The Colombo Club, named for Italian-born Christopher Colombus, formed in 1920, a year that marks a transition between the first two waves of Italian immigrants to the US. The first and largest wave of Italians began in 1880 when the only way to California from Italy was thirty thirsty days by sea to the east coast and then at least five days and 3,000 miles more by “dusty, bone-rattling” railroad. These first-wave Italians were mostly poor, male agricultural workers who settled in Temescal for its “sunshine and soil for fruit and vegetable gardens; elbow room and affordable housing; easy street car access; and most vitally, job opportunities.” Many came from Piedmont and other northern regions of Italy, worked at the Bilger Rock Quarry, current site of the Rockridge Shopping Center, and lived in male boarding houses. Some had relocated from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. By the 1930’s, several years after the Colombo Club opened its first headquarters, the city of Oakland was home to one of the largest Italian-American communities in California. The Colombo Club was the first of several Italian social clubs to create a space where Italian social life could flourish.
With its membership approaching 1,000 men, the Colombo Club holds rank as the “largest private Italian social club west of the Mississippi River.” In theory, membership is open to “men of Italian and non-Italian heritage who meet membership qualifications,” according to the website. If you are interested in membership, however, you need to contact an existing member for sponsorship; then there’s a waiting list. Ladies, fear not; you can’t enter the club without a male member to chaperone, but there is a Ladies Auxiliary for you to join. To be clear, “auxiliary,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, means “1. a.) Helpful, assistant, affording aid, rendering assistance, giving support or succor” and “2. A.) Subsidiary to the ordinary, additional.” There are over 200 supportive, subsidiary lady members of the Ladies Auxiliary, which has neither a website nor a building.
Exclusivity is a touchy subject right now. I’d argue it’s out of fashion. It harkens to another time, a time when racism, sexism and exclusion along other lines of difference could roam free. Incidentally, this was the same time Italians themselves were discriminated against for being “other,” for having dark skin, for being different. When the Colombo Club was founded, Italian-Americans in California were experiencing more discrimination than ever before. During the interwar years of 1919-1941, the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti trials made American citizens suspicious of Italian-American “anarchism.” In California at the beginning of WWII, non-citizens of all national affiliations were sent to internment camps, Italians not excluded.
Regardless of our nation’s troubling history, not everyone finds fault with the social club’s exclusionary practice. Afterall, women can attend social functions if chaperoned by a member. One lady yelper left the following review:
"My dad is a member of this club... and boy am I ever happy that he is! :) It is the oldest Italian Men's Club west of the Mississippi! Truth! I have been his guest a few times here and each time had an amazing experience. Although he rarely brings me because I'm a lady, I occasionally get the invite, and allllways attend the Father/Daughter night each year.
"Imagine, Old Fellas, and times it by 100. This place is huge! 3 stories, FULL of Italian Men from all over the bay area. I mean seriously, where can you find 500 Italian Men in one room with no women? Here. It's straight out of an old Italian Mafia flick, and I LOVE it. I'm 75% Italian/Sicilian and every time I go I feel like I'm just living my heritage."
Judging by the following gentleman’s review, however, clearly some ladies would prefer not to be excluded:
"italian mens club. great atmosphere. good food. cheap prices. drinks strong and inexpensive. dont listen to the grieving feminists, they just want some of our delicious cold cuts and all you can eat dinner. there are family nights but not as often as the normal family dinners. overall a wonderful place with wonderful people. if you ever are lucky enough to be invited... GO!
"sorry ladies, it is a MENS club. you dont see us writing on yelp about how we arent allowed to womens club functions. get over it."
At a time when being labeled “feminist” can still bear such negative heft, I do wonder about the role that gender-exclusive clubs play in the understanding and appreciation across genders.
Since it opened, the Colombo Club’s goals have remained unchanged. The Colombo Club aims “to promote the best interests of members, to sustain a sense of Italian American community, and to nurture the highest ideals of American citizenship.”