Razing Liberty Square

Eight miles inland of Miami’s beaches, Liberty City residents fight to save their community from climate gentrification: their land, sitting on a ridge, becomes real estate gold.

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Katja Esson

Katja Esson is a German-born, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker based in Miami, known for her intimate character-driven documentaries tackling race, class and gender. Her documentary short Ferry Tales turns the unlikely setting of the Staten Island Ferry Powder Room into a celebration of sisterhood. It was nominated for an Oscar and premiered on HBO Show more in 2004. Hole in the Sky - the scars of 9/11 received the Gold-Award at the World-Media-Festival. Skydancer about two Mohawk ironworkers who travel between their families on the Akwesasne reservation and New York City to build the city's skyscrapers, received nominations for best film, director and cinematography at the Shanghai Film Festival and premiered on PBS and ARTE in 2011. During filming Esson met Mohawk artist Katsitsionni Fox and produced Fox’ first film Ohero:kon - Under the Husk (2017) and her second film Without a Whisper - Konnón:kwe (2020). Esson’s  Poetry of Resilience, a documentary about six poets who individually survived Hiroshima, the Holocaust, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Kurdish Genocide in Iraq, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Iranian Revolution, was nominated for the ‘Cinema for Peace Award’ in 2012. Esson recently created and directed the five-part documentary series Backroads USA (2014) and American Rivers (2016), which aired on ARTE and PBS in 2018. She was a Simons-Public Humanities Fellow at Kansas University and her films have screened at the Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian. Her work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation. Show less


Ann Bennett

Ann Bennett is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker, multimedia producer, and teaching artist who has devoted her career to telling diverse stories through Film, Television, Museum Installations, and Interactive live events.  She produced the NAACP Image Award-winning documentary, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, Show more as well as the multi-platform community engagement initiative, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (DDFR). Bennett’s film credits include; Citizen King and Fisk Jubilee Singers for the PBS series American Experience, Hymn for Alvin Ailey for Dance in America, and the award-winning PBS mini-series Africans in America and America’s War on Poverty.  In addition to her production skills, Her passion for nonfiction storytelling is matched only by her commitment to teaching and mentoring young people and students of all ages.  Bennett is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and Harvard College who was a 2019 Laundromat Project Create Change Fellow and is currently an Impact Partners Documentary Producers Fellow. Bennett's multi-platform projects explore the nexus of history, culture, and technology within multicultural communities. Show less

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The Film

Three contemporary issues – climate change, housing insecurity, and economic inequity – become a unifying force driving redevelopment in Liberty City, Miami, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the country. 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 the historically black neighborhood previously ignored by developers and policy-makers alike. Located 10 feet above sea level, Liberty City becomes more attractive with each rising tide and as a result, Liberty Square is being demolished. “It’s no coincidence that Liberty City is suddenly being eyed as prime real estate,” notes local climate justice activist Valencia Gunder. “Developers won’t admit it, but they want the high land.” 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 to make room for a large veterinarian clinic. The news triggers alarms for Valencia and Samantha; both are all too familiar with Miami’s long history of broken promises made to its Black communities. 

Two years into construction, with tensions on the rise between the community and developer, Aaron McKinney is hired as the developer’s “community liaison”. Not only is Aaron a lifelong Liberty City resident, he is Valencia’s lifelong friend. He is convinced mixed-income housing is the solution to generational poverty, but also very aware that his position is tenuous. “My own family thinks I sold my soul to the devil,” he says, “But only by being part of it, I can affect change.” Indeed affecting change in the face of a climate crisis and gentrification is a challenge that Valencia, Samantha, and Aaron live up to. Despite ongoing obstacles, Samantha is able to build her own school building, 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. The strides they make in the face of adversity bring hope to a critical predicament.