Tragedy at Tops
The murder of 10 black people, and the physical and emotional wounds of many others impacted by the tragedy at Tops Market (a major brand name supermarket), in Buffalo, NY on May 14, 2022, when a White male racist entered the supermarket with the intentions to kill as many Black people as possible, will linger for many years to come. The tragedy at Tops on Jefferson Avenue has brought to light some of the severe disparities that continue to persist on the East Side, where most Black people live in the City of Buffalo. In only a few weeks, on July 23, 2023, will be the 20th Anniversary of the opening of Tops on Jefferson; the original opening was met with much optimism and hope for an area of Buffalo that had been underserved for far too long. The massacre at Tops Markets has brought to the surface lingering frustrations from decades of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods for many Black Americans in Buffalo and across the country.
In 2003, Tops Market was the first major brand supermarket to open on Jefferson in decades! Other projects were also happening, such as the renovation of the Apollo, the Frank E. Merriweather Library and the development of a shopping plaza by Bethel CDC. Black contractors and suppliers benefited from all the development by obtaining contracts on these projects The City of Buffalo was providing grants and support to many small businesses on Jefferson Avenue and things were getting done, the Masten District and parts of the East Side were on the Move!
Broken Promises and Shattered Dreams
Unfortunately, a nearly 10–15-year lull of little to no development followed on Jefferson Avenue. In fact, it took almost 10 years to renovate and open the Beverly Gray Center, which I sponsored the legislation dedicating the building in her honor during my time as Council Member for the Masten District. A common practice in Black neighborhoods in Buffalo, scattered-site development, infill housing, and singular or scattered development projects that do not create a critical mass to make a difference on the overall direction of a majority Black community. Sadly, no new major anchor stores, restaurants, or shops were established to bolster Jefferson Avenue for many years.
While a new bank branch and a few apartment buildings have been developed near Tops in the last few years, much of the strip and the surrounding neighborhoods had fallen out of the spotlight, leaving behind countless vacant homes and lots. The number of homes in need of repair, along with closed storefronts and neglected buildings highlighted the need for continued investment in the area. The hope of Jefferson Avenue had all faded to the back.
National Spotlight on the Conditions on Buffalo’s Black Community
I remember the moment I got the call on May 14, 2022, that there was a shooting at Tops on Jefferson. Initially I was sad, then mad, then angry. It was heartbreaking to watch some of the national media coverage and the language that was used to describe my hometown and the neighborhoods around Tops. The references to the uncut and poorly maintained city-owned vacant lots, the numerous homes in need of repair, the high rates of crime, low rates of homeownership, and the fact there was no other supermarket nearby catapulted the East side center stage as a food desert! The media and the nation as whole shed a spotlight on the following disparities: black/white homeownership; the black/white income; the black/white infant mortality rate; the black/white life expectancy and so much more.
Leadership and Action
My community involvement as a young activist, Masten District Council Member, New York State Senator for the 60th District afforded me the opportunity to know some of the victims and survivors of the 5/14 shootings. While serving as Council Member I focused my efforts to bring Tops to Jefferson Avenue and my hope was that the community demanded Jefferson Avenue and the surrounding neighborhoods get the financial support and services they deserve. In 1968 there were riots on Jefferson Avenue, however there was no significant redevelopment in the area until the late 1970s followed by a resurgence of investment again with the Jefferson Renaissance of the late 1990s through the early 2000s. Even after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was little to no investment in the neighborhoods near Tops Market. Unfortunately, many of the plans and studies for Jefferson Avenue in the last 50 years were not completed in their entirety.
As I reflect on the 20th Anniversary of Tops on Jefferson and 5/14, I understand now more than ever, that there is a need for transformative leadership that gets more than a few pet projects done. Unfortunately, a year after the massacre at Tops Market in Buffalo, there has been more talk than action. Hopefully, business, government, faith, and community leaders will demand a comprehensive plan and expedite the implementation in obtaining long overdue results. It is time for revitalization on the East Side! Next week’s article will focus on solutions to improving Buffalo’s East Side and Black Community.