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planpdx.org: Interview with Sarah Gay

Sarah Gay was an active neighborhood volunteer, having started the Homestead Neighborhood Association as a newly-arrived immigrant from the midwest, and serving as its President for a period of time. She also worked for the Office of Neighborhood Associations at City Hall and participated in League of Women Voters get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Date of Interview: December 16, 1999
Interview By: Ernie Bonner
Location: Tucson, Arizona

SG = Sarah Gay
EB = Ernie Bonner

EB: This is an interview with Sarah Gay in Tucson, Arizona on December 16th, 1999. And so Sarah's going to start off talking a little bit about how she got to Portland.

SG: Okay. In those days, I was Sally Gay, and so now I'm Sarah Gay, but Sarah-Sally is what some people call me.
I was living in Des Plaines, Illinois outside Chicago, where Bob Gay, my husband then, was working for Borg-Warner corporation as a chemist, and he decided he wanted to have a political career as an environmentalist along the Ralph Nader line, so he put an ad in the Saturday Review magazine that said, "Broadly capable leader seeks transition to legal-political career." And we got a call from OSPIRG in Portland, which was very, very active in 1971, and they invited us out for an interview.
So we went to Portland on a weekend and had the interview, and fell in love with Portland. One month later we came back with our two small children and bought a house that we had never been in the inside of, but we saw the view of Mt. Hood and the Willamette River and said, "This is for us." We bought the house over the telephone.
And it was located on Marquam Hill, basically in the Barbur and Terwilliger Boulevard area. The neighborhood was bounded by Viewpoint Terrace to Hamilton Terrace, Barbur Boulevard on the east, and on the west all the way to the top of University Drive. This particular area of Marquam Hill was - could have been related to or a part of the Southwest Hills Neighborhood Association, or it could have been a part of the Terwilliger Neighborhood Association, both of which I believe existed at that time.
I had been going to many League of Women Voters meetings and hearing Neil Goldschmidt talking about citizen participation, neighborhood participation, and the formation of neighborhood associations. So it seemed that our wedge-shaped neighborhood did not really have the same kinds of concerns as the Southwest Neighborhood Association or the Terwilliger Association, both of which had very particular agendas related to their areas.
So the development of the medical school was beginning to increase, and it seemed that maybe this was an opportunity for us to form an association so that we would have an entity that could relate to the medical school, and we would have a place that the concerns of the neighbors had could be discussed.
So what I remember about that time is going down to the neighborhood association office, getting some petitions, and going door to door talking to neighbors about the idea that there was a way that we could form a neighborhood association. And that was in approximately 1973 or early '74, and the name Homestead (I'm not sure how we got that name, but there was apparently a particular deed of property called the Old Homestead at one time).
There were several people who became instrumental in the administration of the neighborhood association. One was a retired teacher named Helen Ferrens who, I believe kept records of our meetings and how we formed, and a dental professor from the University Dental School (he and his wife were the president and vice president of the association for many years).
So as the development of the hill proceeded, as the studies began to take shape of the instability of the particular area of the hillside where we were, the Homestead Neighborhood Association was able to hold meetings that were very well attended. It was a very active association.
We had a block party where we blocked off Terwilliger Boulevard for two blocks and had a dance one night. It was a close-knit group because we shared so much the same part of the hill.

EB: You say you were in the League of Women Voters when you first came?

SG: Right. Jane Cease was the president.

EB: And what was the League doing then? Do you remember anything about it?

SG: The main thing that the League has always been involved in is getting voter participation and getting people to go out in communities and in shopping centers and help people get registered to vote. So it was the nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign primarily.

EB: Now, you eventually worked at the Office of Neighborhood Associations, right?

SG: Right. When I went to work at the Office of Neighborhood Associations, Mary Peterson, as she was known then, was coordinator of the office. Mildred was the Commissioner.
And we were giving out information to individuals who wanted to know how to get things done; if they had particular complaints or if they wanted to start a neighborhood association. That was mostly our function, I believe, to help other associations get formed and to provide them with information about how neighborhood associations worked and how they could become a political entity within the city, and the benefits of doing that.

EB: Do you remember any of the people in the office or out in the neighborhoods from that time? Like Larry Lubin or Gerri Mounce or...

SG: Gerri Mounce I remember very much. She was from the North Portland Association office, and she was working with Mary. I remember Gerri and how active she was in North Portland.

EB: Do you remember any of the issues of that time?

SG: It seems to me that the Office itself had a very tenuous existence, and that there was always a question of who was the Commissioner in charge of it, and it was a bit like a hot potato, and no one quite wanted to claim it.
My sense was that the Mayor's Office felt that there would be some benefit from not being so close to that office, and for that reason it would be better in Mildred Schwab's office. But maybe at that time Mildred Schwab didn't have a very strong interest or felt maybe there was a detriment politically to having that office under jurisdiction.
So there was always some question of how tenuous its existence was.

EB: Was Model Cities still around then?

SG: Under Charles Jordan - I think it was not. I think it was after Model Cities. But Charles Jordan was a Commissioner at that time, I think.

EB: Any other people from out of the neighborhoods that you recall? I've been trying to recall myself some of the people early on. Did you have much to do with the Northwest district?

SG: I did not have very much to do with them. I was always aware of the amount of information that was in the office about the Northwest district, and there was someone very involved in that area, and I can't recall her name. You would know; she was very, very active in politics at that time. Gerri Mounce was one person, and this person - I'll think of her.

EB: So when did you leave the Neighborhood Association Office?

SG: I think it was 1976. About 1976. I began studying for a master's in public administration because I was so interested in what I had seen about city government. I thought at that time I wanted to be city manager of a small community somewhere. And we had a class that met for a weekend retreat with many city managers around the area. One was from Lake Oswego, one from Troutdale, I believe, and any ideas of being a city manager were put to rest after this weekend retreat.
But I did continue my studies for a master's in public administration in more the area of human resources.

EB: I understand that you have been involved in the design of bird feeders?

SG: Yes. I am the sole creator of the motherboard bird feeder, which is made from the keyboard of a computer which is no longer active due to Y2k and that can be taken apart, and the bottom part becomes a very nice attractive bird feeder. The birds like it very much. There's a small little motherboard in the bird feeder, and the mother birds like it very much.
So if anyone would like to know more about this, the patent is pending. [laughing] Call me.

EB: And where did you go then? Anything else you can offer in terms of those days?

SG: Well, the other thing, I'm trying to think about what the League was really involved in. We were working very hard on the Equal Rights Amendment, so that puts an historical frame around that time.
We had several situations in which we dressed in white and marched. My daughter has a little white dress outfit, I remember that the two of us marched together. That's really a historical piece!

EB: That was before 'take your daughter to work.'

SG: Yes. Take your daughter for the ERA march. And we were trying to inform people about what was the amendment and what were the benefits of having the amendment passed. And remembering the suffragette movement and...

EB: That was a good model to follow.

SG: Yeah. We had an auction, Susan B. Anthony auction, and I was in charge of the auction, and quickly passed that on to someone else. So - raising some money.

EB: I'm having a lot of trouble myself trying to remember some of those events of the early days of the neighborhood associations, but I think it's partly because Mary herself, as well as other people in the neighborhood associations, always I think felt more like they were on the neighbors' side, and they felt more like they were, you know, representing them down at City Hall. So there was often a conflict between the Office of Neighborhood Associations and the Bureaus of the City. So I don't remember very much about what went on with the Office because we weren't really that much involved in their own internal stuff.

SG: Well, it seems to me that that was very much the situation with the North Portland Neighborhood Association, which had almost its own kind of - it was almost like its own small city hall. It had its own power base, and it was very much a power base, for the neighbors. So when I stepped into the Office, I could see that sort of friction playing out. Who do we work for? Do we work for the neighbors or do we work for the City?
I don't think that was ever really resolved. It was just the situation.

EB: Do you happen to remember how many people were in the office downtown?

SG: I would say probably four or five.

EB: Right. Not big. Just pretty small.

SG: Just very small, uh-huh, at that time.

EB: Because that was a big issue, trying to get money from Council to actually staff a downtown office, rather than staff the neighborhoods.

SG: Well, one of our major duties was to help neighborhood associations with their newsletters, help them start newsletters, editing them. I remember Mary editing newsletters, and then how carefully she edited all of them that went out. People would bring in their newsletters, and we would help them get them circulated and distributed.

EB: So there was probably a budget for mailing and...

SG: Right. There was a budget for mailing, and we were always involved with mailings, and getting newsletter out on time.

EB: Were there assignments to certain areas? Gerri was probably assigned to North Portland.

SG: Gerri was assigned to North Portland. But I don't think that we had geographic areas as responsibilities.

EB: Right. So let's continue with your life, then.

SG: After I got this master's in public administration, I never worked for a public entity, and that was just kind of the way it evolved. I worked in the hospital industry in human resources for 10 years, but I never got back to government.

EB: Is that right?

SG: So I don't know what that says.

EB: Well, going to school in public administration was maybe enough. "I've had enough of public administration!"

SG: Well, it took me three tutors to get through statistics. I took statistics with Steve Sivage at Portland State.

EB: Oh, really? I know Steve.

SG: And he realized that I was challenged, statistically challenged.

EB: Now, he works - it's interesting he was teaching statistics; he works for the General Services Bureau now. He builds buildings for the city.

SG: Well, at that time he worked for Portland State... and taught statistics on the side.

[End of Interview]