Portraying the Faces of the Climate And Housing Crises In RAZING LIBERTY SQUARE

Filmed over the course of five years, RAZING LIBERTY SQUARE is a powerfully directed and insightful documentary that follows the redevelopment of New Liberty Square, a $300 million mixed income public housing complex, which begins with the demolition of Liberty Square. 

Liberty Square is a historically Black neighborhood of Liberty City located in Miami, Florida and is the first segregated public housing project in the South of the United States. From the early 20th century until the 1920s, racially restrictive covenants and Jim Crow laws prohibited Black Americans from living in much of the city, as they were forced into Overtown (originally called Colored Town). Public housing was formed following advocacy and community organizing for the inadequate living conditions, which in turn led to the further displacement of Black people from Overtown, establishing Liberty Square on the outskirts of the city in 1932.

The demolition and construction of this $300 million housing complex sets in motion a number of complicated issues for the 700+ families that call Liberty City their home.

Further contributing to the issue, Miami is ground-zero for sea level rise, with a projected rise of 10 to 17 inches by 2040, according to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. Liberty City sits on a ridge, 12 feet above sea level, making it an increasingly desirable area of land.

Beyond its documentation of the New Liberty Square development, the film strongly resonates in its portrayal of those who call Liberty Square their home. With heart and nuance, director Katja Esson lends a humanistic approach by capturing a portrait of those who will be most impacted by issues of climate gentrification, housing inequality, and systemic racism. Among the subjects centered in the film is Samantha Quarterman, the principal and founder of MEYGA Learning Center, a school funded by grants for the children of Liberty City that is at risk of being torn down; Sam Kenley, a single mother of twelve who expresses her concerns; Valencia Gunder, a climate justice organizer dedicated to the injustices faced by the residents of Liberty City; and Aaron McKinney, a development coordinator at the project’s private developer, Related Urban, who was born and raised in Liberty City.

By the end of the movie, I found myself growing frustrated and emotional with each new development to the story as the construction of New Liberty Square continued. It seemed at each turning point, the community was deceived. For example, residents of Liberty Square were suddenly given the option to take Section 8 vouchers. These vouchers were promised to residents in another public housing community when it was razed and developed into a mixed income community. Many who took the vouchers were displaced because of rent increases due to private landlords or they were deemed “not in good standing.” This incident serves as a grim foreshadowing for the future of the residents of Liberty Square.

Along with the frustration, I also found admiration in the resiliency of individuals like Quarterman, who passionately believes in education as the key to making a positive change in her community. Despite setbacks, such as a $27 million veterinarian clinic opening up on a piece of land she sent in a request to have reserved for her school, she plans on continuing fighting for her school and for the community she serves.

RAZING LIBERTY SQUARE is an important documentary that highlights intersectional issues, amplifies the voices of the residents in Liberty City, and provides a nuanced insight into the situation from various perspectives. I had the opportunity to watch director Katja Esson speak at the Native Reckoning: The Fight Against Climate Gentrification HIFILM panel, and it was evident how passionate she was about making the film, the topics the film covered, and the subjects she interviewed for the film.

RAZING LIBERTY SQUARE premiered in Hawaii at the 43rd Hawaii International Film Festival on October 17th and was nominated for the KAU KA HŌKŪ award. To learn more about the film and the ongoing story in Liberty Square, visit the film’s official website

Sean Oketani is a recent graduate from Chapman University’s Dodge College of Visual Film and Media Arts with a BFA in Television Writing and Production. He is passionate about writing and creating compelling media. In his free time,  he enjoys taking photos, going to the beach, and consuming various forms of media. Sean is also an intern at this year’s HIFF43, as a contributing writer to the HIFILM blog.

The HIFF ONLINE CREATIVES & CRITICS IMMERSIVE (HOCCI) program supports sustainable film criticism in Hawai‘i through mentorship and paid career opportunities. The mission of HOCCI is to broaden diversity in film criticism across the Pacific region and use influencer branding strategies to spark career opportunities in Hawai’i, not be hampered by oceans, state borders and distance, because geography is no longer a barrier. The 2023 HOCCI is supported by Critical Minded, a grant-making and learning initiative that supports cultural critics of color in the United States.

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