When she was growing up in Liberty City, Valencia Gunder heard her grandfather warn that one day their community would be in danger. Decades later, Valencia is living the prophecy her grandfather predicted as climate gentrification changes the urban landscape where she grew up.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
As a child in Liberty City, I remember hearing my grandfather Donald say, “They are going to steal our community because it doesn’t flood around here.”
As an eighties baby living in a community that was dealing with high levels of addiction and poverty, I was always confused when he would say that. I once said, “Grand Daddy, no one wants Liberty City.” He responded, “You will see one day.”
I am from Miami. Not the Miami that you see in movies: a beautiful beach lined with palm trees, tourists enjoying frozen cocktails, hotels and expensive restaurants.
My Miami is on the west side of the causeway. The everyday working class people that are fighting to survive. It is filled with beautiful cultures, music, food and styles. Here you can find pikliz, oxtails, conch salad and Cuban coffee. Miami is the only place in America where you can get a full tour of the Carribean Islands without leaving the country.
My Miami is the land of Tequestan, Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes. A rich history of sovereignty and resiliency. I can trace my Tequestan family to Miami as far as 40 years before the city was chartered, and other parts of my family migrated here from the Bahamas and Georgia many years ago. I am a proud Miamian because my ancestors built this place and have created a culture that is colorful and full of life and history.
But this beautiful place has a very dark undertone and clear racial divide. And as ground zero for sea level rise, we are now faced with even more issues.
Before its founding in 1896, Indigenous tribes occupied the land now called Miami: the Tequesta, Seminole and Miccosukee. These tribes lived here along a river of grass, lined by a beautiful coast now known as Miami Beach.
Over time, the area attracted different people from around the country. Julia Tuttle is called the “Founder of Miami,” although there were people living here before she claimed to “find” Miami. Ms. Tuttle reached out to Henry Flagler, the American industrialist and founder of the Florida East Coast Railway, to encourage him to extend the train down to Miami and to assist with industrializing the land. It’s said that she charmed him with an orange blossom in the middle of winter to convince him to invest in the area. But even after he agreed to do so, he had very little vision, saying Miami would only be a “boat city.” Boy, was he wrong. To build the railways and the city itself, they sought help from Black Caribbean workers in the Bahamas. Unlike most American cities, Miami is one of the very few that allowed Black men to vote to charter the city.
Tuttle and Flager supported segregation, forcing the Black community to live in the center of the city in communities like Coconut Grove and then Colored Town (now called Overtown). These communities were located right next to the railroad tracks. Black communities eventually migrated into areas like Liberty City, Opa Locka, Lemon City and Miami Gardens.
Along the causeways to the beaches hung signs that read “No N****rs, No Jews, No Dogs” and “This beach is for white residents ONLY.” Black people were only allowed to be on the beach while they worked and had to have a work permit to cross the causeway.
They were forced to protest to gain access to the beach, then given a landfill as a solution for a “colored beach.” This former landfill, called Virginia Key, didn’t even have a bridge for access, but the Black community made it work and it became a prominent place for Black people from around the country to visit.
Miami is built on limestone so water is not only coming in from the coast but can also seep up from underneath. I’m sure they were not thinking about sea level rise when they first pushed Black people to the center of the city, which happens to be Miami’s highest ground.
I did not realize the truth of my grandfather’s warnings until I returned to Miami from college in 2010. I saw vast change in areas like Wynwood, Little Haiti and Coconut Grove.
When I attended a climate conversation in Liberty City a few years later, I heard the residents saying exactly what my grandfather said: “They are stealing our communities because they don’t flood.” This space was intergenerational, intercultural and was shared by people from the different communities in Miami. Everyone there, except the facilitators, was Black. My mind was blown hearing community members giving examples of how they were already seeing and feeling the impacts of displacement due to the lack of flooding in their communities.
They did not know the science. They did not have the jargon or scientific language to “prove” their claims, but they had lived experiences and history. They felt the impacts of what was happening to them.
One of the community members was Paulette Richardson, and she used terminology that changed my life. She stood before the room and told them they were dealing with “climate gentrification.” It stopped me in my tracks because it finally put a phrase to the grievances that my community had expressed, and I remembered what my grandfather had said to me many years before. Ms. Paulette should get the credit for coining the term “climate gentrification.”
Climate gentrification describes how sea level rise and climate change make certain, higher elevation properties more valuable, leading to the displacement of low-income and marginalized families, residents and businesses in urban places.
Almost every city in America is facing gentrification. It causes housing crises, making fair, clean and affordable housing inaccessible to many people. What makes the climate gentrification in Miami unique is the combination of its racist history with sea level rise, elevation and the current housing crisis.
Black and Brown communities are systematically oppressed by poverty and, when climate change and extreme weather events are added to the equation, they experience a wave of threats. Climate change is a threat multiplier. Over the past 15 years under-resourced communities in Miami have been preyed upon by developers. Miami residents have faced unfair wage disparities, extreme heat, hurricanes and sunny day flooding. They have endured a government that is not representative of their communities. This creates the perfect storm of displacement, wandering souls and separated communities.
Human beings have mistreated the earth, and the ones that have done the most damage are the ones that control most of the resources. Mitigation and adaptation should be accessible to every human being. Neither class, race, gender, religion nor immigration status should hinder anyone from surviving what’s to come in this new world we will be forced to live in. Unless the people who are most impacted by climate change are at the front of this fight and in the center of our solutions, we will continually fail.
Decades after my grandfather’s prophecy, my community and I are living the changes he predicted. I wonder what kind of Miami we will leave for future generations. At this rate it seems like there will not be a Miami to preserve.
Valencia Gunder or as most recognize her, “Vee,” is an enthusiastic, self-motivated and driven community leader who has been branded as a “Modern Day Fannie Lou Hamer.” A Miami native, Valencia is the founder/co-director of the Smile Trust Inc., co-founder of The Black Collective, national organizing lead of the RBG New Deal at M4BL and advocate in residence at Florida Memorial University. She is also founder of the Community Emergency Outreach Center, which assisted over 23,000 residents after Hurricane Irma. Valencia assists many community based organizations with a variety of strategies around Florida to ensure that the community feels the impact in a positive way.
Thank you to the Society of Environmental Journalists for contributing funding to support The Marjorie’s Dispatches from a Sinking State series.
Credits: Photos and images courtesy Valencia Gunder, State Archives of Florida, B137, and Dr. Blofeld.