‘Magic City, but magic for whom?’: Film spotlights climate gentrification fears in Liberty City

MIAMI – “Miami is ground level for sea level rise. We are the example of climate gentrification,” community organizer Valencia Gunder explains in the new movie “Razing Liberty Square.”

The new documentary shines a spotlight on fears of climate gentrification, as one of the nation’s oldest segregated public housing projects gets torn down for redevelopment.

But this is no Hollywood drama, this is real life, and some of South Florida’s most vulnerable residents are living it.

Founder and co-director of the nonprofit Smile Trust, Valencia Gunder was born and raised in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. With the help of Caroline Lewis at the CLEO Institute, she has become an international speaker for climate justice. Last year her work took her around the world to Egypt, where she spoke on behalf of the Climate Justice Alliance at the UN Climate Change COP27 conference.

Gunder is one of the protagonists of “Razing Liberty Square,” and our guide to show us what’s been happening here over the past several years.

“We already see the displacement of communities,” Gunder remarked. “And also we’re seeing a change, and it’s happening super rapidly, so it’s the impacts of climate change.”

The term “climate gentrification” was made national headlines following a 2018 Harvard study after Miami-Dade County conducted a housing price study that same year.

Now, scientists are forecasting South Florida could experience six feet of sea level rise by 2100. That has developers looking toward the future, eyeing higher ground.

In fact, according to a recent study, more than half of Miami-Dade’s 2.6 million residents will experience “climate gentrification.” Rising oceans will push many coastal residents inland, increasing housing costs potentially displacing up to 56 percent of households in the county.

“We have the science to prove it doesn’t make sense to build on Miami Beach,” Gunther remarked. “So people are starting to come into the inland to build.”

Ignored by speculators for decades, the historically black Liberty City is now the Promised Land, sitting at one of the highest elevations in Miami-Dade: 10-to-12 feet.

“And that shows the trends of people moving into these areas, because they are deemed weather-safe,” Gunder added.

The film focuses on the $300 million redevelopment of the 700-unit Liberty Square Public Housing Project. Built in 1937, it was the first public housing project for Black people in the Southern United States.

new phase of the Liberty Square Public Housing Project broke ground in 2016, with plans for brand new mixed-income apartments. Many residents accepted section vouchers to live elsewhere during construction.

So far, only 3 phases have been completed. According to county records, out of the original 590 households who lived here, only 211 have returned.

Gunder fears her community is being slowly erased. As new development moves in to Liberty City, the cost of living is skyrocketing. And some long-term residents who don’t qualify for public housing can no longer afford to stay in the neighborhood that they have long called home.

As Local 10′s Environmental Advocate Louis Aguirre walked with Gunder on the road between the old Liberty Square and the New Liberty Square, the pair were met by a man named James as he was searching for housing.

“Is this neighborhood becoming too expensive for you”, Aguirre asked.

“Yes sir, $1,500 or $1,600, that’s too much…I’ll be back on the street”, James responded. “The jobs these days is not paying the money to pay for rent– I’m speaking for everyone, we need help.”

“If we don’t figure something out real soon, the care economy, our nurses, our teachers, these folks that really that we need, these people are going to have to find somewhere else to live”, Gunder warns.

That existential dilemma about what Miami will look like in the not-so-distant tomorrow compelled Oscar-nominated filmmaker and Miami local Katja Esson to tell this story. When she began documenting the project seven years ago, she thought she was just documenting history – oblivious to the questions about the future that her movie would one day provoke.

“Who will have the right to stay? Who will have the right to push people out? How are we going to construct the cities of the future?” Esson posited. “How are we dealing with this question of sea level rise?”

“They always call Miami, the Magic City, but magic for whom?” Valencia Gunder questioned. “You know, not everybody in Miami feels that magic, and the people in Liberty City are not feeling that magic… and that’s unfortunate.”

Local 10 reached out to Miami-Dade County regarding the issues brought up in the documentary, and received the following response:

“Miami-Dade County, under the leadership of Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, understands the importance of making sure that housing programs bring real housing solutions to our residents facing the effects of an unprecedented national housing affordability crisis in the last couple of years.

Razing Liberty Square has underscored the importance of critically examining public housing redevelopment programs like RAD (Rental Assistance Demonstration) to ensure they meet their intended objectives. We are working with the development team and the advocacy community to address all the concerns brought forward.”

Alex R. Ballina, Director Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development

Razing Liberty Square will be screening at the Coral Gables Art Cinema from January 26th through February 1st. The film will also have its national broadcast premiere on PBS on Jan. 29. For tickets, more on the film and the community’s current efforts, visit the Razing Liberty Square website.

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