BUFFALO, NY (AP) — Tops Friendly Market was more than a place to buy groceries. As the only supermarket for miles, it’s become something of a community center on Buffalo’s East Side – where you chatted with neighbors and caught up with people’s lives.
“That’s where we go to buy bread and stay for 15, 20 minutes because if you go and get a loaf of bread, you’re going to find four or five people that you know, we’re going to have a few conversations before we go. leave,” said Buffalo City Councilman Ulysees O. Wingo, who represents the struggling black neighborhood he grew up in. “You feel good because this is your store.”
Now residents are mourning the deaths of 10 black people at the hands of an 18-year-old white man who drove three hours to carry out a racist shooting and broadcast live in the crowded supermarket on Saturday.
They also grapple with being targeted in a place that has been so vital to the community. Before Tops opened on the East Side in 2003, residents had to travel to other communities to buy nutritious food or settle for snacks and more expensive staples like milk and eggs at convenience stores. and service stations.
The fact that there are no other options lays bare the racial and economic divide that existed in Buffalo long before the shooting.
“People talked about demographics, income levels, crime and other factors,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said. “I felt that money here was as green as money anywhere, that there was a lot of money to spend in this community and there were needs to be served.”
Wingo said it was no coincidence that the shooter chose the store to shoot.
“Knowing the density of African Americans on this side of town and going to this Top knowing this side of town is a food desert was intentional, it was deliberate and it was wrong,” Wingo said. “And we know that because he did a reconnaissance the day before to make sure there were black people there.”
Tops said Wednesday that his store was under active police investigation. Once that’s done, “we’ll have a team to assess next steps with the intention of rebuilding and fixing the store for the community in as short a time as possible,” he said.
In the meantime, Tops and others are working to make sure residents don’t miss out.
A makeshift food bank has been set up not far from the supermarket. The Buffalo Community Fridge received enough monetary donations to distribute funds to other local organizations. Tops also organized a bus to shuttle East Side residents to another of its Buffalo locations.
Pastor James Giles, coordinator of the anti-violence group Buffalo Peacemakers, said he was juggling calls offering help from area churches and businesses, the Buffalo Bills, competing grocery stores and even the service company public after the shooting.
“I want us to be the City of Good Neighbours. And I hope we aspire to live up to that moniker,” Giles said. “But I feel like we can’t get there until we come clean about the white supremacy and racism that’s already in our city.”
After decades of neglect and decline, only a handful of stores stand along Jefferson Avenue, the East Side’s once-thriving main thoroughfare, including a Family Dollar, delicatessen, liquor store and a few convenience stores, as well as a library. and black-run businesses like Golden Cup Coffee, Zawadi Books and The Challenger News.
Jillian Hanesworth, 29, who was born and raised there, said the construction of a freeway has helped cut through the neighborhood, with drivers passing underground without ever having to see it. At a recent rally, Hanesworth said he asked the crowd how many people needed GPS to get there, and many white people raised their hands.
“A lot of people who talk about Buffalo don’t live here,” said Hanesworth, the city’s poet laureate and director of leadership development at Open Buffalo, a nonprofit focused on social justice and community development.
Like many residents, she pauses to think when asked where the nearest main grocery store is: None are within walking distance, and it takes three different buses to get to the Price Rite.
Before Tops opened on the East Side, residents, lawmakers and other advocates lobbied for years for a supermarket after grocery stores and other stores in the neighborhood’s Central Park Plaza closed, a said Wingo.
Yvette Mack, 62, remembers when the streets weren’t so empty. But when she was around 15 or 16, she noticed places closing down.
“It all started to fade as I got older,” she said.
Eventually she moved downtown but returned to the East Side in 2020, happy that a supermarket had returned. Mack says she shopped at Tops every day, sometimes three or four times, for soft drinks, meat and to play her numbers. She was there Saturday before the shooting.
Now she’s not sure she’ll be able to return once the store reopens, but hopes the community conversations will lead to more businesses on the East Side.
Hanesworth fears that when Tops reopens, “it won’t be ours anymore”.
“And we fought for so long to make something look like ours. And black communities across the country have been struggling for so long to feel like something belongs to us, something is safe for us,” she said. “For example, we can go shopping, we can go to church, we can go to school, we can go to the movies. And that is continually being taken away from us.
Sarkar and Nasir are members of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. AP writers John Wawrow and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, and Tammy Webber in Fenton, Michigan, contributed to this story.