A film still from 'Razing Liberty Square'

Stealing Higher Ground: A Portrait of Rising Climate Gentrification

Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Katja Esson discusses her new film, 'Razing Liberty Square,' a scathing, nuanced look at the future of coastal communities

RAZING LIBERTY SQUARE IS the most recent work from the Academy Award–nominated documentary filmmaker Katja Esson. Soon after seeing Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Oscar-winning film Moonlight, which was shot on location in Miami’s Liberty City, Esson learned of the impending redevelopment of Liberty Square, one of the first public housing developments for Black people in the country. As a longtime resident of Miami, Esson was rocked by the idea that the city would tear this community down, so in 2017 she set out on a filmmaking journey to preserve some of its history before the buildings would be bulldozed to the ground. 

Liberty Square is a casualty of what residents describe as climate gentrification—where the housing crisis and climate crisis collide. Situated on some of the highest, driest ground in Miami, it was built in the mid-1930s, a time when Miami’s beachfront was for whites only. Almost a hundred years later, as sea-level rise pushes wealthy coastal residents inland, the neighborhood has become real estate gold. However, if Esson and the residents and activists featured in her film and behind the scenes are successful, they will indeed redirect the community’s fate, and establish climate gentrification as a major threat to the security, health, and well-being of other marginalized, vulnerable communities globally.

 

Razing Liberty Square had its world premiere at HotDocs in May 2023 and has screened at more than twenty national and international film festivals since, garnering accolades and awards. On January 29, 2024, it will be released nationally on PBS’s Independent Lens

What follows is a conversation between Esson and Jill Tidman, the Executive Director of The Redford Center.

Climate Gentrification: the process by which the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and increased temperatures, contribute to the displacement of low-income communities and the transformation of neighborhoods, often driven by increased investment and redevelopment in less climate vulnerable areas.

 

ESSON: History plays a big role in the film. The stories of Razing Liberty Square show a truth that has been bubbling up for 200 years. Just as Valencia Gunder says in the film: “My Grandfather always told me they will come for Liberty City because we don’t flood”.

This is definitely the most challenging film I’ve ever made. It also took the longest time in the edit because I wanted to hold on to these two strands: housing crisis and climate crisis, and I got a lot of push back at the beginning. “Is it a gentrification film or is it a climate film? You have to decide. You cannot do both.” I kept hearing that and I was insistent it has to be both. 

TIDMAN: Let’s talk about skeptics, as I’ve often experienced in doing environmental work that the biggest skeptics can become the biggest advocates, when the skepticism comes from a place of care. So if the opinion shifts, that passion and commitment also shifts in a new direction. I’m curious if you have experienced this as a filmmaker, and if you see the potential for that to happen with this project? 

ESSON: Yes, we recently experienced this in a very unlikely situation. The daughters of a multi-generational family-run developer in Silicon Valley came on board as funders and screened the film for their entire family at a business retreat. The patriarch angrily wanted to know what my point was. He was expecting a David and Goliath story between a developer and a community and was very confused because it was not. Our story is much more nuanced and doesn’t present the audience with a solution. He ended up really appreciating the complexity and made a list for his daughters of fellow developers who should see this film to do their work better.

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

TIDMAN: That nuance is so essential to this project: that opportunity to show different angles on an issue and connect issues at the same time. When a film offers this, it can be the moment that someone who never saw an environmental connection to a challenge they’re grappling with finds their way to it. Razing Liberty Square does this so skillfully in presenting how housing and climate issues intersect and defining this idea of climate gentrification, which I know is one of your goals for the project. Yet you had to fight to make this connection in the film. I’m curious what connections were made for you in the process? 

ESSON: With every screening in different cities, I am learning in what ways climate change affects vulnerable communities more than anyone else. We were just at the Hawaii Film Festival where everyone talked about climate gentrification. The fires in Maui brought this to the forefront. It showed how many different aspects of climate gentrification there are. In New Orleans, developers came and did a land grab after Katrina—here in Miami we are seeing that development before the storm.  In Miami, elevation makes the difference. Liberty City sits on a ridge and sea level rise threatens the expensive beach-front properties. The terrible irony of history is that Black people were not allowed to live on the beaches—they were pushed to a place far inland that no one wanted at the time.

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

TIDMAN: And yet the same people, the communities getting hit first and worst by environmental impacts are also creating the way forward out of necessity and ingenuity and grit. I see this leadership consistently in screening films for stories that offer solutions. Stories that show us what it looks like when a community is empowered or an individual gets into action or group of people achieve some kind of win. I was recently talking about this with Valencia Gunder, one of the main protagonists in your film, and Valencia’s response really stunned me. She said, the win for us here is that we caught the lie, on film. Can you reflect on that idea—what it means to catch the lie?

ESSON: So, yeah, just like one of the film’s other main protagonists, Aaron, and a large part of the community, I wanted to believe that this time it would be different because of this incredible innovation of keeping the community together during the re-development. The promise was to do a block-by-block approach. All the people from the first block would be moved into empty units that existed on site. Then demolish and build the first block and move the people into the new units. And so on. That was the promise, not to displace anybody. But then the film witnessed how promises were broken. 

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

TIDMAN: Valencia mentioned there are very few of the original families living there now and the development isn’t finished. Can you share a real-time update? 

ESSON: During the making of the film we were trying for months and months to get the real numbers, which are public record, to know how many of the original residents are still there, how many have left, and how many have come back. But of course, the powers that be don’t want people to know how many people actually left, so they have given us a lot of smoke and mirrors. We estimate that more than 80% of the original residents have left. The only number we got confirmed by HUD officials, was that by last summer, just five families had returned.

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

TIDMAN: Out of how many?

ESSON: Out of 640 families who lived there when the re-development began. 

TIDMAN: Unbelievable. Where is everyone going?

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

ESSON: A lot of families are moving further and further south. That’s one of the only places where they can go now, closer to the Everglades, closer to flood zones. Some others left the state completely. Some families have fallen apart after the move, and we have lost track of them. 

TIDMAN: This impact on the residents is hard to even comprehend. A forced uprooting into climate danger zones, it really is unthinkable. Then there’s this other piece you cover in the film, the political injustice of dispersing the voting power of a Black community in the heart of Miami. Can you talk about what those consequences could be? 

ESSON: The demographics are changing as people are getting displaced. Liberty City was always a district that would put black commissioners on the overwhelming white and Latinx county and city commissions. As more Latinx and white people are moving into Liberty City, black representation might be lost.

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

TIDMAN: A filmmaker doesn’t always have the opportunity, or the foresight and capacity, to have impact on an issue as the film is being made—but you have. What ultimate impact do you hope the project will have?

ESSON: It’s true, normally an Impact Campaign starts after the film is done but we were pulled into impact work while we were still filming. Our Impact goals range from hyper-local to global: We are trying to change the outcome of the story we are telling through the film, because only 3 of the 9 blocks of the new Liberty Square are complete, which means with enough visibility, how these next blocks are built, could (and should) be different. We also hope the film will support residents’ ongoing fight for the things they were promised: like a new building for the MEYGA learning center, and quality apartments, respectful management, and so on.

We want to share this story as an intervention in the affordable housing sector and look to (or create) housing that is truly affordable to longtime residents and is not intended to displace anyone.

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

The film serves as a ‘case study’ in a reality that is already happening all over the world and will increase exponentially as the climate crisis worsens. How can we be better prepared? We want to offer the film as a kind of bridge between the housing and climate justice movements, creating opportunities for direct dialogue on these two issues that continue to be largely siloed despite the changing conditions.

Our film joins a growing (international) chorus of both narrative and documentary films working to make climate change accessible so that we may find the political will to address it immediately, urgently, and with every tool we have.

And talking one more time about the hyper-local. The film has brought together around fifteen Miami organizations who feel very strongly that this film can help them in their work across housing, climate, and racial justice fields. We had our first meeting two months ago and showed the film. People came up to me after and said “you have no idea how historic this is, to get these organizations to work together.” So that felt incredibly rewarding to me as filmmaker but at the same time I am feeling a lot of pressure for the film to make a change.

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

TIDMAN: Valencia told me about that screening, she said everywhere she looked tears were streaming down people’s faces. It was an acknowledgement of what they had been living through and working for, it was their story being told in a way that was theirs to tell. 

ESSON: Yes, I had screened the film many times at different film festivals but showing the film to the people who are on the ground – all the fights, the hopes, the losses, the broken promises – all of that came up for people. It was so painful  and so powerful at the same time because people are angry and ready to fight, and they are getting organized.

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

TIDMAN: In addition to the Miami launch, the community screenings, and the release on Independent Lens, what else can we expect from this project?

ESSON:  We found out that Related, the mega developer featured in the film, is doing the same thing they did here in Miami, in New York with a plan to fully demolish two different public housing projects (for the first time in NYC history) and replace it with mixed income.  We shared the film with organizations there and they were like, “my God, same promises, same playbook.” So now we’re hosting screenings for public housing residents, offering the film for them to use to inform and engage their neighbors, so they can watch what will happen and fight for different outcomes.  

 

Film still from Razing Liberty Square

Jill Tidman is the Executive Director of The Redford Center, a nonprofit co-founded by Robert Redford and James Redford, uniquely dedicated to producing and supporting impactful environmental films as a means to address the environmental crisis. The Redford Center provided impact funds for the project and production funds for the film.