What Is Climate Gentrification? 'Razing Liberty Square' Doc Exposes This Issue in Miami (Exclusive)

Bianca Piazza - Author

Jan. 26 2024, Published 4:58 p.m. ET

Photo of young boy sitting on back porch in Miami's Liberty Square neighborhood
Source: Hector David Rosales

Joshua Kenley sits on the back porch of his home in the Liberty Square Housing Project where he lives with his Mother and six siblings."

As the climate crisis worsens and sea levels rise, properties once deemed uber-desirable are now in danger of storm surge flooding and astronomical tide flooding. According to the NOAA, the global sea level saw a new record high in 2020, it being 3.6 inches above 1993 levels.

Unfortunately, climate gentrification is just another act of environmental racism harming lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

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Premiering on PBS on Jan. 29, 2024, eye-opening documentary Razing Liberty Square offers an inside look at the impact of climate gentrification on one of the U.S.'s oldest segregated public housing projects.

Photo fo family moving boxes into a moving van in Miami's Liberty Square neighborhood
Source: Hector David Rosales
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Located in the heart of Miami, Fla., Liberty Square sits approximately 12 feet above sea level, which has made it "ground zero" for climate gentrification. The film sees this historically Black neighborhood — which once welcomed legendary Black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald, and renowned civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — be targeted by real estate developers.

"The question of where and how we live, who must stay or go, and how climate change exacerbates the existing inequity in our nation’s cities, has never been more relevant," Razing Liberty Square director-producer Katja Esson tells Green Matters via email.

In conversation with Green Matters, Oscar-nominated filmmmaker Katja Esson discussed the importance of supporting local climate activists, how the climate crisis impacts communities of color specifically, and why the story of Liberty Square is a jarring cautionary tale of "declared intentions and negative outcomes."

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What is climate gentrification?

Katja Esson believes Razing Liberty Square "will make 'climate gentrification' an undeniable reality to audiences everywhere." But what is it exactly?

Merriam-Webster defines gentrification as "a process in which a poor area (as of a city) experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses," which often leads to displacement of longterm residents.

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According to Sasha Forbes of the NRDC's Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program, climate gentrification refers to how climate crisis factors "are pushing people inland onto communities that have been rooted there and have endured disinvestment, racism, and inequality and are now under the threat of gentrification and displacement."

More succinctly, entrepreneur Robert F. Smith's website defines climate gentrification as: "the displacement of low-income residents from their homes because of an increase in the cost of living, given the area’s climate resilience."

Though Esson explains that "gentrification and the lack of affordable housing are universally felt in every city across the nation," Miami is seeing climate change be the driving force.

"Ironically, Miami's Black population, which was deliberately removed far from the precious coastline, is suddenly sitting on Miami's ‘real estate goldmine,'" the Miami-based filmmaker says.

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The documentary 'Razing Liberty Square' explores climate gentrification in Miami, Fla.

As stated on Miami-Dade County's official website, by 2040, Southeast Florida sea levels are expected to be 10 to 17 inches higher than levels were in 2000. The time to move inland is now, and low-income communities of color continue to get the short end of the stick.

"Our film brings into sharp focus how low-income communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change because the need to move to higher ground has created a new manifestation of racial and economic injustice — climate gentrification," Esson tells us.

But Razing Liberty Square is more than an exploration of climate gentrification along the Atlantic Coast.

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"Our film interrogates assumptions of who matters — and who doesn’t — and about land and who controls it," Esson shares.

"Our film" are intentional words for Esson, as she views the "protagonists" of Razing Liberty Square as her outspoken collaborators.

"Razing Liberty Square has been a truly participatory project where the residents, whom we filmed for six years, and our community partners engaged with us during the entire filmmaking process," Esson says.

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One of the Razing Liberty Square's most vibrant voices is that of climate justice organizer Valencia Gunder.

"The climate movement has the faces of Greta Thunberg, Jane Fonda, Mark Ruffalo, and so on," Esson tells us. "Local climate activists like Valencia are rarely in the foreground, although they are doing vital work in their communities."

Additionally, the film highlights the lesser-known history of Miami and Liberty City's origin story.

"Until 1935, African Americans were restricted to live under terrible conditions in a downtown Miami neighborhood known as ‘Colored Town.’ When the reformist spirit of the New Deal provided funds for local planners, a new so-called ‘negro colony’, consisting of modern, garden-style buildings, was conceived," Esson explains.

"Slum clearance," concealed motivations, and racist business practices led to the controversial building of the new "colony," Liberty Square.

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 Headshot of director-producer Katja Esson
Source: Fred Shipman

Director Katja Esson

Here's where to watch climate gentrification documentary 'Razing Liberty Square.'

Razing Liberty Square premieres on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, at 10 p.m. ET on PBS as part of the Independent Lens documentary series, which also featured 2022's Racist Trees. The film will also be streaming on the PBS app.

Overall, Esson hopes that Razing Liberty Square "will become part of the larger conversation among communities like Liberty City around the globe."

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