planpdx.org: Remarks by Elsa Coleman
Date of Remarks: June 14, 1994
Location: Clinton Theater Reunion
Three decades ago, women arrived at issues through different routes. Some of us just operated with an optimistic naivete and others honed in. I was lucky. I got to participate in both worlds. While I participated in pushing a baby buggy around the City Club meeting location to help others highlight the all-male membership, other women like Vera, Gretchen, Marlene Bayless and many others led the effort. I was in a traditional family setting, but somehow hadn't gotten involved in many of the traditional activities of the time like bridge and garden clubs. On the other hand, I had not been at the cutting edge of "activism." Many of the things described below were "quiet" things--not headlines. That's really important tonight. One doesn't realize when or how such "quiet" things escalate.
One day, in the late '60's a neighbor and friend, Betty Merten, basically said, "Why don't we preach what we practice and get people involved in the environment?" And so it began--in SE Portland--no name, no by-laws, no officers--just a group of S.E. Portland women forming a "non-organization" by word-of-mouth. We plotted while our kids played; sometimes we played while I think they plotted.
We began by offering to speak on anything and everything to do with the environment--from recycling to packaging to air quality--any group that wanted a free speaker. Soon N.E. formed a similar group (Betty Barker, Maureen Bressler, Kay Michelfeld, etc.) and also S.W. (Darlene Carlson, Diane Gerding and others). We all were part of the core that took training on how to lobby when the Bottle Bill arrived at the Legislature--with two women to "attend to" each legislator. One legislator said, "There are so many citizens here, we can't get anything done." Fortunately, I've forgotten his name.
Eventually, each of us gravitated toward a special focus. Mine was transportation and air quality. In 1971, Portland was out of compliance with the federal air quality standards 1 out of 3 days. I had just testified on not building a parking garage where Pioneer Square now resides. Testimony was being given on the particularly detrimental impact of deteriorated air quality on the young, the elderly and pregnant women. At this point, since I was very pregnant at the time, the architect for the garage sitting in front of me turned around and said in a very kind way with just a slight edge of irony, "So what are you doing here?" And, I said, "You're right. I need to leave." He looked a bit shocked, but of course how could he know that at that moment, I'd just gone into labor? My friend, who fortunately was driving (Sally Anderson), knew exactly what was happening. So you might say, Pioneer Square was a labor of love.
And then there was STOP--Sensible Transportation for People--an organization created in a living room by people who were concerned about the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway, which would have gutted SE Portland--including this Clinton Street Theater. Ron Buell, Steve Schell, Al and Kayda Clark, Charlie and Betty Merten, husband Ralph Coleman, etc, etc, etc. After a lot of effort, by 1974, we stopped the project on a legal challenge to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). I received notification from the City addressed to "Gentlemen." And, as allowed under federal law, the funding for the freeway was transferred to other signature projects--eastside MAX, improving the Banfield and Powell Blvd along with a host of other projects around the region.
We collected signatures on petitions (and no one had ever heard of companies paid to do this) to change the constitutional limitation reserving gas tax and vehicle registration to autos. Not successful, but perhaps that's just as well given the status of our road maintenance today. We lobbied for a higher budget for the State Mass Transit Department--which was $75,000 for the Biennium!
Sometimes we take for granted all the small improvements that have been made. For example, in 1972, from the Citizens Advisory Committee on Tri-Met's "Immediate 5-year Public Transit Plan": "We recommend modifications to all buses so they may accommodate bicycles and strollers..." When I was appointed to the Tri-Met Board in 1974, The Sellwood Bee asked what I envisioned. I rambled on about having monthly passes, a discount on the purchase of a book of tickets, and route maps. About using drive-in movie theaters during the day for park-and-rides. (Ok, I didn't know they'd disappear.) About having not just transit stations but whole service areas with day care centers, small shops for essentials, cleaners, etc.
I do want to warn activists to be careful about what you wish for. In the early '70's, I was a volunteer helping to form the Downtown Parking and Circulation Policy (with the parking lid and maximum ratios) as the air quality and transportation element of the Downtown Plan--one of the elements in bringing us into compliance with the Clean Air Act standards. And twenty years later there I was--the Parking Manager for the City administering that very policy and Bill Naito calling me the Parking Czarina.
This reunion, however, should not be about the past but rather the future. So, in closing, I have what may at first, seem caustic--but think about it: "Lead, follow or get out of the way." It is easy to stop something. It is much harder to start something--and complete it.