Meet Dahlia Ramsay, Filmmaker, New York native, Community Development major, Portland State Graduate (aka bike city, USA), New York City tour guide, and avid cyclist. Dahlia is a friend and supporter of the VeloCity community, as well as an embodiment of a true urban dweller: active in her community, aware of its history and future, and dedicated to riding her bike – even in the dead of New York winter.
Where are you from?
Upper West Side, Manhattan
What do you do?
I most recently worked as a tour guide on the Double Decker buses. I am also am taking classes to be a documentary filmmaker.
How did you get involved with VeloCity?
I first got involved with VeloCity on the recommendation of Clarence Eckerson Jr. who is the director of Streetfilms. He thought that they would be great interview subjects for a documentary short I was making at the time about recent women cyclists in New York City.*
How do you connect bicycles with planning and design?
I see bicycles as a sort of lubricant for the streets of New York. Most people walk, take the train, or spend their time in stop and go traffic. Bicycling exists between all of other modes of transportation and meets my transportation needs in a unique and customized way. I think it would meet the needs of many more people, but people need to see and feel the safety and prevalence of bike lanes before being won over. I would love to see cycling become a more prevalent norm, or at least begin to supplement the transportation needs of more New Yorkers so that we are not confined to always depending on the train and bus, or restricted to walking within our neighborhoods.
How does being a native New Yorker and a tour guide effect how you see the city?
Because I grew up here, I have a New Yorkers’ sense of getting around. Either you were taking the train, walking there, or just not going. It is really hard to convince New Yorkers that it’s possible to redistribute street-space, alleviate congestion, and remain safe. People are still stuck in a “well-that’s-New-York-take-it-or-leave-it” mentality and think that every hassle of getting around in necessary and unavoidable. But when you learn about examples of transportation planning in other cities with equal challenges, you realize that it is possible, and has huge potential to improve the quality of life here. I like to show that off to tourists as much as possible.
What does film mean to you in regards to transportation, cycling, and urban issues?
Film is a powerful tool to document and show people alternate means of transportation. It can also make people aware of their ability to heighten access to transportation for all people. However those examples are rarely shown on the news unless it’s in a controversial way. The main problem that I see is not that people are questioning the valor of transportation planning changes in the city or that urban planning issues are being discussed, it is the refusal of people to envision the streets being used in any other way than it has been historically. That’s where film comes in as an advocacy tool and hopefully to extinguish some of the bike-hate that really exists in this city.
What are some of the challenges you have faced through your education and working in the field?
I think a lot of older people are still stuck in the industrial era mindset. The idea that the most efficient way to do things is to use trucks, bridges, and massive equipment to move masses of people. Bikes are just too individualized, too “country” for hardened New Yorkers to see as a possible fit or aid to everyday life. But the more people see cyclists biking to commute, shop, drop off kids, exercise, in cold weather, hot weather etc., the sooner the odd trend will become just another valid option.
What do you think could be done to encourage more minorities to be involved in the planning and design world?
I think the civic engagement process on the city level varies depending on one’s privilege or access to power. That said, I think that civic engagement in working class communities with respect to urban planning and design is important. Everyone should feel proud of where they live, where they are from, and have a sense that they can make it better. Everyone already has a subconscious sense of the differences between a “nice” neighborhood and a gloomy one. Most have a sense of what needs to change in order to make a space nice. However, historically, the voices of working class people of color have not been equally heard or respected. People in the design world might like to think that their field is equally vital and important to the daily lives of working class people of color. But the truth is, planning and design movements have largely been led by a group of very privileged people who don’t represent the basic needs of the groups they seek to involve.
What is something you wish someone would have told you before you had pursued education and/or started working?
I got 3 points of good advice before pursuing higher education and am glad I listened.
I took time off (two years) after high school and before college to travel and work
Left my home/city/state to attend college
Used college to travel abroad for school credit.
One can use college for a lot of different things, some people find out what they are interested in, some people find out who they are, some people go to get specific skills or meet the right people and make connections, some go to have an independent party lifestyle. Whatever you are going for, make sure you know what it is and that college is the best place to get it. It might not be, but maybe it is. It takes a lot of research and soul-searching that only you can do. College is a big investment of your life, time, and money, so don’t make the decision in a rush.
Do you see a connection between cycling, planning, and the arts?
The first example that comes to mind is the bike racks designed by David Byrne from the Talking Heads. Cities – can – be – beautiful. They are already the hot beds of culture and innovation indoors, so it stands to reason that they can have the same powerful effect on the street level as well. The best ways to appreciate that kind of beauty is on foot and by bike. I love the greenways and public art so much because it is space clearly designated for the enjoyment of beautiful aspects of an urban environment.
What is one piece of advice you would give a young person?
I would tell a young person, especially ones living in cities such as New York, to never stop exploring your city. If it’s free, go to it, don’t hesitate. Go with friends, family, or go by yourself, just go. Make sure you bike there. Notice the major differences from one neighborhood to the next from one block to the next. Leave your borough. I said it. Take ferries. Take photos. There are unending layers to the city and your appreciation for it will change over time, so keep visiting and revisiting your city because you never know what you’ll find out about it or about yourself along the way.
*Check out VeloCity’s profile in Dahlia’s masterpiece, “Women in Motion” here!