Home to one of the oldest segregated public housing projects in the U.S, “Razing Liberty Square” on INDEPENDENT LENS – Jan. 29 at 10 pm

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The Alarming Documentary Explores How Liberty Square Public Housing Community In Miami Has Become Ground Zero ForClimate Gentrification

From Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Katja Esson, “Razing Liberty Square” is set to premiere on INDEPENDENT LENS January 29, 2024. The documentary captures an inside look at the struggle of the residents of the historically Black neighborhood as they fight to save their community. Located just eight miles inland from Miami’s world-famous beaches, Liberty City, Miami, sitting on a ridge, becomes real estate gold.

Bulldozer is tearing down building at Liberty Square.
Bulldozer is tearing down building at Liberty Square.
Credit: Hector David Rosales

A character-driven verité documentary about a rapidly changing Miami, “Razing Liberty Square” will debut on PBS’s INDEPENDENT LENS on January 29, 2024, at 10 p.m. The film will be available to stream on the PBS App and will also be accessible via PBS’s flagship YouTube channel.

Three contemporary issues—climate change, housing insecurity, and economic inequity—become a unifying force driving redevelopment in Liberty City, Miami. Until recently, it was home to the oldest segregated public housing project in the United States, Liberty Square. Now, it is ground zero for a burgeoning trend: climate gentrification.

As rising seas threaten Miami’s luxurious beachfront, wealthy property owners are pushing inland to higher ground, creating a speculators’ market in a neighborhood previously ignored by developers and policy-makers alike. Located 12 feet above sea level, Liberty City becomes more attractive with each rising tide and as a result, the original Liberty Square is demolished, displacing residents and erasing a decades-old community.

“The dramatic changes happening in Miami’s Liberty Square are a looking glass for contemporary issues of wide-scale significance: the affordable housing
crisis, the impact of systemic racism, and climate gentrification,” said director Katja Esson. “Miami is experiencing sea-level rise before the rest of the country. What is happening in Liberty Square is a prescient story of what is to come, and strategies put to the test here are being closely observed by the rest of the world.”

Sam Kenley and her kids are moving. Empty moving truck with gate open, large cardboard boxes on curb next to truck. Credit: Hector David Rosales
Sam Kenley and her kids are moving.
Credit: Hector David Rosales

“Razing Liberty Square” begins at the very moment when Liberty Square is being razed to the ground to make way for the “New Liberty Square”—a $300 million revitalization mixed income development project. However, one year into construction of new, mixed-income housing, news spreads that some promises made by the developer will not be honored. Principal Samantha Quarterman finds out that instead of a new building for her community school, the developer plans to build a brand new charter school, and the much-needed health center is shrunk to a mini-facility. The news triggers alarms for Samantha and local climate justice activist Valencia Gunder, who are both all too familiar with Miami’s long history of broken promises made to its Black communities.

With tensions on the rise between the community and developer, Aaron McKinney is hired as the developer’s “community liaison.” A lifelong Liberty City resident, he is convinced mixed-income housing is the solution to generational poverty, but also very aware that his position is tenuous. Despite ongoing obstacles, Valencia reclaims her grandparents’ home from the bank and moves back to the heart of Liberty City, and Aaron resigns from the developer to take on a new job, while Samantha is still fighting to build her own school building. The strides they make in the face of adversity bring hope to a critical predicament.

Above shot of Aaron McKinney walks across lots of new construction at Liberty Square.
Aaron McKinney walks across new construction at Liberty Square.
Credit: Hector David Rosales

“‘Razing Liberty Square’ is an even-handed universal call for alarm as developers in Miami (and across the country) take an increased interest in rezoning housing, to allow people with greater financial means to move inland and avoid rising sea levels due to climate change,” said Lois Vossen, executive producer of INDEPENDENT LENS. “Environmental justice is no longer an abstract idea, as Black and low-income communities are being forced out of their longtime neighborhoods to create new housing for wealthy and middle-class citizens fleeing the encroaching ocean.”

Despite its eclectic mix of cultures, Miami is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. Liberty Square, and the surrounding Liberty City that grew up around it, were a cultural hot-spot for famous black entertainers and public figures. Barred from the whites-only beach hotels where they consistently sold out performances, world-class celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne had to stay in Liberty City hotels like the Hampton House. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the first version of his “I Have a Dream” speech there, and Malcolm X threw a victory party for Cassius Clay after he beat Sonny Liston in 1965.

“Razing Liberty Square” received Open Call funding from ITVS as well as funding from Black Public Media.

Visit the “Razing Liberty Square” page on INDEPENDENT LENS to learn more about the film.