Hot Docs 2023 Review: “Razing Liberty Square” Builds a Strong Case for How Communities Are Destroyed

“Paradise unexplored,” Melba Rose, a longtime resident of Liberty Square says of growing up in the Miami public housing project in “Razing Liberty Square,” recalling the mango groves that she was once enchanted by as a child. She may not have been conscious then that the predominantly Black community had been essentially forced to live there, priced out of beachfront property that was segregated by design of city planners, but made none the wiser during the 1960s and ‘70s that she should’ve felt like a second-class citizen when anything that anyone felt they lacked was more than made up for by the spirit of the neighborhood that could lean on each other. That spirit seems to endure, even if the buildings themselves have not, which director Katja Esson doesn’t see as a failing of the people that live there, but a starvation of resources for the area to the point that has made it ripe for redevelopment, touted as progress that will bring in businesses and middle class families but not mentioned are all those it will push out with nowhere else to go.

Remarkably even-handed, “Razing Liberty Square” makes no secret of siding with community organizers who hope not to pull up stakes on the only home they’ve ever known, yet Esson smartly eschews a David vs. Goliath narrative in regards to Related Urban, the private developer that wins a $300 million bid to create “mixed-income housing” where Liberty Square sits. Instead, the film concerns the soul-searching that everyone involved does to chart what they think is the best way forward in what they all agree is an untenable situation, particularly Related Urban exec Aaron McKinney and Meyga School founder and principal Samantha Quarterman, both of whom grew up in Liberty Square, yet have entirely different attitudes as a result of that experience. Whereas McKinney’s mother urged him to look beyond the limits of Liberty Square for a future, Quarterman clearly believes that the only way to build something was by sticking around and putting in the work, gradually increasing the head count at her elementary school where she takes responsibility of not only nourishing her students’ minds but their stomachs as well when their family may not necessarily be able to afford three meals a day.

While Quarterman’s approach is more obviously admirable, McKinney undergoes a fascinating reckoning with the work he’s doing, troubled by the eventual distribution of Section 8 vouchers to Liberty Square residents who can use them to pay for new housing with no guarantee their rent won’t be raised to unaffordable heights later, and “Razing Liberty Square” ably illustrates the difference just one person can make and the individual impact that zoning permits and state and city budgetary decisions can have, nowhere near as abstract as when they appear as line items on a council meeting agenda or an end note at the end of a news article. If the history of Liberty Square alone doesn’t make its possible erasure worthy of headlines well beyond the city limits of Miami, the film makes a more universal call for alarm when the reason for developers’ sudden interest in Liberty Square stems from rising sea levels due to climate change, nudging anyone living on the coastline to consider homes more inland. By profiling environmental activist Valencia Gunder in addition to McKinney and Quarterman, Esson makes a compelling case that all these issues are intertwined and in watching the inspirational Gunder turn local talks about the ever-encroaching ocean into gripping discourse about the Black community transforming unwanted parcels of land into a place they could call home, a grasp on history makes it seem as if solutions aren’t out of reach and that paradise may not be a place so much as the people around that can come together to make it one.

“Razing Liberty Square” will screen again at Hot Docs on May 6th at 8:45 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 3.

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