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The Source: From “Garbage dump town” to “City of the Stars”

Photo by CC Flickr user D Coetzee, resized and recropped


Ah, for the good old days, when you could buy a piece of Bay Area property for $1,000.

That was the case in Brisbane when it started in the late 1920s. But that price may as well have been in the millions at the time, when so much of the country was suffering economically during the Great Depression. So Arthur Annis, the town’s developer, dropped the prices even lower. The cheapest lots were $100. “And you could buy a lot for ten dollars down and five dollars a month,” says Fred Smith, a former member of the Brisbane City Council. “I think they called it fire sale pricing.”

Not only that, you could get building supplies from the garbage dump down at the bay front, if you weren’t picky. And most weren’t, what with the Depression and all. San Francisco had been dumping refuse in Brisbane since the 1906 earthquake and fire, a practice that continued for over sixty years. You may live in a tarpaper shack, but it was your tarpaper shack, and no landlord was going to raise your rent or force you out.

Brisbane’s waterfront trash heap not only provided a do-it-yourself building supply center, but an unsavory nickname came with it: “The garbage dump town.”

After Brisbane incorporated in the 1960s, Smith says, “We battled the garbage companies fiercely, to try to stop the dumping, to stop the filling of the bay front. The city even hired as an attorney, Caspar Weinberger, who later became the Secretary of Defense.”

This brave move earned Brisbane the nickname “The Mouse That Roared,” after a Peter Sellers movie of the time. The plot involves a tiny country declaring war on the U.S., and winning.

There’s no record of the celebration, but if the victory had come about during Prohibition, when Brisbane was still unincorporated, it might have involved breaking the law.
“Being located right along the Bay, it was an ideal place for the smuggling of illegal liquor,” says Smith, the former Council member. “And the legends are that in the back rooms there were card games going on, and slot machines.”

These shady activities earned Brisbane the nickname of “Little Reno.” And later, during World War 2, when enlisted men descended on the town on weekends, it was called The Second Barbary Coast.

But add all these nicknames together and they still get less attention than this one: The City of Stars.

Most towns, Smith says, might have “a Christmas tree lane or one or two streets will organize and decorate.” Not so in Brisbane — the whole town puts lighted stars on their homes and businesses throughout December.
Smith thinks this tradition started “right before World War 2, when someone in the Chamber of Commerce decided to put a star on their house and put Christmas lights on it.”

“People really liked it,” he continues, “partly because if you drove by it on the Bayshore Blvd. you could look up at the hillside, and see it sprinkled with stars at night.” Now the Chamber hands out five-foot diameter wooden stars to everyone in town, which is why Brisbane is officially known as The City of Stars.

But why is it named Brisbane? Some say developer Annis just liked the sound of it, and he especially liked that it wouldn’t be confused with any other town in the area. His daughter told the author of “A Spirit of Independence,” Brisbane’s history book, “He named it after the city in Australia.”

There’s a competing theory that it was named for Arthur Brisbane, the country’s best-known newspaper columnist around that time, at William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

Which is correct? Not wanting to alienate either side, the city’s website diplomatically states,“Both theories have their ardent supporters. And perhaps both contain a certain measure of the truth.”

Crosscurrents BrisbaneThe Source