Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Artist Feature: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai – “No Community Is Static.”
By Peggy Lee


Photo by Katie Piper

Let’s start with your poem ‘Ballad of a Maybe Gentrifier.’ I love it. It throws a wrench into the typical gentrification discussion by bringing to light the ways in which mobile, young, people of color participate in these processes. Can you talk about what inspired you to write this poem?

Gentrification is so pervasive that I’ve seen and been involved in a lot of performances/art projects that explore the issue across the country. Most artists are anti-gentrification, but I think that our own desires to have productive dialogue about it really falls short when we don’t acknowledge the possibility of our own complicity and effect on neighborhood change. It’s puzzling when I meet a person (whom I think of as a hipster) moan about how much they hate hipsters or when I go to someone’s anti-gentrification performance held at a warehouse loft conversion. Definitely confusing stuff, which makes me think, “Okay, so nobody’s a hipster, nobody’s a yuppie, and nobody’s a gentrifier. Sure.”

Some people I know think that gentrification is just about white people, but I think that unnecessarily lets people of color off the hook. A high income investment banker moving into Chinatown who is Chinese American is not the same as a working class restaurant worker who’s lived in Chinatown for decades. The net effect of displacement is the same, although the culture of the neighborhood is different when it’s “brown on brown” gentrification.

It’s complicated. Are you a gentrifier if you grew up in the ‘hood but then went to an Ivy League School and are now a brownstone owner in a low-income neighborhood? Are you a gentrifier if you grew up in a trust fund family and are college-educated but now denounce your wealth and live below the poverty level as an activist and live in a rent-stabilized apartment? Are you a gentrifier if you own a family building and you want to get market rents to support your grandmother’s home aide since your grandmother owned the building in the neighborhood for decades? This is the milieu of stuff that’s been on my mind.

As a resident of Bed-Stuy for the last 6.5 years, I think about all of this a lot, because these scenarios aren’t hypothetical. I see them every day. I am anti-gentrification, but I do contribute to the change of the neighborhood. I’m not ethnically consistent with the majority of Bed-Stuy. I have higher education and income levels than most of its residents. I co-own a brownstone, and my co-owners are also young professional females of color who aren’t from Brooklyn.

Neighborhood change will always happen, but there is the kind of change that shakes down the neighborhood for its historic buildings/prime location and then there is the kind of change that affords greater overall economic growth and the possibility of diverse communities to grow and change. These are the experiences that inspired this poem, and I hope that to be a part of that change which can benefit the residents who’ve held down the neighborhood for decades as well as more recent residents.

Everyone has a caricature of The Gentrifier, what does the Maybe Gentrifier look like?

I guess the point of the poem is that The Gentrifier whom you’ve been talking about may be you – maybe not you right now, but at a different point in life or under a few different circumstances. So draw a caricature of yourself, and take a good look at it. If it’s not you, wasn’t that self-examination so helpful anyway? And now you have a nice portrait of yourself!

Is Brooklyn home to you? If so, why?

Brooklyn is most definitely home to me. I had a lot of crisis about that for a while, because I felt really torn about leaving Chicago 6.5 years ago. But my life, my work, my family of friends, my arts community are all based here in Brooklyn. It’s where I see myself as finally being rooted, a place where I want to continue to live and work for a very long time.

What is your relationship to the Chinatowns in NYC? Is there any particular one you often find yourself going to, and for what reasons?

For one thing, I love that there are so many Chinatowns in NYC. When I brought my parents to Flushing over the holidays, they were in complete shock. They said that they didn’t know that so many Chinese people all live in one place in America, and they went hog-wild at the Flushing Mall food court. The food made them delirious with memories of Taiwan. I used to go to Manhattan Chinatown the most, but now I’m starting to go to Flushing and Sunset Park more often. I usually go to meet up with friends for food, grocery shopping, or for community events that I’m performing at or involved with. Once in a while, I’ll peek into a temple and tell myself that I need to come more often.

Any suggestions or words of advice to the creative writer, photographer, etc. who is interested in documenting and working on issues of urban change and gentrification?

I would love to see more complexity and meat on the approach to how we talk about and explore gentrification and urban change. It’s easy to say “Screw the landlord,” if you’re not the landlord. It’s easy to blame Starbucks for opening, but not so easy to track and intervene in the decades-long development processes between the community board, zoning board, City Council, and private interests to provide a more community-based alternative. Unfortunately, I think it’s also easier to speak on the defensive, “This is what’s happening to us.” versus using creativity and persistent effort to create a solution that can pre-empt the negative effects of gentrification.

So I think that’s where we as artists and media makers come in. Let’s show all the humans at the table. Let’s show everyone as right and reasonable in their own mind. Let’s see where the conflicts of interest pop up. Let’s highlight that this isn’t just a logic game but one that’s filled with high stakes, people’s lives, passions, and emotions. This is our job and a powerful role that we can play, as far as I see it. Let’s tell the story with all of the complexity and confusion that is in the lived experience of it, and let’s see what we can come up.

Also, for issues like urban change and gentrification, having folks who have that kind of patience in their artistic practice to do longitudinal work over a number of years would be really valuable, (i.e. taking photographs of one particular corner of a neighborhood over the course of 60 years, creating an archive of all the residents in one building over the course of 100 years, interviewing new residents over the course of 20 years). Not a lot of people have the persistence of vision to do work like this (including myself), and I always admire people who do. This kind of work definitely captures a big part of what’s missing in the conversation about gentrification and urban change – that no community is static, so perhaps it’s not so much a question of whether change occurs, but how.

Spoken word artist Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai has been featured in over 450 performances worldwide at venues including the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the House of Blues, the Apollo Theater, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and three seasons of the award-winning “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” The author of Inside Outside Outside Inside (2004), Thought Crimes (2005), No Sugar Please (2008), and the CD’s Infinity Breaks (2007) and Further She Wrote (2010), Tsai has shared stages with Mos Def, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Amiri Baraka, Harry Belafonte, and many more. (

2 Responses to Artist Feature: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai – “No Community Is Static.”

  1. Pingback: that g word « alchemyinpractice

  2. Susan Yung says:

    Cut & paste this website & read article that I had written a few years ago.

    It is the origins of MOCA.

    Thank you,
    Susan L. Yung

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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