Mother and daughter pose next to painting
Margie Ellis and her daughter Ruby Quintana’s family handled many responsibilities at the Berkeley landfill from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s. They started out by salvaging scrap metal and appliances, but soon expanded into rescuing art, coins, rugs, furniture, electronics, and even fur coats from “the pit.” They sold these reclaimed treasures at local flea markets and eventually opened a thrift store in North Richmond. Credit: Liam O’Donoghue

Editor’s note: Berkeleyside partnered with local history podcast East Bay Yesterday and its creator, Liam O’Donoghue, to bring you this story.

These days the East Bay’s waterfront is lined with parks, restored wetlands, marinas, and beaches, but for most of the 20th century the shoreline was a dirty and dangerous wasteland. Factories stretching from Emeryville up to Richmond treated the San Francisco Bay as a garbage bin. The habit of using the Bay as a dump was so common in Berkeley that the city legitimized the practice by creating a massive landfill on its western border in 1923. Beneath the idyllic grassy hills of Cesar Chavez Park and the bird-filled marshes of McLaughlin Eastshore State Seashore lay hidden mountains of trash.

Interpretive outdoor sign that says "What Am I Standing On" and has a map of Berkeley.
Signage located at McLaughlin Eastshore State Park provides an overview of the current shape of Berkeley’s waterfront. Before the pier and landfill were developed in the 1920s, none of this land existed. The parks and marina were constructed atop mountains of compressed waste. Credit: Liam O’Donoghue

The transformation of this area from a leaky dump into a beautiful site for recreation and nature, a controversial process that unfolded over several decades, has been well-documented. Less has been said about the day-to-day activities of the landfill before its closure in 1983. Although the dump was a loud, smelly, wind-blasted environmental hazard, some of the people who worked there still carry fond memories of the place, and several significant Berkeley institutions emerged from friendships that were nurtured in that toxic soil. This episode explores the interconnected stories of folks who remember “the pit” long before it was turned into a park. 

Read an interview with Margie Ellis conducted by Martin Nicolaus of the Chavez Park Conservancy

First, you’ll hear from Margie Ellis, 82, and her daughter Ruby Quintana, whose family were the unofficial managers of the landfill from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s. Then Martin Borque, executive director of The Ecology Center, and Dan Knapp, co-founder of Urban Ore, will discuss the dump’s connection to Berkeley’s pioneering recycling movement, as well as a consequential battle over a proposed incinerator. Finally, Katherine Davis and Steve Smith of the recently closed Ohmega Salvage, will explain how lessons learned at the dump informed a lifelong dedication to combatting the wastefulness of contemporary culture.

Music for the episode was provided by Berkeley’s Pacific Bells.