East Bay Then and now: From Scavengers’ Social Club to Rock Music Mecca

By Daniella Thompson
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:44:00 AM

Oakland’s Temescal district is best known today for its demographic diversity, most visibly manifested in the variety of its restaurants. Only one establishment, the venerable Genova Delicatessen, stands as a reminder of the neighborhood’s Italian past.  

At the turn of the last century, a large wave of Italian immigration brought many Ligurians from Genoa to San Francisco. Since only the lowliest jobs were open to unskilled immigrants, many of the Genoese newcomers began scavenging for garbage in horse-drawn wagons. As competition in San Francisco was fierce, some of these immigrants settled in the East Bay, most of them living in West Oakland.  

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire drove thousands of refugees across the bay, altering the demographic makeup of various Oakland neighborhoods. Almost overnight, the Temescal district became “Little Italy,” drawing its new residents from both San Francisco and West Oakland.  

The Genoese scavengers who moved to Temescal continued their activities as independent garbage collectors until 1909, when rivalry induced them to form the Oakland Scavenger Association. This co-op incorporated in 1915 as the Oakland Scavenger Company. Every employee of this all-Italian membership corporation was a shareholder, and shares were transferred by their owners only to family members or to other shareholders.  

The company grew to be a giant. In March 1931, the City of Oakland passed a garbage ordinance, awarding the Oakland Scavenger Company a monopoly on its garbage collections. The company would eventually expand its operations to other East Bay cities and become the dominant force in this region’s waste disposal.  

A glimpse into the company’s operations in the 1930s was provided by The Knave, a popular weekly column published by the Oakland Tribune. On Nov. 15, 1935, The Knave wrote:  

“This garbage business isn’t as simple as you think. They aren’t just garbage men, to begin with: they are stockholders in the firm for which they work, the Oakland Scavenger Company. Moreover, they are either foremen, pickup men, or pickers. Those are the fellows you see. I mean, there’re other titles that the public doesn’t encounter.  

“The foreman on each truck keeps books and takes care of collections. The pickup men empty your can into the truck, where the picker goes over it for salvage. He picks out the bottles, the copper, the aluminum, the rags and the other things of value and puts them in the proper sack to be delivered at the end of the day to the salvage house, where it’s gone over again and sold.  

“Remember, these fellows are all stockholders and so they take multiple precautions to see that the firm—that’s themselves—aren’t cheated. They switch jobs every month or two so that there is a good check on the bookkeeping. And the picker—well if he doesn’t open his eyes wide enough and turn in the right amount of salvage, he’ll be fined $5 at the end of the month.  

“There are other rules beside that about finding the right number of bottles and sufficient poundage of sacks. If any of these other rules is violated the group sits in judgment on the individual, and he may get a $5 or $10 fine. That goes in the common fund, and, I guess, he gets a small piece of it back in the way of his share of the profits.  

“To the picker, all bottles are bottles, and he puts them in the bottle sack. But to the salvagers at the salvage house, some bottles are potential profit and the others possible danger. That has created a new job at the salvage house: bottle breaker.”  

The bottle breaker’s task is to smash all liquor bottles, marked, as you have observed, “Federal law prohibits sale or re-use of this bottle.” Hotels and restaurants smash their own bottles, but you and I don’t, and there are plenty that come to the bottle breaker’s attention every day. I’m going down sometime and satisfy a long-time bull-in-the-china-closet complex by helping him.  

As testament to the growing power of the Oakland Scavenger Company, in 1933 the City of Oakland named a street near its new garbage wharf (at that time, dry garbage was disposed at sea) after the company’s longtime president, Thomas Ferro.  

But business prowess offered no guarantee of social acceptance. Like other Italian-American groups, the Genoese scavengers of Temescal socialized within their own circle. Informal weekend meetings in a friend’s basement evolved in January 1933 into the formation of a social club where members could enjoy community dinners, celebrate Italian festivals, and play bocce ball. They called it the Ligure Club in honor of their birthplace (Ligure is the Ligurian name for that region’s language and sea).  

In September 1934, the Ligure Club Association obtained a building permit to erect a social and athletic club on the 4700 block of Shattuck Avenue, in the Temescal district. The building was rapidly completed and opened on Dec. 7, 1934. Club membership grew just as rapidly. On May 25, 1935, the Oakland Tribune reported that 600 members of the club and their families would attend a picnic and dance at Valente Park in Lafayette. “The club,” informed the article, “recently erected a new $30,000 clubhouse at Shattuck Avenue and Forty-Eighth Street.”  

The 21,000-square-foot building was designed in Mediterranean style, with whitewashed stucco walls and clay-tile gable roofs. The two-story wing facing Shattuck Avenue had a separate entrance leading to a lofty, 66-by-56-foot ballroom. At the street corner, a hexagonal turret flanked by somewhat lower wings opened onto a long barroom, which in turn led to an indoor bocce ball court located behind the ballroom. Facing 48th Street, a taller, flat-roofed annex enclosed a large room on the second floor. A kitchen and banquet hall occupied the basement.  

Surprisingly, the architect engaged to design the clubhouse was not Italian. Richard C. Schuppert (1883–1944) was born in Kansas to German immigrants. He worked as a laborer on his father’s farm before attending Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University), from which he graduated in 1909 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture.  

For the next few years, Schuppert held various jobs in Kansas City, Missouri, working as superintendent of a manufacturing company; cement finisher for a contractor; draftsman for a smelting company; designer and detailer for an urban railway company; and superintendent of an ornamental concrete factory.  

By 1918, Schuppert had married and was living in Montana, where he listed himself as an independent architect and engineer. In the early 1920s, the Schupperts moved to California, settling in Oakland.  

The architect’s earliest project in Berkeley dates form 1925—a false-front store building at 1806 Alcatraz Ave. near Adeline. This building, its brick façade decorated with diamond patterns, housed a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. In 1937, Schuppert designed another brick-faced grocery store, this one at 2619 San Pablo Ave. Both buildings still stand.  

Unlike Schuppert, the contractor who built the Ligure Club had a proper Genoese pedigree. Eugene Steve Campomenosi was born in Oakland in 1889 to a Ligurian stonemason. By the time he was 20, he was working as a carpenter, and within several years he had established himself as a contractor.  

In 1930, Campomenosi built for the Altman brothers a modern dairy plant to house their Willowbrook Creamery at 2519 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. This elegant building, with its elaborate brickwork, proud pilasters, and fluted white entrance, has recently been used as gallery and theatre space.  

A similar fate befell the Ligure Club building. Beginning in 1955, construction of the Grove-Shafter Freeway tore up the Temescal neighborhood’s fabric. Many homes were demolished to make way for the freeway, and the African-American population burgeoned. In 1962, the Ligure Club had more than 900 members, but flight to the suburbs eroded the membership at a time when social integration was reducing the need for exclusively Italian clubs.  

Other ties were being severed as well. In 1975, black and Hispanic employees of the Oakland Scavenger Company sued their employer, charging that the company restricted ownership of its shares to family members, all of whom were of Italian ancestry, and discriminated among the non-shareholder employees on the basis of race and national origin. The lawsuit led to the company’s being acquired in 1986 by Waste Management, Inc.  

Dwindling membership forced the Ligure Club to sell its building at about the same time. In 1985, the clubhouse was acquired by John Nady, the wireless guitar and microphone magnate. An amateur rock guitarist, Nady transformed the building into a rock club called the Omni. His initial interest was in providing a venue for his own band, the Nady Alliance, but the tremendous success of the Omni led him to acquire the Stone in San Francisco and One Step Beyond in San Jose.  

Neighbors of the Omni weren’t willing to put up with noise and rowdiness in their midst, and in 1992 they succeeded in shutting the club down. Three years later, the building was acquired by its current owner, John Givens. Although used primarily as a residence, the old Ligure Club/Omni occasionally opens its doors to public events.  

This Sunday, Jan. 24, between 4:30 and 7:30 pm, the Omni will serve as the venue of a benefit party for the Berkeley Daily Planet. For complete information about this event, see the ad in this issue.  


Daniella Thompson publishes for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA).