Buffalo shooting affects residents at heart of community center ‘separated by design’

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On July 22, 2003, residents of East Buffalo, NY cut the ribbon to officially open a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store on Jefferson Avenue. Residents smiled for photos, gathered around various food stations, enjoyed live jazz and hugged each other to celebrate the uphill battle to meet a long-awaited need in the predominantly black neighborhood.

“Tops has been a big boost for the community. In fact, we had a grocery store of our own. It wasn’t a convenience store like a 7-Eleven, it was a real grocery store. It made everyone happy,” Martin Bryant, a resident of East Buffalo, told CNN. “Local leaders fought for it, and the location was perfect as it’s right next to two bus routes.”

On May 14, nearly 20 years later, Buffalo police say an 18-year-old white man opened fire at this community store, killing 10 people and wounding three others in a mass shooting that , according to law enforcement officials, was racially motivated. offensive.

The shooting has shaken community members as they plan a funeral to honor their beloved family members and friends. Amid mourning for the victims, the tight-knit community is also dealing another blow: the fallout from the closure of even a temporary store that has become a haven and community center for a Buffalo neighborhood that city leaders city ​​have said is “separate by design”.

For many in the community around Masten Park, it has become a sink in a place that has long been a food desert – which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is an area “missing[s] access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the full spectrum of a healthy diet.

People gather outside the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, NY on May 15. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“That Tops was our food source, our healthy food source, and now it’s been taken away from us,” Buffalo Councilman Ulysees Wingo said. The Associated Press. “That’s how we know it was a hate crime. Not only did it target black people, but it targeted our ability to obtain healthy food.

The councilman added that the grocery store was not just a shopping destination, but a place to gather with other members of the community. “This is where we’re going to talk. That’s where we’ll buy bread and stay for 15, 20 minutes, because you’ll just get a loaf of bread, you’ll find four or five people you know and you’ll have a few conversations before you go,” 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 has become a viable place for fresh food in an area of ​​Buffalo where, according to the 2020 US Census Bureau community survey, 78% of residents are black.

“In 2008, we did block-by-block measurement across the county and in this particular neighborhood as well,” Samina Raja, a University at Buffalo professor 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 indicated there were fewer supermarkets in predominantly black neighborhoods than in 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, the presence of Tops there is crucial.

People comfort each other a day after the fatal shooting.

People comfort each other a day after the fatal shooting. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A 2010 census report revealed that the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area represented the the sixth most isolated area in the country. Segregation on Buffalo’s East Side stems from several factors, including be on redlining cards in the 1930s, as Raja points out. Redlining is a discriminatory practice in which economic investments and other financial resources are denied to potential customers who reside in neighborhoods deemed unsafe for investment. As a result, governments and the private business sector divest themselves of their resources, creating a bubble of segregation.

“This is where communities become invisible and where people, because of their location within that community, are blamed for their own poverty,” said Patrice Willoughby, vice president of political and legislative affairs for the NAACP. , who also served in the Obama administration general. Services Administration, told Yahoo News. “Whereas in fact, society has done a great deal to create these environments through policies that are both intentionally and negligently enacted.”

According to a 2018 report of the Partnership for the Public Good, the neighborhood also became a victim of the creation of the United States Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 1960swho built a freeway, the Kensington Expressway, in the middle of an area that was called the “backbone” of the emerging black bourgeois neighborhood at the time.

The freeway cut off the community from institutions such as banks and grocery stores within walking distance, suppressing economic growth and development and exacerbating health inequalities for decades to come. But, as Willoughby points out, this kind of segregation was commonplace in American cities.

“There were areas in which there was growth and development of the black business community, as well as black neighborhoods, and too often these communities were subject, like in East Buffalo, to the creation of intersections and roads that cut off neighborhoods from the wider business community,” she said. “So, coupled with the investment history that has sometimes been perpetuated by the federal government in how infrastructure funding and other resources have been deployed, it has created and reinforced inequities.”

A University at Buffalo A 2021 report found that conditions for Black Buffalo residents in terms of health, housing, income, and education have improved little. In some cases, they had declined over the previous 30 years. But even after enduring these kinds of intentional obstacles, Buffalo residents say it was there that they discovered the power and resilience of community.

Andre Kamoche and Greg Jackson with Rehoboth House of Prayer unload a truckload of fresh produce.

On Tuesday, Pastor Andre Kamoche, left, and Greg Jackson with Rehoboth House of Prayer unload a truckload of fresh produce to distribute to those affected by the closure of the Tops supermarket. (Joshua Bessex/AP)

“It’s important for people to understand that Tops’ presence isn’t just about food,” Raja said. “It’s also symbolic of the work the neighbors have done. When the public sector and the private sector have withdrawn, people will still organize and serve each other. They’re not going to sit around and wait for someone 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 meet the food needs of the neighborhood, cites the challenges caused by the glaring inequalities in the community, now exacerbated by the filming the May 14.

“Ten people died, but on top of that, trauma was inflicted on everyone in the neighborhood. When extreme acute violence occurs in a neighborhood in the built environment, it is felt on the spot. And then it also feels chronically over time. Sometimes intergenerationally, sometimes in the markers, in this neighborhood, people remember what happened here,” she said. “So I think it’s more than just an impact on food. It creates a neighborhood of trauma and a whole community of trauma. And I don’t think we’ve fully dealt with that.

Mourners light candles in front of a makeshift memorial.

Mourners light candles at a makeshift memorial outside the supermarket on Monday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Various local organizations such as churches, the Buffalo Food Equity Network and the Buffalo Community Refrigerators network — a self-help group that meets community refrigerators with fresh produce and prepared meals for neighbors – as well as local farmers are among those who have stepped up to support residents affected by the shooting. Tops also organized a free daily shuttle to take customers to another Tops store in Buffalo, for those who would otherwise have had to rely on long trips via public transportation.

But, as Willoughby noted, the onus falls on community members.

“People will have to plan more to get food, whereas the presence of retail in a community with more resources means it’s much easier to go about their daily lives,” she said. . “So a shooting like this and its deliberate targeting of a black community has a disproportionate impact on an underfunded community compared to what it would have in other areas.”

Raja called on New York Governor Kathy Hochul to invest in historically oppressed communities like the East Side of Buffalo that have been impacted by structural racism. She cites places like the African Heritage Food Co-op, which was founded by Alexander Wright and provides fresh produce to neighborhoods across 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 start his operation, capital. … Where is the $15 or $20 million to build a capital building, a cold storage, a community center with healing space, a mental health facility? she says. “Where is the money to invest in African Heritage Food Co-op to equip their building? For a state government, it is not so much money.

Willoughby agrees, saying it’s high time the public and private sectors recognize black communities as ready markets for investment, a goal that securing Tops’ location on the East Side has achieved. . The grocery store, for its part, has pledged to reopen to serve its community.

A memorial for the victims near the scene of the shooting.

A memorial for the victims near the scene of the shooting. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

But for now, as residents begin to rest their loved ones this weekend, the grief left behind by the void of what had meant so much to a community that has already faced its share of trauma – coming together through the wins 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 won’t look like ours anymore. And we fought so long to make something look like ours.

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