Richmond, CA



Oral Histories








Winehaven, the largest winery in the world at the time. Richmond circa 1910.

The Italians of Richmond

Because it was settled later than the rest of the country, Italian settlement in California was unique. Where most Italian immigrants to the eastern U.S. headed straight for the dense tenement life one sociologist compared to an “urban village,” those who came west also tended to cluster in cities, but cities which often, as in Richmond, were cities with an option. One could settle in North Beach in San Francisco, where urban life and many social/cultural amenities like opera and restaurants predominated. But one could also make one’s way across the bay to a place like Richmond, where city life and farm life nestled within walking distance of each other.

In fact, many of Richmond’s early Italians had settled first in San Francisco, only to depart after the 1906 earthquake and fire made that city seem a bit too precarious. Thus, Margaret Accornero Baker’s grandparents, Pasquale and Maria Traverso, had run a boarding house in San Francisco until the earthquake helped convince them to join a relative already in Richmond. The same relative, Giovanna Traverso, also aided Maria Traverso, when, after moving back to Italy in 1916 with her husband, she returned to Richmond on her own.

Besides an apparent safe haven from earthquakes, Richmond offered Italian immigrants—the majority of them from northern Italian villages in Piemonte, Lombardy, Liguria, and Tuscany—the essential element the immigrants looked for: jobs. A mainly blue-collar town, Richmond in the early 20th century was home to several industries, including the Santa Fe Railroad, the Pullman railroad-car factory, Standard Sanitary (eventually to become American Standard ), Blake Brothers Quarry, Certain-Teed Roofing, Rheem Manufacturing, Filice and Perrelli Cannery, the world’s largest winery at nearby Winehaven, and the west coast refinery of Standard Oil. The 1910 City Directory indicates how attractive this was to Italian immigrants, especially single laborers, listing some 120 Italians, with 20 working and living at Winehaven, at least as many laboring at Standard Oil, a dozen running saloons, seven with hotels or boarding houses, and a dozen as proprietors of either groceries, bakeries, or wineries. Beginning in 1917, there was also an Italian-dominated garbage-collection business, Richmond Scavenger (later Richmond Sanitary, started by the Barbieri brothers and three friends), which offered work for those with a strong back and the means to buy a partnership. With a significant Italian population—1930 census data indicate that Italians were Richmond’s largest foreign-born group (807 out of 3,435), as well as the largest group of native-born residents with a parent born in Italy (801 out of 5,431) —Richmond also offered opportunities for small businesses such as shoe repair shops, barber shops, Italian specialty stores, tradesmen, and other businesses catering to its 20,000 inhabitants.

But Richmond also offered something not available in most cities—an Italian section, north Richmond, that bordered on arable land for farming. The Italian families who settled in north Richmond in the 1920s and 1930s, therefore, had access to the best of both worlds: they had a city with an established industrial and commercial base, and a living space nearby that allowed industrious immigrants to grow or raise almost all of their own food. This meant that although a man like Arturo Siri would work nearly his whole life at Certain-Teed Roofing Co., he would also spend his most satisfying hours tending to his farm animals—including cows, chickens, and pigs—and his lush garden. Most of his north Richmond neighbors did something similar. Thus, though pre-war north Richmond was nestled among railroad tracks and small industries, it was a neighborhood of small houses in what many remember as a “pastoral,” almost idyllic community. At its northernmost end, the presence of truck farms—owned by Italian families like the Bruzzonis, the Casazzas, the Gallinos, and the Pericolis—added to the rural atmosphere. Neighbors knew each other and visited each other’s single-family homes frequently for eating, dancing and singing. Though the neighborhood was predominantly Italian, it included several other ethnic groups, including Hispanics, Blacks and Slavonians, all of whom seemed to get along with minimal conflict.

Though north Richmond housed many Italians and supported three “mom & pop” stores—Bianco’s, and two others, both owned by Scalises—it was not truly a “little Italy,” lacking the exclusively Italian population and commercial density typical of such sections. Moreover, the Italian community claimed several other pockets of Richmond and Point Richmond. The earliest residents of the area had originally settled in what came to be Point Richmond , probably due to the fact that several Quarries and Brick Works offered entry-level jobs nearby, as did the winery at Winehaven, and the Standard Oil Refinery or “oil works,” as noted above. The proximity of San Francisco Bay also made Point Richmond a convenient residence for those who fished there and beyond. Dominic and Tony Ghio testified vividly to this in 1986, pointing out that the Richmond shoreline before its full development by Fred Parr in 1920 and then the Kaiser shipyards in 1940 had been a rich spawning ground for fish, including the bay shrimp that they harvested: On the Richmond waterfront we had porpoise, we had anchovies, we had good, rich salt water coming in from the ocean, and a lot of fish. It was like a spawning ground—Southhampton Shoals. It was beautiful. I mean, there was everything. Then we had transportation. They opened up the channel for the ships to go into the estuary to get unloaded with oil and things like that. That was a change.

Another section occupied by Italians bordered on the commercial district along Macdonald Avenue, from 4th to 7th Streets. Still another group of Italian families, especially after the Galileo Club was completed at South 23rd Street in 1938, clustered in the area near the club on 23rd and 24th Streets. According to Stella Noe, Italian Americans occupied the whole row of houses on 23rd Street across from the club, a proximity which allowed them to provide food and other help for club functions. Other Italian families lived in the area near the Pullman plant where many worked, near Carlson Boulevard. And of course, extending north into San Pablo from the north Richmond neighborhood sat the dozen or so truck farms alluded to earlier.

Life in Pre-War Richmond

. . . it just was a wonderful warm household, and my mother and father both sang. My mother sang on the stage when she was in Italy as a child, and it, it just . . . it was consistent. We knew timing was of the essence to my father—you ate lunch at noon and you ate dinner at six o’clock and you had better be there, at his table so he could see his kids. And it . . . and we all liked being together. There was . . . a closeness that is sodear to me. . . . Margherita Siri Bargy

Before the World War II, life for Italian Americans in Richmond revolved around work, family, and community. Once he settled down in Richmond, Margherita Siri Bargy’s father, Arturo Siri, worked his whole life as an inspector of roofing materials produced at Certain-Teed. Reduced to three days per week during the Depression, Arturo managed to supplement his income with gardening until he was working full time again. Through it all, he worked long hours in his backyard garden, often providing fruit and produce to neighbors as visiting gifts. His wife, Lola, also worked, primarily during summers at Filice & Perrelli cannery (like almost all Italian women in the neighborhood). Most Richmond Italians followed similar patterns. Job or business was supplemented by raising animals and crops for food, the latter being an equal source of pride—both in the quality of the crops compared to others, and as a way to minimize expenditures. Bread was delivered fresh to homes from Callegari Bakery. Most men made their own wine, an annual event that involved sharing of equipment and celebratory rituals. Shopping excursions to the stores on Macdonald Avenue—Richmond Poultry, Traverso’s shoe store, Zarri’s Italian deli—were opportunities to stock up on goods that could not be home-made or home-grown, and to meet friends and relatives.

Social life revolved around visits to neighbors, Sunday dinners, and holiday gatherings which often turned into songfests and dancing lasting late into the night. As Jimmy Rampoldi remembers it, " The grownups, they’d visit, they’d visit each other, almost every night. They’d go over one, they’d go over to one person’s house tonight, they come over to our house the next night. And I’m telling you, at Christmas time, aw, the fun they have. They’d go over my aunt’s house, Aunt Maria, she had a big house, two-story house, for, for dinner, it would be just my aunt and my cousins, two brothers and a sister, and my brother and I, and my mother and father. But then in the evening the neighborhood families, Italians families would come over. And they would sing and I’d have to push that accordion again. They would sing Italian songs, naturally. All night."

Sharing goods and good times with neighbors, including non-Italians, was also featured, as Shirley Ann Moore notes:
Black Richmondites recalled visiting their Portuguese and Italian neighbors in North Richmond, trading family recipes, and sharing meals of “salami and French bread. They would make that ‘dago red’ wine they called it. People sort of shared.

With the founding of the Galileo Club in 1932, and the building of the clubhouse in 1938, club members added to their enjoyment with card games, bocci tournaments, dances and the Columbus Day Parade and festival which included parade floats, the landing of Columbus at Blake Brothers Quarry Beach, and the crowning of the Queen. As described in the Richmond Independent, the 1939 festival was a high point for the Italian American community, an event “presented with professional perfection.”

Childhood, though lived under the strict rules of Italian concern for reputation and appearances, or “bella figura” , allowed for a great deal of latitude nonetheless. Jimmy Rampoldi tells of swimming naked in the nearby slough when the tide was in, a muddy but satisfying adventure. Weekends, young people could walk or ride bikes to Macdonald Avenue and choose movies at either the Fox (the Big Show), or the Little Show—an outing that often lasted through several features from morning till evening. Walter Freeman Jr. recalled playing “run,sheep, run” and “pig in a corner” with his Italian friends. Baseball was played in vacant lots, with cow pies for bases. Yet while baseball and football might be allowed, fathers usually insisted that work at home or in the garden had to come first. Marie Southwick remembers taking a horse and buggy to a farm in El Cerrito to pick crops. Jimmy Rampoldi recalls having to do gardening chores at home before he could play what his father called “futchball.” When it came time for dating, strict rules applied, enforced by fathers or brothers or mothers. Margherita Siri Bargy recalled that she could hardly have a date pick her up at home because several brothers made it known that their baseball bats could be used for other than games. Jimmy Rampoldi remembered that when he asked his future wife on their first date to a night football game, his future mother-in-law threw a wooden spoon at him. On the other hand, Angie Accornero recalled a considerable degree of liberation when her female cousin got her car:
We would parade up and down Macdonald Avenue, a bunch of girls going up and down Macdonald, going to get a hamburger or going to the soda fountain and get a milkshake, and...sundaes and that sort of thing.

The Wartime Boom

Much as its 23,642 residents might have wanted it, Richmond was not to remain this place of bucolic camaraderie forever. By 1940 it was clear that the United States would eventually enter the war raging in Europe and the Pacific. Richmond’s civic boosters saw this coming as well, and had been working to make Richmond a center of wartime activity, chiefly by inducing Henry Kaiser to locate his main shipbuilding operation in the Port of Richmond, developed mainly through the efforts of another civic booster, Fred Parr in 1920. Kaiser soon built four shipyards in Richmond’s inner harbor, the first begun in December 1940. By the time the US entered the war in December 1941, Kaiser Richmond had produced 30 ships for the British, making it the center of Bay Area shipbuilding, and setting in motion a transformation that would change the town forever. Nor was it just Kaiser’s shipyards that wrought the change. Most of the other factories, including the Ford Plant (built in 1930), Standard Radiator, the California Cap Works, and Santa Fe Foundry, quickly geared up for war production as well: by 1943 Richmond could boast of more than fifty-five defense contractors. With high-paying jobs and recruiters nationwide crying out for workers, Richmond’s population exploded from 23,000 to 93,000 in just three years. Workers from all over the country—chiefly the midwest and the south, and including African Americans and southern whites often derided as “Okies”—were soon struggling to find places to live and sleep. As Marilyn Johnson points out, this resulted in two enormous changes for Richmond residents: ...the arrival of unskilled migrants and other new workers prompted a radical restructuring from skilled crafts to mass production....and... mass defense migration resulted in bitter conflicts between natives and newcomers over material resources, political power, social prestige, and public behavior.

Moreover, newly arriving shipyard workers flooded Richmond with needs—not just for housing (many of them initially sleeping in their cars, or in movie theaters between shifts)—but for goods and services of all kinds. All of these changes would affect the Italian American community, both for good and ill.

To begin with, the arrival of masses of migrant workers, with different clothes, speech patterns, manners and mores, not to mention inordinate amounts of money from the (relatively) high wages paid by Kaiser, severely tested the pre-war tolerance and camaraderie of Richmond residents. Suddenly, the carefree trips downtown, where, as Jimmy Rampoldi remembered it, he could leave his bike outside the “show” all day and find it there when he emerged, could not be undertaken so easily. Along with shipyard workers, the streets were filled with hustlers, peddlers, shoeshine boys, and others, and raucous bars, nightclubs, and theaters were operating night and day. The language heard and the dress encountered—cowboy clothes and fancy attire such as fur coats in particular—struck longtime residents as strange if not bizarre, and definitely not something to be imitated. Mary Ambrosio Walker remembers her father insisting on walking her back and forth to school as a precaution against her talking to strange boys, and insisting that she and her sister go directly through his barber shop after school to their upstairs apartment. In the shipyards, more experienced workers looked with a measure of contempt on the newcomers.

Tony Vinelli, an experienced welder by the time the war started, expresses this in a lightly veiled way: Well, like I say, a lot of those people were farmers, and they were--never--they never heard of a arc welder. They never heard of laying--learning or beveling plates. In other words, they never had any work with steel at all. There's what--they were dirt farmers, and they were uh people that uh farmed their orchards and stuff like that. So consequently, like I said in a previous statement there, they started schools for those people. And uh Americans being as they are, they're pretty smart, they're not dummies, they learned pretty fast to be what they needed in the yards. And as they progressed, why they-they learned and taught people along with themselves.

On the other hand, Italian-owned businesses profited from the huge influx of new workers, all of whom needed to eat, drink, entertain and clothe themselves. For businesses like Richmond Poultry and Traverso’s—both the shoe store and the liquor store—the wartime influx was indeed a kind of ‘second gold rush.’ Henry Accornero remembers having to work long hours after school, the necessity of which prevented him from going out for his high school track team. Even in Junior High, Angie Accornero was able to get a job in the training school for welders mentioned by Vinelli, which took place in a building next to Richmond High School. Later she worked in the office at the shipyards as well.

Marie Southwick recalls that she worked for migrant workers in several ways—taking in laundry, and also babysitting for “Rosie the Riveter” mothers who needed childcare during their day shifts. The tremendous multiplying of Richmond residents not only required government housing to be built at several locations in South Richmond adjacent to the shipyards, but also generated new multiples of waste, with the result that Richmond Scavenger expanded greatly during these years, at about the same time that Emma Nuti’s huband and Rich Granzella bought into the company. Because of this critical need, the Scavenger business was declared to be a critical industry, which, in turn, allowed the Nutis and several other families of the garbage workers to live in the government-built housing at Harborgate. The transition to war production at the Ford plant benefited Emma Nuti as well: she was able to get a job working on Jeeps. Nor was it only paid labor that augured change: the Galileo Club pitched in with bond drives, many fathers worked as air raid wardens, and young people like Angie Accornero recalled “helping to make bandages for the war effort.”

So while the sea change that hit Richmond and its neighborhoods is the subject of constant regret and nostalgia for the “good old days,” it is also seen as a necessary and even welcome form of “progress.” Margherita Siri Bargy saw it as both progress and prosperity: Richmond was growing leaps and bounds, going all the way from Garrard and Macdonald to Macdonald and San Pablo Avenue, and it was already a heavily populated area. More grocery stores came in, more theaters, there were like five theaters that had been put in after the war. Grocery stores were built out in our area, there were two of them. Everything just seemed to be progressing, prosperous...

In Jimmy Rampoldi’s words, Well, when I. . . came home from the service, I went on MacDonald Avenue, I says, Holy smokes! I seen these guys with tin hats, they’d have their sport shirts on and stuff like that, I mean little guys on the sidewalk, I says, “Jesus, what do you guys...” Then one guy says, “You’re from...” I says, “Okay, where do all these Okies come from.” And gee, a couple of big guys grabbed me and they picked me up, literally. He says, “I’m an Okie,” you know. I says, “Hey, man, I’m just, I’m sorry, didn’t mean that, you know?” But they helped us, they built ships for us and women also, they really produced, the production was great. I think that’s how, how we won the war. I think they’re [i.e. German] soldiers—they’ve been training since they were kids, they’re better soldiers than we were. Their armaments were greater. But our productivity helped us out, and this is what the people from Oklahoma, Arkansas, or wherever they came from, built our ships here, and our armaments, like you said, hand grenades and stuff, really helped us. And that’s America, you know, for you.

Dominic Ghio noted the same changes, from a different perspective: When the shipyards came, then everything changed because different people from the middle states came here to work in the shipyards and naturally the population just got bigger and bigger. Right here we were just a handful of people..It was a very nice place to live. Then when the war broke out, Kaiser hired I don’t know how many thousands of people to come over here and put up a ship...they came without no shoes.

Aside from the “second gold rush” that hit Richmond, however, another change engulfed Richmond’s immigrants that partook of less ambivalence—the wartime restrictions on enemy aliens.
(Note: the wartime story has been told elsewhere—see For Richmond, the main effects were two: virtually all of Richmond was declared a prohibited zone, which meant that it was off limits to all enemy aliens. Hundreds of Richmond’s Italian resident aliens had to move—including Angie and Henry Accornero’s mothers, Jimmy Rampoldi’s parents, Margherita Siri Bargy along with her mother and father, Emma Nuti, and countless others. This displacement, though it did not last, seemed to signal a watershed for Richmond’s Italian community, especially its center in North Richmond. Sometimes immediately after the war, sometimes within a few years, Italian families left the old neighborhood, to be replaced by the newcomers who had arrived for the wartime boom. Within a few years, the farms run by Italians had disappeared, and the downtown area along Macdonald Avenue was transformed. Today, the Galileo Club remains as an outpost of what once was. Each year in September, it hosts a gathering for the now-aging North Richmond Italians where people reminisce about the old days, and the idyllic neighorhood and life that once was theirs.)

by Lawrence DiStasi

This essay first appeared in "Not at Home on the Home Front," edited by Donna Graves: 2004.