upon for his family’s profession, Marian Gatti, whose father was a garbage collector and who still lives in the Temescal neighborhood remembers she and her friends being called “garbage pickers” by scornful children. She says a schoolteacher who complimented the work of garbage men in front of her childhood classroom was a rare antidote to the teasing.
But as De Vincenzi recalls, he was surrounded mostly by fellow children of garbage collectors, and spent his early days at various family members’ homes on weekends. “They’d go over to people’s houses on Saturday night and maybe play cards and they would have an accordion player there, and they would have a little dance,” he says smiling. “It was a nice time to be brought up.”
As the men and women at the Ligure Club assemble in the banquet hall to eat pesto tortellini and prime rib, Brignole steps up to the podium, and recounts the history of Italian-American social clubs like this one. “They were founded for the purpose of establishing centers, places where the Italian-American communities could gather in the spirit of friendship, dignity and joyful reunion, and places where the finest of Italian-American festivals and traditions could be enjoyed and exalted.”
Besides the Ligure Club, several other clubs provided a private place for Italian-Americans to socialize from the 1920s until today. The Colombo Club on Claremont Ave. near Telegraph Ave. was founded in 1920 to serve mostly quarry workers, and the Fratellanza Club, off San Pablo Ave. near the Berkeley border began in 1932. The Ligure Club once had a building on 48th St. and Telegraph, serving mostly garbage collectors, but now uses the Fratellanza building for dinners and bocce ball tournaments.
In the early 1960s, the state completed construction of the Grove Shafter Freeway, also known as Highway 24, which ripped a swath through the Temescal neighborhood. The freeway took many homes, including Alberti’s, and came within feet of Gatti’s family complex on Claremont Ave. This construction, combined with extensive suburban development, drove many longtime Italian-American residents to places like Walnut Creek, where De Vincenzi now lives. Racial integration was also a factor in the dissolution of Temescal’s Little Italy. Between 1950 and 1960, Oakland’s African American population nearly doubled, echoing demographic and cultural shifts in urban centers throughout the country. Though the former Scavengers tread lightly on the subject of race, talking vaguely about “changes in society” during this era, clearly many felt uncomfortable with a more integrated neighborhood. De Vincenzi says that an altercation between one of his children and another neighborhood child was the deciding factor in his move to the suburbs.
As the Temescal neighborhood was changing, so was the Oakland Scavenger Company. Where the company was once exclusively Italian-American, the labor force had opened up to Latinos, African Americans and other ethnic groups during World War II. But while non-Italians were on the job, management was still Italians-only because of the company’s cooperative structure that awarded plum jobs only to shareholders.
“We were a private company and we just sold shares to Italians,” says Alberti. A few Latinos became partners too. “They looked Italian,” jokes Alberti. “We snuck ‘em in.” After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the company changed its policies to accommodate the new law. Alberti says the company stopped selling shares and only allowed ownership to pass through a shareholder’s estate. This was an attempt to work within the law, but also to keep all non-Italians out of positions of power. Once a refuge from anti-Italian bias, the company was hauled into court in the late 1980s for discriminating against African American and Latinos. A judge ruled that the company broke the law by granting preferential treatment to shareholders, who were exclusively white, and awarded damages to some 300 current and former employees.
In the midst of this lawsuit, shareholders voted to sell the company to Waste Management. “As the older guys got older, we took a vote and the guys said let’s finish it,” Alberti says. “They were tired of the lawsuits.”
Biasotti was one of the younger shareholders at the time of the vote. “I think some of them maybe saw an attractive financial offer and said, ‘Gosh maybe it’s time,’” Biasotti says. “But it’s also part of what was happening in this country from a business point of view. Small companies were getting bought up by big companies.”
Shares that had cost between $10,000 and $40,000 were cashed in for approximately $750,000 through the sale. Many of the shareholders remained employees of Waste Management. Alberti stayed on for five more years. Biasotti remains the assistant district manager at the Davis Street Transfer Station along with district manager Jack Isola, who was also an Oakland Scavenger. These two men are the last remaining links to Oakland’s original garbage collectors.
Back in the Waste Management conference room, Biasotti looks at a white board scribbled with tonnage numbers, and grips an Oakland Scavenger ledger from the 1940s in his fist. He recalls a story his father told him from the Depression-era. “My dad was recently married and he would pray that they would call him to work on a Saturday because on Saturday he would get paid two dollars for the day and the older partners would buy you breakfast,” he says, leaning back in his office chair. “It’s ironic, I was thinking the other day, $2 for a day and the going rate now for a garbage man is $28 an hour. So that tells a lot about things that have changed.”