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“Destroying Liberty Square” review: Climate gentrification in Miami

The documentary “Razing Liberty Square” addresses the fundamental dilemma facing the Black community located just a few miles from downtown Miami, where sea levels are rising. Further inland is the Liberty City neighborhood, the highest and driest place in the region.

Home to a close-knit but rundown public housing community called Freedom Square, this area has been largely ignored and under-resourced for decades. But as waterfront properties were swallowed by the ocean, Liberty Square, home to 700 families, suddenly became very attractive real estate for developers. not flood

“Razing Liberty Square,” which aired on PBS as part of Independent Lens (and is available to watch online), is the story of what happens when the private sector takes over land once reserved for public housing. This gentrification is triggered by the climate crisis, as previously “undesirable” blocks suddenly become attractive due to a previously unforeseen climate advantage.

The film is directed by Katja Esson, who shoots in a matter-of-fact style that stays off-camera and puts the residents of Freedom Square front and center. However, press materials provided by PBS contain valuable context not expressed in the film. Originally from Germany, Esson moved to Miami in the 1980s and said his first job in the film industry was working as a production assistant on 2 Live Crew’s music videos, which were shot in Liberty City.

But by 2016, he writes, “Miami had transformed into a metropolis with a changing cityscape and thriving new neighborhoods. It just seemed like Liberty City was frozen in time, and then the bulldozers started coming. I took my camera and started shooting. I wanted to preserve something remarkable, something that was ignored by most of the city. That was in 2017 and we have been shooting ever since.”

The documentary features climate justice organizer Valencia Gunder, who details the history. “When they built Miami, they wanted it to be a beach paradise,” she says. But city planners did not know how to build on sandy land. “So they had to go to the Caribbean Islands and bring people here to actually build it. I know we hear this in America – Black people built America – but Black people literally built Miami.

They were also not allowed to live on the coast. “They wanted to keep us away from the beach.” Which makes what’s happening in Liberty City right now even more brutal. This was the place no one wanted to live. “And now they want it,” Gunder says. “My grandfather always said, ‘They’re coming to take Liberty City because we’re not flooded.’” More than one resident wonders if the goal was to tear apart community ties and disperse people to parts unknown.

The film becomes even more interesting when it follows a Liberty City resident named Aaron McKinney, who works for a developer company called Associated Urban. He is one of the few (though not the only) Black people involved in the project. It acts as a bridge between Community and Caring City, and its optimism – better living conditions, a safer, more commercially vibrant neighborhood – is forever challenged by residents asking smart, probing, understandably angry questions about their future. The company’s intention. Years after joining the project, McKinney’s morale sinks and the curtain closes on his eyes: “I know I’ve been hired for a political job.”

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“The developer in our story is so powerful in Miami that it was/is very difficult to even get press coverage about the actual conditions of the new Liberty Square apartment complex,” Esson says of the company in press notes. Many serious journalists have left or avoided working in Miami because most local news organizations do not publish articles that question the status quo. “It is extremely difficult to hold anyone accountable this way.”

It touches on the problems that arose immediately after the first new apartment buildings opened. One resident who decided to stay in the area was stunned to find his unit leaking water when it rained. “I’m experiencing the same things I’m experiencing across the street in a building that’s been there as long as I’ve been alive. “I’m really worried about what will happen with the next hurricane.” He says people are afraid to talk to building management about their problems because “they’re scaring everyone.”

“Destroying Liberty Square” corrects this with its exposure of cynical impulses and failed promises.

“Disruptive Freedom Square” — 3 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: airs multiple times on PBS (WTTW and WTTW World; WTTW Independent Lens website for dates; The streaming link of the movie is also available here)

Aaron McKinney was the development coordinator for Pretty Urban, the developer who razed the public housing community known as Liberty Square to build mixed-income housing, as seen in the documentary. "It's destroying Liberty Square."

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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