On July 22, 2003, residents in East Buffalo, N.Y., cut the ribbon to officially open a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store on Jefferson Avenue. Residents smiled for pictures, congregated around various food stations, enjoyed live jazz and embraced each other to celebrate the hard-fought battle to fulfill a long-awaited need for the predominantly Black neighborhood.
“Tops was a big boost to the community. We actually had a grocery store to call our own. It wasn’t a convenience store like a 7-Eleven, it was a real grocery store. It made everyone happy,” Martin Bryant, an East Buffalo resident, told CNN. “Local leaders fought hard for it, and the location was perfect because it is right off two bus lines.”
On May 14, almost 20 years later, Buffalo police say an 18-year-old white man opened fire at that community store, taking the lives of 10 people and injuring three others in a mass shooting that law enforcement officials said was a racially motivated attack.
The shooting has shaken community members as they plan funerals to honor their beloved family members and friends. In the midst of mourning the victims, the tight-knit community is also grieving another huge blow: the fallout from the closure of a store, even if temporary, that became a safe haven and the community hub for an area in Buffalo that city leaders have said is “segregated by design.”
For many community members around Masten Park, it became a well in a place that had long been a food desert — which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an area “that lack[s] access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”
“This Tops was our food source, our source to healthy foods, and now it’s been taken from us,” Buffalo City Councilman Ulysees Wingo told the Associated Press. “That’s how we know this was a hate crime. Not only did he target Black folks, he targeted our ability to get healthy foods.”
The councilman added that the grocery store was not just a shopping destination but a place to congregate with fellow community members. “It’s where we go to talk. It’s where we go to buy bread and stay for 15, 20 minutes, because you’re just going for a loaf of bread, you’re going to find four or five people you know and you’re going to have a couple conversations before you leave,” he said.
After more than a decade of local leaders like food activist Della Miller campaigning for the opening of a supermarket like Tops, the store became a viable place for fresh food in an area of Buffalo where, according to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey, 78% of residents are Black.
“In 2008, we did a measurement block by block in the entire county and in this particular neighborhood as well,” Samina Raja, a professor at the University of Buffalo and founder of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, told Yahoo News.
“It was one of the first studies in the country that reported that you had fewer supermarkets in predominantly Black neighborhoods compared to predominantly white neighborhoods, even when you control for wealth and other variables,” she said. “In other words, it was racial segregation in the food environment, versus the economic power of the neighborhood. Therefore, Tops’ presence there is crucial.”
A 2010 census report found that the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area represented the nation’s sixth-most-segregated area. The segregation on Buffalo’s East Side stems from several factors, including being on redlining maps in the 1930s, as Raja points out. Redlining is a discriminatory practice in which economic investments and other financial resources are withheld from potential customers who reside in neighborhoods deemed hazardous to investment. As a result, governments and the private business sector divest their resources, creating a segregation bubble.
“That is where communities become invisible and where people then, because of their location within that community, they get blamed for their own poverty,” Patrice Willoughby, the NAACP’s vice president of policy and legislative affairs, who also served in the Obama administration’s General Services Administration, told Yahoo News. “When, in fact, society has done a lot to create those environments through policy that is both enacted intentionally and through neglect.”
According to a 2018 report from the Partnership for the Public Good, the neighborhood also became a casualty to the creation of America’s interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s, which built a highway, the Kensington Expressway, in the middle of an area that was called the “spine” of the Black middle-class neighborhood emerging at the time.
The highway cut the community off from institutions like banks and walkable grocery stores, which suppressed economic growth and development, and exacerbated health inequities for decades to come. But, as Willoughby points out, this type of segregation was commonplace in U.S. cities.
“There were areas in which there was a growth and development of the Black business community, as well as Black neighborhoods, and too often, those communities were subject to, as in East Buffalo, the creation of intersections and roadways that cut off neighborhoods from the larger commercial community,” she said. “So, coupled with the history of investment that was sometimes perpetuated by the federal government in the way that infrastructure funding and other resources were deployed, it created and reinforced inequality.”
A University of Buffalo report in 2021 found that living conditions for Black residents in Buffalo across health, housing, income and education factors have improved little. In some cases they had declined over the preceding 30 years. But even having endured those types of intentional obstacles, Buffalo residents say that’s where they discovered the power and resilience of community.
“Its important for people to understand that Tops’ presence is not only a question of food,” Raja said. “It’s also symbolic of the work that the neighbors did. When the public sector and private sector has disinvested, people are still going to organize and serve each other. They’re not gonna sit around and wait for somebody to show up and fix their problems.”
Raja, who is also part of the Buffalo Food Equity Network, a caucus space for Black, brown and Indigenous people who respond to food-related needs in the neighborhood, cites the challenges caused by the glaring inequities in the community, now worsened by the shooting on May 14.
“Ten people are dead, but in addition, trauma has been inflicted on everybody else around the neighborhood. When an extreme acute violence happens in a neighborhood in the built environment, then it’s felt right there. And then it’s also felt over time in a chronic way. Sometimes intergenerationally, sometimes in markers, in that neighborhood, people remember what happened here,” she said. “So I think that it is more than only an impact on food. It is creating a neighborhood of trauma and an entire community of trauma. And I don’t think we have fully processed that.”
Various local organizations like churches, the Buffalo Food Equity Network and the Buffalo Community Fridges network — a mutual aid group that fills community refrigerators with fresh produce and prepared meals for neighbors — as well as local farmers are among the people who have mobilized in support of residents affected by the shooting. Tops has also arranged a free daily shuttle to take customers to another Tops store in Buffalo, for those who would otherwise have to rely on long commutes via public transportation.
But, as Willoughby noted, the burden falls back on the community members.
“People will have to engage in more planning in order to obtain food, whereas the presence of the retail in a community with greater resources means that it’s a lot easier just to go about your daily lives,” she said. “So a shooting like this and its deliberate targeting at a Black community has a disproportionate impact on an under-resourced community than it would have in other areas.”
Raja called on New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to invest in historically oppressed communities like the East Side of Buffalo that have been affected by structural racism. She cites places like the African Heritage Food Co-op, which was founded by Alexander Wright and provides fresh produce to areas of the city at an affordable price.
“African Heritage Food Co-op has a building on the East Side of Buffalo. He needs $3 million to get his operation up and running, capital dollars. ... Where are the $15 million or $20 million to build a capital facility, cold storage facility, community center that has a healing space, mental health facility?” she said. “Where is the money to invest in African Heritage Food Co-op to get their building outfitted? For a state government, it’s not that much money.”
Willoughby agrees, saying it’s long overdue that public and private sectors recognize Black communities as ready markets for investment, a goal that securing the Tops location on the East Side achieved. The grocery store, for its part, pledged to reopen to serve its community.
But for now, as residents start to lay their loved ones to rest this weekend, the grief left by the void of what had meant so much for a community that has already dealt with its share of trauma — banding together throughout victories and losses — has become overwhelming.
“We have this one place. We have Tops,” Buffalo poet laureate Jillian Hanesworth told the AP. “We have our grocery store, and one of my biggest fears is that when it reopens, it’s not going to feel like ours anymore. And we fought so long for something to feel like ours.”