‘It’s not the devil. It’s America.

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BUFFALO — Less than 24 hours after a gunman stormed the grocery store where Tony Marshall worked for years, killing 10 people, Marshall was back at the Tops.

He flipped hot dogs on a grill placed just outside the perimeter of the caution tape, handing them out to mourners and passers-by. While working, he wore a red shirt with a Tops Friendly Markets logo. “It’s a community store,” said Marshall, 59. “It meant everything to us.”

It was a sentiment shared by many in this predominantly black part of town. For residents, the Tops were more than just a source of food and medicine. In a neighborhood with few stores or public spaces, the grocery store was a site for community events and giveaways, a hangout and hangout.

“It was more than a store. It was a place where you could meet a friend, relative, girlfriend,” said Jerome Bridges, another Tops employee who survived the attack by barricading himself with several others in a conference room. “A place to hang out and shop and have a good chat while you do it.”

Many East Side residents said they sometimes spent their leisure hours in Tops’ parking lot, having long conversations with people who seemed like complete strangers – strangers, that is, until ‘until they find out they live a block away from each other, or are extended family members, or frequent the same restaurant.

That sense of community was needed, Marshall said, as a form of protection in a city where many black people faced lifelong discrimination and abuse.

Buffalo is the nation’s seventh most segregated city for black Americans, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Black people had a median household income of $28,320 in 2019, according to a University at Buffalo report, with a poverty rate of 31%. White residents had an income of $49,156 and a poverty rate of 9.1%.

“I’m crazy about Buffalo, I love it here; it can be a beautiful city,” said Regina Williams, 59, sitting in a car with her daughter and granddaughter near the Tops. But “it’s so isolated that they have to do something about it. They don’t do anything about it. Nothing.”

In the first days after the shooting, many residents here saw the horrific act of racial violence as one of many injustices that happened in their lives, and sometimes across generations.

Even the fact that the East Side has such a concentration of black people is itself the result of discriminatory practices, residents said. And it was this segregation that turned the neighborhood into a target for the shooter, believed to be an 18-year-old who espoused racist and white supremacist views.

“Someone who is four hours away knows where to come to target black people. You don’t even live in this community but you know where to pick up all the black people. It’s sad,” said Shirley Hart, carrying a plate with one of Marshall’s freshly grilled hot dogs. “It’s the experience of the black person in America. We all face it in one way or another. It may not be that much in our hands, but we experience it.

Downtown Buffalo is on the west side, along the Niagara River that separates New York from Canada. There are green parks with benches or artwork inside. The streets are smooth. The trees are tall and abundant.

But as you drive, and especially once you hit Main Street, the scenery begins to change. The roads become more rugged. The trees are fewer. Empty lots appear more frequently. The corner shops are scattered, but there are also closed shops.

Jefferson Avenue on Buffalo’s east side is the busiest strip in the area. The library, radio stations, hair salons and cigar shops are all across or near the street. The same goes for Tops.

The grocery store was built in 2003 after a sustained community campaign. Before it opened, the neighbors had few supermarket options.

“Everyone goes to Tops because it’s in the neighborhood,” said Tara “Judy” Clark, 58, standing in front of the Buffalo Community Fridge food pantry. She was carrying a tote bag of products she had just picked up from the site.

James Baldwin nodded, adding that on Buffalo’s east side there are few public parks or other spaces to congregate, so locals get to know each other at the peaks. And many residents avoid driving because they are afraid of the police, said Baldwin, 60.

“We like to stay close because we get arrested if we venture out,” he said.

He said just being outside on a street corner — like he was doing at the time, with Clark nearby — makes him nervous because it exposes him to police patrolling the area. You never know when an officer might come along and “make a big deal out of it,” Baldwin said.

“The only time we can have fun or meet other people is when we go to the stores,” Clark said. Now she is afraid to go, fearing that a shooter will target her community again.

“The devil was really, really busy in this man,” she said.

Baldwin quickly replied, “It’s not the devil. It’s America. They made it, they raised it, they put it there.

Buffalo’s large and vibrant black community dates back to the early and mid-1900s, when black people fleeing racist violence from the South came to Buffalo as part of the Great Migration. They were drawn to its tranquility, the freedom it offered from Jim Crow laws, and the abundance of blue-collar jobs. Buffalo was once one of the largest centers of steel and milling flour production, and it was a railroad center.

As the black community grew, redlining, urban renewal, and other practices relegated it to the East Side, which became the beating heart of black life in Buffalo. It has “a lot of cultural history that goes way back, mostly focused on the African-American community,” said Buffalo history professor Carl Nightingale. “Full of all kinds of wonderful blues clubs, jazz clubs, hip hop clubs, barbecues, soul food places.”

Since then, the community has been fighting for recognition and equal status. But there have been many setbacks.

In 1958, authorities built the Kensington Freeway, a freeway project that effectively cut off the area from the rest of the city. Many convenience stores and mom-and-pop shops that depended on traffic to and from downtown for their business had to close.

In 1972 the Buffalo Bills moved from the East Side to the suburbs. Several businesses that served visitors to the football stadium were forced to close.

To this day, if you drive along roads that were once heavily traveled by city commuters, the old structures remain – shuttered storefronts and abandoned houses. Long empty blocks filled with grass and trash.

The last battle is gentrification. Some residents said the government attracts luxury apartments and high-rises to the city center, driving up house prices across the city. East Side residents fear they will be overpriced in their own neighborhood.

“They build it in the community, and the people who live there can’t even afford it,” said Angela Stewart, 61, a pastor who grew up on the East Side but no longer lives there. “I think it’s a little crazy. How are they supposed to get better if you treat them that way? »

Residents say police brutality is also a concern. Yvonne King, who lives near the Tops, said she drove her 16-year-old son to school, even though it was only a few blocks away, because she was afraid of the police.

Despite the challenges, the community has flourished in some ways.

In 2007, East Side members formed the Buffalo United Front to address issues in their community, from policing to food insecurity and education.

In 2016, the East Side Bike Club came to life. Every Saturday, the East Siders don neon t-shirts and ride bikes — with donations for those without — through town. As cars honk in support, residents can see different parts of their community and learn a new way to exercise or get around.

The club offers workshops where residents can learn the rules of the road and fix their own bikes.

On Saturday, they’ll be at Martin Luther King Jr. Park at 9:30 a.m., touring their East Side neighborhood.

They will pass by the Tops which were once a source of community and food. They will mourn the people they have lost and remember another East Side institution that was taken away from them – this time hopefully only temporarily.

“This is America. The system wasn’t built for us, it was built on our backs,” Hart said. which was distributed to us.”

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