BUFFALO, NY — People here simply call it “Jefferson Ave,” a historic neighborhood on Buffalo’s near East Side.
Jefferson Avenue and surrounding streets form a place where people live and work and shop. It’s a place where you can buy books, coffee, clothing, and groceries. A record shop here once nurtured the musical interests of a young Rick James.
It’s a place where community members know each other like family, people who live here say, and look out for each other like family, too. Elders gather to pass the time, sitting in cars parked beneath the shade of trees that dot the perimeter of the Family Dollar parking lot. People who used to call it home still come back, drawn by the pull of family, friends, and community.
Then, on a Saturday afternoon, a stranger arrived.
A white, 18-year-old gunman drove three hours from his home in the Southern Tier to the Tops Friendly Market store and opened fire, officials say. Ten people were killed and three others injured in the racially motivated shooting.
Eleven of the 13 victims were Black.
Jefferson Avenue runs north and south through the city’s East Side, where 78% of the residents are people of color, according to a 2019 economic development report. Forty-two percent of the city’s residents live on the East Side, and 40 percent of the city’s working-age population call it home. American Community Survey data show that the median household income in area that encircles the market is less than $25,000.
In a matter of minutes, the attack transformed the tight-knit neighborhood into an epicenter of raw grief and outrage.
‘Everybody comes back to the community’
Glen Marshall, who is from the area, was drawn to the Tops on Saturday by the same sense of connection that draws people back. He wasn’t present during the shooting, he said, but it’s important to be present now.
“This is the neighborhood Tops, this is the Black community — this is the heart of the Black community,” he said. “If we don’t live in this community, we grew up in this community. Everybody comes back to the community.”
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About a mile and a half from Tops, a coffee shop in the Five Points neighborhood overflowed with patrons on this warm Sunday morning. At a pop-up flea market in Buffalo’s Elmwood neighborhood, shoppers meander through the stalls, purchasing, perusing and turning strangers into friends.
Meanwhile, in the Jefferson Avenue neighborhood, the normalcy of daily life had disappeared. Hundreds of people crowded together near the scene of the shooting, mourning together in a vigil and march.
But they began gathering well before then. Before outsiders descended on their community, neighbors were there, supporting each other.
Misty Walker, a lifelong Buffalonian, was mourning one of the victims, a retired Buffalo police officer working in the store as a security guard who confronted the shooter. She called him a “good, good man.”
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What’s left, what may come
Marshall, who was there Saturday afternoon, too, hopes the scene of all this horrific death will also be the birth of some sort of change.
“They ought to build some kind of memorial,” Marshall said. “Some movement needs to come out of this here. They ought to dedicate the rejuvenation of this whole area here and put up some kind of shrine to them. This is horrific.”
Many residents on the East Side are older, with low incomes and limited transportation. Lemar Williams, who has lived in Buffalo since the 1970s, had planned to take his nephew from him to work at Tops that Saturday. But his nephew of him got a call that he did not have to go to work that morning — moments later, he found out why.
Like many in the neighborhood, Williams wants to know why no one stopped the shooter before he executed the plans he’d posted online.
“I want to know why the government didn’t have no scope on this kid,” Williams said. “The government got a scope on everybody, so why didn’t they have one on this young man that assassinated and killed people?”
Walker said: “I picked Buffalo because it’s a highly populated Black area. It’s a shame it happened at this Tops. This is people’s Tops.”
Jemar Amine, Williams’ nephew, was outside the Tops following the shooting. The 21-year-old was visibly shocked and hurt — his friends of him were working in the store at the time of the shooting.
“Buffalo is Buffalo,” he said. “(Racism) ain’t nothing new. I can’t even say that’s crazy.”
Marshall worries people won’t want to shop at the Tops anymore, haunted by the massacre that unfolded in the heart of their community. But Williams pointed out a more immediate concern.
Along Jefferson Avenue, where many people don’t have cars, Tops is their only grocery store. Tops later announced free bus shuttle service to their next closest location, and community groups would begin finding ways to provide groceries to those in need.
But in the immediate wake of tragedy, in a neighborhood forced to grapple with overwhelming questions of “why” and “how,” Williams asked one more.
“Where are we supposed to shop at tomorrow?”
Follow Adria R. Walker on Twitter at @adriawalkr
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism