Full credit goes to Songfacts for these quotes. I would paraphrase, but I don’t think that would be right. Here’s the background on both the song and the music video from poet Tracie Morris, who helped write the song, and director/photographer Drew Carolan.
“At the time we were talking about tenements and other buildings being torn down for buildings that would be inhabited by ‘Yuppies.’ I remember a great deal of alarm in the BRC (Black Rock Coalition) when The Gap first opened up a store on St. Marks’ Place. We saw the downtown/boho lifestyle changing before our eyes. The song focused on the displacement of residencies of course, but I think we were considering how entire neighborhoods were beginning to shift.
The idea of landlords and slumlords getting tenants out to reap financial rewards isn’t new, especially in New York. We certainly felt at the time that much of the motivation behind the riots was to gentrify the East Village.
Now of course we hear about gentrification at a more extreme level taking place all over NYC, not just in Manhattan but all over Brooklyn and all the boroughs. In some ways, ‘Open Letter’ was a precursor to the wholesale expunging of the regular people that have made New York City great since the beginning.”
“The live footage was shot at Toad’s Place in New Haven before a live audience. The band was getting ready to go out with the Rolling Stones on the Steel Wheels tour. We invited 500 people in early for some playback coverage and then the rest of the crowd for an actual show.
The cutaway material was shot in New York, DC and LA. In ’89 the housing situation was bad in most urban cities. People were being forced out of places they had lived in for generations. Living Colour knew that. They hailed from Brooklyn, The Bronx and Staten Island. They saw it everywhere they played. I was from the Lower East side. I saw the writing on the wall. Gentrification was sweeping up the cities and taking the working class with it. We see the band walking through decimated neighborhoods where they used to play. A street called Hope. A little girl on a swing disappears. Empty. Gone. Peaceful protests and shouts melt into the droning sound of the mass transit system.
I just watched it and it rings true today as well. Sad but true.”