‘We fought to get this grocery store: ‘What Tops Supermarket Meant to Buffalo’s Black Community

Shortly after President Joe Biden laid flowers at a memorial for the dead in the days following the racist attack that claimed the lives of 10 black people at a Buffalo supermarket, Robert Scott, who frequents the store for years, has spoken with other mourners.

He said alleged shooter Payton Gendron took more than just a neighborhood supermarket.

“He’s an amazing man,” Scott said. “Like my brother just said, it’s literally like a safe place for us.”

Now he said he felt like there were no more safe places in the city for black people.

“I don’t know,” Scott said. “It just created a different awareness.”

When the accused gunman chose the Jefferson Avenue Tops supermarket as the site of his massacre, he did more than terrorize a neighborhood, a city and an entire nation. He desecrated a sacred space in the heart of Black Buffalo.

He targeted the supermarket because it was one of the blackest ZIP codes within driving distance of his home in the South, according to reports describing online postings of accounts allegedly controlled by the accused killer.

Buffalo metro area ranked sixth most segregated city in nation, 2018 study finds report of the local think tank the Partnership for the Public Good.

It’s unclear if he also knew he was hitting a symbol of resilience, a symbol of community and a place where important connections were made in the city’s predominantly black neighborhood.

The supermarket was important to residents for all the usual reasons. It was a place to feed, certainly. But it was also a place to meet friends and neighbors, a place to sell raffle tickets for youth sports, a place to find a job.

It was also a symbol of the efforts made by so many people in Black Buffalo to overcome the additional obstacles faced by residents of this highly segregated city. Tops has become the only full-service supermarket east of Main Street serving many of the most poor neighborhoods in one of poorest cities in the country when he opened in 2003.

Henry Louis Taylor, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo who studied racial and economic segregation in the city for decades, said many landmark decisions — the construction of a freeway through the city’s most important middle-class black neighborhood and decades of housing discrimination — helped create the conditions that made the supermarket a target.

“Jefferson Avenue, between Best and Ferry (streets), is the most important street in Black Buffalo,” Taylor said. “It’s the heart and soul of Black Buffalo. And Tops is one of our most important symbols, because it’s a wrestling win. It’s not just a grocery store. We fought, we fought, we fought to get this grocery store.

Yet for many who work on the issues caused by segregation in these neighborhoods, it has been difficult to see the East Side shown only through the prism of segregation as local and national media descend on an area that had not always been fully covered by the press – and often covered by the prism of crime reporting.

In an interview last week, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes likened the grocery store to a barbershop or barbershop, a place for community gathering and sharing of knowledge.

And she acknowledged that racist policies have helped foster segregation in Buffalo. But she pointed out that many people in Masten Park, Cold Springs and other surrounding neighborhoods are there because they want to be there and have spent years building community in places like the supermarket.

“Some people would like to say people live here because they can’t live anywhere else,” Peoples-Stokes said. “They live here because they want to. I don’t have to live here, but I do. My neighbors could choose to live elsewhere, to be in Cheektowaga if they wanted to. I could be in North Buffalo. It’s in my neighborhood. I don’t need to be here. But I want to be here.

Samina Raja, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo, directs the school’s Food Systems and Healthy Communities Planning Lab, an interdisciplinary research group that works with residents of neighborhoods where access to food is limited.

She said one aspect of what was happening on the East Side or other neighborhoods facing similar challenges that some people might miss was the amount of work people were doing to fill in the gaps missed by policy makers. and business leaders.

“Frankly, even the presence of Tops there is a result of people’s activism,” Raja said. “I think the city is segregated, so the rest of the city doesn’t really understand Black Buffalo and East Side culture. It’s a very tight-knit community.

And while the Tops helped fill a gap in the area’s quality food options, it wasn’t enough to solve food access issues. Over the years, dozens of small businesses and nonprofits — African Heritage Food Co-op, Buffalo Food Equity Network, black-owned urban farms to name a few — have worked to get good quality food in neighborhoods on the East Side, she said.

“People won’t wait for someone else to come and fix their problem,” Raja said. “Along with the historic divestment, what’s also happened on the East Side is an incredible amount of energy and work on the East Side.”

Now that many television news crews have left and most of the victims have been buried, the challenge, according to leaders and researchers, will be to keep the spotlight on the issues that have received so much attention in the wake of the ‘offensive.

“This crisis has been brewing for a long time and I’m concerned about the very short attention span people have on Black Buffalo and this neighborhood in particular,” Raja said.

Senior officials have sworn to reopen a store in the neighborhood and the same groups that worked to close food access gaps for years are now in overdrive distribute the flood of food brought to organizations and paid for with cash donations to ensure that the many people who shopped there could continue to shop for groceries.

But it’s clear that long after the supermarket has reopened and whether or not the lingering issues that led to the city’s segregation receive more attention from policymakers and the public, this attack has left new wounds that won’t won’t heal for a while.

“When you attack this grocery store on the most important street in Black Buffalo, you attack the entire black community, not just those who live in the immediate vicinity,” Taylor said. “And you’re establishing a symbol of terror meant to intimidate people, not just in Buffalo, but across the country.”