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Review: In ‘Razing Liberty Square,’ climate gentrification scatters a Black community in Miami as developers move in

The documentary “Razing Liberty Square” looks at the central dilemma facing a Black community located just a few miles from downtown Miami, where the sea levels are rising. Further inland is the neighborhood of Liberty City, which is the highest and driest in the area.

Home to a close-knit but rundown public housing community called Liberty Square, it has been largely ignored for decades and left without adequate resources. But with beachfront properties being swallowed up by the ocean, Liberty Square, which is home to 700 families, is suddenly very desirable real estate to developers precisely because it doesn’t flood.

Airing on PBS (and viewable online) as part of Independent Lens, “Razing Liberty Square” is the story of what happens when the private sector gets its hands on land once carved out for public housing. The climate crisis is driving this gentrification, as formerly “undesirable” blocks suddenly become enticing because of a previously unforeseen climate advantage.

The film’s director is Katja Esson, who remains off camera, shooting in a verité style that puts the residents of Liberty Square front and center. But the press materials provided by PBS include worthwhile context that’s not spelled out in the film itself. Originally from Germany, Esson moved to Miami in the 1980s and says her first job in the film industry was as a production assistant on music videos for 2 Live Crew that were filmed in Liberty City.

But by 2016, she writes, “Miami had exploded into a metropolis with a changed cityscape and thriving new neighborhoods. Only Liberty City seemed frozen in time, and then the bulldozers started rolling in. I picked up my camera and started filming. I wanted to preserve something remarkable, something that continues to be ignored by the larger part of the city. This was 2017, and we have been filming ever since.”

The documentary features climate justice organizer Valencia Gunder, who breaks down the history. “When they built Miami, they wanted it to be this beachfront paradise,” she says. But city planners didn’t know how to build on the sandy terrain. “So they had to go to the Caribbean Islands and get people to come over here to actually build it. I know we hear about it in America — that Black people built America — but literally, Black people built Miami.”

They were also not allowed to live by the shore. “They wanted to keep us from the beach.” Which makes what’s happening now in Liberty City all the more brutal. It used to be the place nobody wanted to live. “And now they want it,” says Gunder. “My grandfather always would say, ‘They’re gonna come take Liberty City because we don’t flood.’” More than one resident wonders if the goal is to shatter community bonds and scatter people to parts unknown.

The film becomes all the more interesting as it follows a Liberty City resident named Aaron McKinney, who is employed by the developer, a company called Related Urban. He is one of the few (if not only) Black people involved in the project. He works as a liaison between the community and Related Urban, and his optimism — for better living conditions, for a safer, more commercially vibrant neighborhood — is forever challenged by the residents, who ask smart, probing, understandably angry questions about their future and the company’s intentions. Years after joining the project, McKinney is demoralized as the scales fall from his eyes: “I know I was a political hire.”

Here’s what Esson says about the company in her press notes: “The developer in our story is so powerful in Miami that it was/is very difficult to even get any press coverage out about the real conditions of the new Liberty Square apartment complex. Many serious journalists have left, or avoid working in Miami, because most local news outlets won’t publish articles that question the status quo. In that way it is extremely difficult to hold anyone accountable.”

She’s referring to issues that became apparent soon after the first new apartment buildings opened. One resident of the area who decided to stay is stunned to find that her unit leaks when it rains. “I’m going through the same stuff I was going through across the street in a building that was there longer than I’ve been alive. I’m really worried about what’s going to happen with the next hurricane.” People are afraid to talk to the building management about the problems, she says, because “they make everybody feel afraid.”

“Razing Liberty Square” is a corrective to that, with its exposé of cynical impulses and failed promises.

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'RAZING LIBERTY SQUARE'

3 stars (out of 4)

Running time: 1:26

Where to watch: PBS (airing multiple times on WTTW and WTTW World; check the WTTW Independent Lens website for dates; a streaming link to the film is available there as well)

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