Buffalo's East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse.

·10 min read

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Route 33 tears through the heart of Buffalo's East Side, a scar in a segregated city that nearly demolished a Black community.

The highway devastated the economies of Black Buffalo's commercial centers and sucked value from historic real estate, spitting grime and grease onto the windows of neighboring homes.

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The East Side, where the Black population here has concentrated for more than 70 years, is hemmed in by Main Street to the west and Eggert Road to the east. Route 33 cuts a gnarly gash between the two. The effect is a community stuck in what locals describe as a cycle of poverty and neglect.

Then the East Side was attacked.

A gunman opened fire on Tops Friendly Market grocery store on Jefferson Avenue on May 14, killing 10 shoppers and employees - all of whom were Black - and injuring three more. An 18-year-old White man was charged.

A week later, an 18-year-old in Uvalde, Texas, shot dead 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school before he was killed by authorities. Over Memorial Day weekend, there were 15 more mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, marking a bloody start to another American summer.

Buffalo, locals say, is a poignant case study of some of the worst aspects of the country's gun violence epidemic. Investigators say that the Buffalo slayings here were motivated by racist hate and that the alleged gunman purchased his weapon legally in Pennsylvania.

Locals say the attack feels like a symptom of generations of destructive policies in Buffalo. Now it has worsened another persistent problem: With its main grocery store closed, the East Side is running low on food.

"We like to call this food apartheid because the absence of these grocery stores is reflective of the range of policy choices and decisions that public and private sector leaders made," said Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo.

"The consequences of not having this store open," said QueeNia AsheeMa'at, a local activist, "is going to be greater than we can all imagine."

"There is so much need," said Andrae Kamoche, senior pastor at Rehoboth House of Prayer, a Buffalo church. "And it didn't just start with the shooting Saturday."

"There's a quote," said Alexander Wright, who runs the African Heritage Food Co-op in Niagara Falls, "that says, 'The fork will kill you faster than the bullet.' And here in Buffalo, we're experiencing both, both the fork and bullet."

It's a struggle that reveals larger challenges for urban Black communities across the United States, still struggling with the impacts of redlining that often blocked minorities from homeownership and urban renewal projects that tore up existing neighborhoods and depressed wages and property values.

The tough economic conditions led businesses to locate in more affluent areas where consumers had more spending power, opening the door for others that experts consider "predatory." The East Side - a community of about 130,000 people - has four major grocery stores, according to a Washington Post analysis, and a couple dozen smaller stores with more limited selection.

Tops was the only major grocery store within Route 33, and one of few places on the East Side for residents to fill prescriptions - another service it supplied in a chronically underserved area. Weighted by population, Buffalo's majority-White areas have 22% more pharmacies than its majority Black areas, according to The Post's analysis of data gathered by market research firm Data Axle.

Even before the shooting, Buffalo's East Side was a "food desert," experts say, a term used to describe areas that lack convenient and affordable healthy foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Finding nutritious food is so difficult, residents said, that this shock to local commerce could force thousands of households toward hunger.

Elected officials and civil rights leaders here have pledged to hold accountable not just alleged shooter Payton Gendron, but also the right-wing figures who inspired his attack, and the gunmakers and distributors and social media platforms they say enabled it.

But some locals see another accomplice, one that has bolstered Buffalo's racial division: "the 33."

"How did this guy know to come to this grocery store?" said activist David Lewis. "He researched it. He found out we all lived here. And that's because we're segregated."

'I live in front of a chasm'

         

To know Buffalo's East Side is to know its minor celebrities.

In a past life Stevo Johnson, a charter school teacher, helped style Mary J. Blige. Sirgourney Cook, the first lady of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, is a trained opera singer and performed backup for Jennifer Hudson.

Cariol Horne, a former police officer, stopped a White officer in 2006 from choking a Black detainee. She was fired for her actions, then beat back her dismissal in a lawsuit that was resolved in 2021.

There's a reason they all live here. The Great Migration brought Black families to Buffalo shortly after the Civil War, then again in massive numbers after World War II. They settled on the East Side, said Taylor, the urban studies professor, because that was the city's industrial hub. They worked and lived alongside mostly White European immigrants, sometimes in the same boardinghouses. There's evidence, Taylor said, that Blacks taught themselves to speak and write German to better communicate with their neighbors and co-workers.

Eyeing the postwar suburban boom in the 1950s, area political leaders planned a highway - Route 33 - connecting downtown Buffalo to a new airport built in the White suburbs. They chose to run it through the East Side because it had the lowest property values, Taylor said, a common metric urban planners use when deciding where to place major infrastructure projects without disrupting civic life.

The choice may not have been racially motivated, Taylor said, but disproportionately harmed Black Buffalonians nonetheless; Blacks were largely concentrated on the East Side because of existing financial and legal restrictions on housing. City leaders dug out part of Humboldt Parkway, a historic and scenic green strip that connected the city's park system, for the highway's route.

"It slices through all of those neighborhoods creating a path of destruction and devaluation," Taylor said.

"The tearing up of the parkway ... would not have happened if that had been in a White community," added New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D, who represents the East Side.

White workers fled to the suburbs: Amherst, Williamsville, Clarence, Orchard Park. Black families faced steep obstacles to move into those areas, either because of the price of homes or discriminatory financial structures. Funding for schools followed White families out of the city. Businesses did, too. Over time, as property values fell around the highway and rose in the suburbs, it became harder for families to sell their homes and buy in more affluent areas.

By 2020, Buffalo was the 17th-most-segregated city in the country, according to data collected by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.

"I live in front of a chasm," said Emere Nieves, a food security activist whose home borders Route 33. Weekly, she scrapes solidified scum from exhaust pipes off the windows on her oversized porch. "It was colossal what they did, and it was idiocrasy."

As food runs low, neighbors mobilize

         

The morning after the shooting, Buffalo's East Side needed to eat. At a prayer vigil, volunteers arrived with dozens of Paula's Donuts, an iconic sweet treat here. Two neighborhood safety groups, the Peacemakers and Buffalo FATHERS (Fathers Armed Together Helping to Educate, Restore, and Save), started a cookout, flipping burgers and hot dogs on a three-sided grill.

"We'll be here as long as it takes for this supermarket to reopen," said Lenny Lane, a retired firefighter and co-founder of the FATHERS, "and we don't know how long it will take. But we're not going back the way it was. It can't be just a new coat of paint."

Inside Family Dollar next door across Landon Street, the mood was more desperate. One mother looked for milk and eggs and fresh fruit with her children. Another asked a cashier if the store sold chicken or beef; it did not. Another customer asked for help identifying what food items he could buy with money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

"I don't know," the cashier said. "This is not what we usually do."

Neighbors with cars - reliable public transportation is not a given here - took friends to the McDonald's less than a mile away on Main Street.

Tops set up a shuttle to take shoppers from the East Side Tops to another in North Buffalo, but the offer, locals said, was not very enticing. The shuttle ran only a few times an hour, and dropped off back at Jefferson Avenue, leaving customers to haul the groceries back home.

By Tuesday, World Central Kitchen, the food relief agency run by celebrity chef José Andrés, arrived to hand out hot meals on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and East Utica Street, a major intersection.

Locals work for long-term relief

         

Officials have promised relief, and soon. Tops spokeswoman Kathleen Sautter said in an emailed statement that the store was dedicated to resuming service on the East Side as soon as possible, but executives still don't know when that will be. Law enforcement has closed the building indefinitely to investigate the shooting.

"Our engineers and construction management team are working closely with local contractors and equipment suppliers to establish the quickest possible timeline for reopening," Sautter said. "We hope to have a clearer understanding of that timeline in the coming weeks."

But community members have already begun planning for the future. A group of neighbors is petitioning for a second Tops on the East Side.

"Somebody asked me today, what do I want to see in six months?" said the Rev. Julian Cook, the senior pastor at Macedonia Missionary. "I want to see talks of another grocery store, of another grocery option in the community, a viable grocery option. I'm not talking about putting some fruits and vegetables at a bodega."

Others are working with officials to get rid of part of the highway. The 2022 budget proposed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, D, includes $1 billion to cover a portion of Route 33 and lay green space on top of it, recreating a portion of the old Humboldt Parkway.

The project will take years to complete, and New York is competing with other states for funding as part of President Joe Biden's $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan.

But tunneling the highway is only a start, community leaders say. The East Side still needs to attract businesses to the area. To do that, residents need more buying power. That requires generational wealth, Taylor said, which means affordable homeownership on property that can appreciate. Residents are already wary of gentrification.

In the meantime, community members say they'll continue working to help one another, even if government officials and private businesses don't step in.

One recent morning, Andrae and Sharifah Kamoche, husband and wife and the senior pastors of Rehoboth House of Prayer, backed a U-Haul truck into the Family Dollar parking lot and unloaded, by their math, 3,200 pounds of fresh food. A local produce wholesaler donated the items for them to distribute around the city. That afternoon, they had cucumbers, lemons, bananas, oranges and melons.

"The blessings of the Lord," Andrae said to one client, handing her a crate of 36 cucumbers. "Take a whole box."

      

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Video: Community leaders in Buffalo say the violent attack by an alleged white supremacist needs to be understood in the context of long standing structural racism that has plagued the country.(REF:murphyz0-v/The Washington Post)

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