Election Section

Photo Exhibit Shows East Bay Italian History

By Steven FinacomSpecial to the Planet
Tuesday June 15, 2004

Americans struggle each generation with the political, social, and economic issues and impacts of immigration. When these often divisive debates occur, it is worth recalling the experiences of previous eras of immigration. 

A century and more ago, recent ly arrived “foreigners” searching for a place in California’s economy and society included many Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, and European Jews, as well as Italians. 

The lives, experiences, and traditions of one of those groups—Italian Americans who set tled in the East Bay—are thoughtfully explored in “‘Con Le Nostre Mani’ Italian Americans at Work in the East Bay,” a photographic exhibit now at the Berkeley Public Library through June 30. 

The display is on the ground floor of the Central Library on Ki ttredge Street. Enter the main entrance, turn left, and go towards the end of the building. The exhibit panels are hung on walls and columns around an area of study carrels. 

Major Italian immigration to the United States got underway in the late 19th cen tury and would last through 1910. More than two million Italians left Italy, primarily the northern regions, for America. Today, about 1.5 million of their descendants live in California alone. 

The exhibit is organized around panels of black and white ph otographs, most obtained from local families and Italian American social clubs, showing men and women at work in the East Bay in the first half of the 20th century. Careworn, hopeful, proud, confident, determined, these Italian Americans photographed at t heir shops, stores and other job sites look back at the exhibit visitor.  

“By the early 20th century, most East Bay towns featured streets or entire neighborhoods predominately inhabited by Italian Americans. Oakland boasted one of the largest Italian Am erican populations in California,” the exhibit notes. 

Many newcomers settled in the Temescal neighborhood of North Oakland which “offered sunshine and soil for fruit and vegetable gardens; elbow room and affordable housing; easy street car access; and mo st vitally, job opportunities.” 

Italian immigrants often found themselves restricted by education, language barriers and prejudice to jobs, usually manual labor, that longer-established locals considered less desirable; hence the exhibit title, “With Our Hands.”  

The East Bay economy in that era provided opportunity for many such jobs including those in the garment trade, window washing and janitorial services, laundry work, seasonal food canning, the burgeoning automobile service industry as well as the fading livery stable business, work in restaurants and food markets, truck farming, and construction.  

Sometimes the job opportunities became quite selectively regional; the exhibit notes that, for a time, one had to be from the Genoa region to have a decent chance of getting a job in the Oakland scavenger industry. 

Sometimes the discrimination encountered by Italian immigrants in employment was re-directed at other groups. One photograph of an Oakland market shows a sign reading “This market does not sell any meats purchased or handled by Chinese or Asiatics. We believe in America for Americans.” As the exhibit organizers note, “ironically, at times Italian Americans themselves were not considered white by Anglo Saxon society.” 

Food was at the cente r of many Italian-American enterprises. “Delicatessens, produce shops, and retail food import shops owned by Italian Americans were (and still are) a common sight in East Bay streets.” A number of successful Italian owned bakeries were started, although t hey were often called “French-Italian” in an effort to attract non-Italian customers. 

Oakland’s Rivoli Deli, G.B. Ratto & Company, and the Colombo Bakery are still familiar names. And remember Bertola’s restaurant at Telegraph and Shattuck in Oakland, Gr antata’s in West Berkeley, or Ravazza’s in Emeryville? Restaurants and other food industries gave cash poor Italian immigrants a chance to use one of the assets they had brought with them, their recipes and food traditions from home.  

Some Italian immigr ants took up truck farming, supplying East Bay cities with fresh produce. They found good farmland on Bay Farm Island in Alameda and other southern Alameda County sites where subdivisions sprout today. 

Before municipal garbage collection, Italian immigra nts developed private routes, collecting garbage from East Bay homes and businesses—“a horse, a wagon, a strong back, and you were in business.” Operations were consolidated by 1920 into one major scavenger company, headquartered in Temescal, whose blue p ainted vehicles—often called “blue taxis” or “honey wagons”—roamed East Bay streets.  

The company followed meticulous recycling practices nearly a century ago. In addition to separation of glass and metals, food scraps were sold as hog feed, buttons were cut off old clothes and re-sold to laundries and tailors, scrap cloth and old clothes went as rags to auto repair shops and janitorial businesses, and newspapers and cardboard were recycled at local paper mills. 

The construction industry also provided employment as “countless Italian American craftsmen took their Old World construction skills and applied them to the needs of their newly adopted country.” Some started out as laborers and later organized their own contracting firms. 

“Providing labor for roadways was a major source of employment,” as was quarry and mason work. Skilled Italian-American artisans worked on the massive stone buildings of the UC Berkeley, campus. 

Two big local quarries, the Bilger Quarry, “la Cava,” in Oakland and the Hutchin son Quarry, “la Cava di Berkeley” at the top of Schmidt Lane in what is now El Cerrito, employed large numbers of Italian immigrant men who often lived on site in boarding houses.  

The Bilger Quarry is still visible from the Rockridge Long’s Drugs/Safewa y complex, so the next time you shop there, recall the hundreds of Italian American men—many from the regions of Piemonte and Liguria—who labored there in the Bilger works for two dollars a day and slowly reshaped the southern end of the aptly named Rockridge district. 


“Con Le Nostre Mani” was curated in 2002 by the Italian American Heritage Committee of the East Bay, and has been shown in several Bay Area museum and library venues.