BUFFALO, NY – Tops Friendly Market was more than a place to buy groceries. As the only supermarket a mile away, it has become a kind of community center on the East Side of Buffalo – where you talk to your neighbors and make a living.

“This is the place where we go to buy bread and stay for 15-20 minutes, because … you will find four or five people you know and talk before leaving,” said Buffalo City Council member Ulysses. O. Vingo, representing the difficult neighborhood of the Blacks where he grew up. “You just feel good because it’s your store.”

Now residents are mourning the death of 10 black people at the hands of an 18-year-old white man who drove three hours to hold a racist shooting at a crowded supermarket on Saturday.

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They are also struggling to become a target in a place that has been very 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 foods such as milk and eggs in stores and gas stations.

The fact that there are no other options exposes the racial and economic divisions that existed in Buffalo long before the shooting, residents say.

“It’s unreasonable to think that Tops is the only supermarket in the area, in my area,” said Buffalo retiree Teresa Harris-Teague, who knew two of those killed.

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While Tops is temporarily closed for the duration of the investigation, the community is working to ensure residents are not left without them.

An improvised food bank was set up near the supermarket. Buffalo Community Fridge has received enough monetary donations to distribute some funds to other local organizations. Tops also arranged a bus to transport East Side residents to and from another of its locations in Buffalo.

After decades of neglect and decline, only a few shops along Jefferson Avenue, once a thriving East Side main pier, among them the Family Dollar, deli, liquor store and several shops, as well as a library and run by black businesses like Golden Cup Coffee, Zawadi Books and The Challenger News.

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Gillian Haynesworth, 29, who was born and raised there, said the construction of the expressway helped cut off the neighborhood, and drivers drove underground without even seeing it. At a recent rally, Haynesworth said she asked the crowd how much GPS it takes to get there, and many of the white people raised their hands.

“A lot of people who talk about Buffalo don’t live here,” said Haynesworth, a city poet laureate and director of leadership development at Open Buffalo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice and community development.

Like many residents, she stops to think when asked where the nearest major grocery store is: none is within walking distance, and it takes three different buses to get to the price ceremony.

Before Tops opened in the East Side, residents, lawmakers and other advocates had for years pushed for a grocery store in what became a “food desert” after groceries and other stores closed in the Central Park Plaza area, Vingo said .

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62-year-old Yvette Mack remembers when the streets were not so empty. But when she was about 15 or 16, she noticed the places didn’t work.

“It all started to fade as I got older,” she said.

She eventually moved downtown but returned to the East Side in 2020, happy to have the supermarket back. Mack says she shopped at Tops daily, sometimes three to four times to buy pop, meat and play in her rooms. She was there the Saturday before the shooting.

Now she is not sure she will be able to return as soon as the store reopens, but hopes that talks with the community will lead to an increase in the number of businesses on the East Side. Harris-Tigg, a retired educator, also hopes the shooting will unite the city to talk about disparities.

“It’s time to do more. It’s time for white people to talk to whites and have real honest conversations,” she said.

Pastor James Giles, coordinator of the Buffalo Peacemakers anti-violence group, believes this is happening. He juggled calls, offering help from district churches and businesses, Buffalo Bills, competing grocery stores and even a utility company after the shooting.

“I want us to be a city of good neighbors. And I hope we try to live up to that nickname, ”Giles said. “But I feel we can’t get there until we tell the truth about the white supremacy and racism that are already present in our city.”


Sarkar and Nasir are members of the AP team by race and ethnicity. AP writers John Wavre of Buffalo, New York, and Tammy Weber of Fentan, Michigan, have contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2022, Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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