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A Year After Tragedy Gripped Buffalo, Its Black Community Waits For Promises to be Kept

New York state vowed to make $50 million of investments to the East Side of Buffalo, but immediate improvements haven’t been made, residents say.

A makeshift memorial stands outside near the Tops Friendly Markets supermarket on May 20, 2022 in Buffalo, New York, where a self-proclaimed white supremacist murdered 10 men and women at the store. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Rev. Diann Holt lived in a food desert in Cold Springs, the Blackest community in Buffalo, New York, for most of her life — until a racist and deadly mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets supermarket last year.

“I got sick of being deprived of what I should have,” she says about her former neighborhood on the East Side of Buffalo.

Despite the lack of healthy food options, she says leaving Cold Springs would have never crossed her mind until a self-proclaimed white supremacist murdered 10 men and women, ages 32 to 86, inside the East Side’s Tops on Jefferson Avenue on May 14 last year. He targeted the store because it was the only supermarket within a 3-mile radius in one of the most segregated neighborhoods in the country. 

In the year since the racist massacre, residents tell Capital B that as long as there’s only one supermarket in Cold Springs, that location will always be a target for another white supremacist to attack. Residents had also hoped that once their food insecurities made national and international headlines, more would have been done to revamp, revive, and rehabilitate the community. They are still waiting.

“The eyes of the world were on Buffalo, and leadership blinked,” Jerome R. Wright, first vice chair for VOICE Buffalo, a coalition of faith-based organizations that advocates for social justice and equity, says.

Throughout the years, Holt, 75, watched friends and neighbors move to North Buffalo and the city’s West Side, where multiple fresh food supermarkets, drugstores, reliable public transportation, and economic development were readily accessible. 

In the months after the massacre, Holt says that her children rallied around her to make sure she didn’t have to go to the Tops on Jefferson Avenue for any last-minute items. Shortly after the Jefferson Avenue grocery store reopened, a Washington man was charged with making a racist threat of violence at an Elmwood Avenue Tops location. 

She finally moved in February. Holt now lives in North Buffalo and says it seems like there’s a grocery store every five blocks.

“There’s a market, there’s a co-op,” she says. “There’s the things that should be on the East Side of Buffalo, and it ticks me off every time I go down to the East Side of Buffalo and those things are missing.”

‘It’s almost like living in a matrix’

Residents were also outraged that Erie County officials tried to approve a $2.5 million plan last month to buy land in Buffalo to build a multimillion-dollar correctional facility. 

Holt couldn’t believe that any lawmaker in Buffalo would think about building such a facility when families are being evicted and homelessness is on the rise. 

“How dare you,” she says. “It’s almost like living in a matrix, where your expectation is that people will look at what’s real and start working on making changes to those things that beset us. And I don’t see that taking place.”

Wright, along with other community activists, attended a legislative session last month and were successful in stopping a vote to approve the new jail plan. Lawmakers changed their course of action to instead conduct a study on whether building a new facility is needed. 

“Not a brick has been laid on Jefferson Avenue for another store, for a memorial or anything, but they got $250 million to build a jail to lock us up,” he says. “They don’t have the money to provide resources for the community to build it up so that people don’t have a reason to go to jail.”

He was also infuriated by the idea of having a mental health center in the jail and not having one outside for residents in need. 

Alex Wright, founder of the African Heritage Food Co-op, says there’s an already existing problem at the Erie County Holding Center, where incarcerated people are dying, and that needs to be addressed, “not building a new building.”

A vacant home is marked for demolition on the East Side of Buffalo, New York, in 2009. One Buffalo resident says the neighborhood remains an eyesore, with vacant lots and abandoned homes. (David Duprey/Associated Press)

‘We need real, actual system change’ 

Holt says prior to the shooting, there were always grassroots efforts to alleviate food, health, and transportation insecurities in the community.  

But many residents say the mayor and other elected officials haven’t done enough to create real systemic change. A month after the racist attack, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a $50 million investment into the East Side of Buffalo. The governor also committed in March an additional $2.5 million to increase staff at the Buffalo United Resiliency Center — located over 3 miles away from the grocery store — that provides mental health service for the survivors and the families of those who were killed.

Jillian Hanesworth, a Buffalo resident and poet, says she hasn’t seen a significant change and that the East Side of Buffalo remains an eyesore, with vacant lots and abandoned homes that residents don’t own — especially along the Jefferson Avenue corridor.

“We need real, actual system change. We need legislation,” Hanesworth says. “We need to be mindful about how it’s written and how it’s enforced, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t really have a lot of faith that will happen.”

Since the shooting, there have been at least two fundraising efforts — The Buffalo Together Community Response Fund and Buffalo 5/14 Survivors Fund — that reportedly raised millions that went back into nonprofit organizations within the community and to the families of those who died, as well as to survivors and those who worked at or lived nearby the reopened Tops market. 

Some of those organizations, such as Holt’s Durham’s Maternal Stress Free Zone and Alex Wright’s African Heritage Food Co-op, have received some of those donated funds, while others without a nonprofit status, such as Buffalo Community Fridge, leaned on crowdfunding efforts. 

The African Heritage Food Co-op received $3 million from Hochul’s pledge and aims to build a community owned and operated grocery store on the corner of Carlton Street and Jefferson Avenue. Prior to breaking ground on the brick and mortar store, Alex Wright’s organization had been making thousands of grocery deliveries to families throughout Erie County every year. During the first week of May, they did 100 deliveries per day, he says. 

“We’re eight years in and on the ground doing this work,” he says. “We know the type of food people want, the quality they need, the price points they appreciate. And I think those things put us ahead of the game.”

His efforts are reminiscent of the short-lived FIGMOS (Finally, I Got My Own Supermarket) from the 1980s, except his store has members of the community who have a vested interest and stake.

Grassroots efforts such as Holt’s that support expecting and new mothers with free services such as doulas and grief counseling resources are Band-Aids to what elected officials should allocate funds towards in their community. 

“That’s one of the things that I tell people repeatedly, that I’m working to put myself out of business. I mean, why should I exist? There should be no reason for me,” Holt says.

Snow blankets the East Side of Buffalo, New York, in December 2022. Local leaders are calling for elected officials to allocate more resources to the community. (Joed Viera/AFP via Getty Images)

Turning tragedy into activism and advocacy

Some residents remain skeptical about any planned one-year anniversary events. Last year, when Tops reopened, many thought it was too soon and that it should have been razed and reopened at another location. The victims’ names were also left off a memorial water wall inside the store, which offended others.

Some of their loved ones have started organizations and gotten involved in politics. Ruth Whitfield’s sons, Raymond and Garnell Whitfield, launched a nonprofit to fight white supremacy. Zeneta Everhart, whose son Zaire Goodman survived the shooting, is running for city council to represent the Masten District — the area that includes Cold Springs. 

Jerome Wright, who is also the co-director for the HALTsolitary Campaign, and other grassroots organizations have scheduled a community forum on May 11. Residents say that they have been left out of discussions when it comes to changes or decisions in the community, such as when the grocery store reopened 60 days after the shooting. Having public discussions about not having a jail in the community will allow elected officials to understand what other needs they have. 

“On the ground, when it comes to the community members — the people, the regular people, the artists — everybody has just really been making sure that this is not just something that we forget, that this doesn’t become a list of names and 10 moments of silence every year,” Hanesworth says.