Since the 1930s, Black neighborhoods have been ranked as financially unstable to dissuade lenders from approving Black homeowners for loans. This meant Black homeowners were subject to different procedures when purchasing a home, which restricted the flow of capital into Black neighborhoods and prohibited Black homeowners from buying in white neighborhoods—reinforcing segregation.
The lack of access to loans also made it more difficult for Black people to open businesses and build wealth, sparking a downward spiral of disinvestment. Today, the impacts of segregation are clearly visible in the resources available in the city of Buffalo. Of the five major employment centers in Erie County, only one is located within the city of Buffalo, and there are 51 census block groups that have limited access to supermarkets. Every single one is located east of Main Street.
“Buffalo is a powder keg,” said Franchelle Parker, executive director of Open Buffalo. “We can’t talk about what happened on Saturday as one isolated event. Buffalo has been a breeding ground for this type of situation to occur.”
Parker said people outside of Buffalo can get involved by helping to change the racist, white supremacist systems that are in place that led to the attack. Parker suggests having conversations with family and friends about the reality of Buffalo’s history and pressing politicians for policies that support the Black community. Many white supremacists involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection have been tied to western New York, a breeding ground for racist ideology.
“We can’t change the system if we ignore the symptoms of it,” said Jillian Hanesworth, the first poet laureate of Buffalo and Open Buffalo’s director of leadership development. “I want people to stop saying ‘this isn’t Buffalo,’ because it is.”
To honor the lives of those who were killed, Parker and Hanesworth say a conversation needs to happen about how decades of policy decisions have starved the East Side of Buffalo of resources, including healthy food, high-paying jobs, and quality housing. Of all people who identify as Black within the city of Buffalo, roughly 85% live east of Main Street, where Tops is the only grocery store they can walk to. Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in the country.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the planning and construction of a highway system through Buffalo cut through the city’s Humboldt Parkway, a tree-lined boulevard that connected its park system. Like many other cities in the Northeast, Black people, neighborhoods, and businesses were disproportionately targeted and affected by plans for “urban revitalization.” Its effects are felt today.
“It’s not just a poor Black neighborhood,” Parker said. “Jefferson Avenue is really the cultural heartbeat of the East Side of Buffalo. And many people in our community see this as not just an isolated attack at Tops, but an attack on the entire Black culture.”
For Masten, Buffalo, Tops was not just a supermarket. It was an anchor in the community where locals would cash their checks, buy food, and connect with each other. With that anchor indefinitely closed, Open Buffalo is serving as a connective hub to help locals find the resources they need, including addressing transportation, food, and mental health needs while the city remains on high alert. Buffalo Community Fridge has set up refrigerators on the street stocked with milk, eggs, fresh fruits, and vegetables to ensure that the community stays fed. The African Heritage Food Co-op is also providing free food delivery and distribution. And Heart of the City Neighborhoods is paying up to 90 days rent for the individuals directly impacted by the attack.
“I believe that our community can get back to our heyday and even greater, but we need policy choices that protect and uplift our people,” Parker said. “There is power that our elected officials have.”
At the time of the shooting, Hanesworth was at a baby shower outside of the city. Once the news broke, her organization’s group chat was in constant communication, and she immediately went to the scene to see how she could support her community. It was a traumatizing experience to see people running to the parking lot trying to identify their loved ones’ cars.
“It was the most intense and pure grief I’ve ever witnessed,” Hanesworth said. “It was something I’ve never seen before, and I hope I never see again.”
Hanesworth has been organizing ever since while processing the traumatic event, and said when she woke up Sunday morning, she realized she had been crying in her sleep.
“I just feel very antsy and desperate to help and to not be in the way,” Hanesworth said. “Black people across the country, we have dealt with so much. We don’t need to be told that we’re resilient. This will almost trick people into normalizing this.”
Hanesworth wants to push against the idea of “Buffalo Strong” and persevering amidst the tragedy, and instead for people outside Buffalo to recognize that the community is deeply hurting.
“We don’t need to know that we’re strong,” Hanesworth said. “We need to know that we’re safe. I just love this community so much. I always say the culture of the city of Buffalo comes out of the East Side. We are really loud. We’re hopeful. We’re musical. And I really hope that beyond people seeing us in pain that they can see that we love each other and that we’re here for each other. We’re not going anywhere.”
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. Our in-depth and thought-provoking journalism reflects the lived experiences of people most impacted by injustice. We tell stories from the ground up to disrupt harmful narratives, and to inform movements for justice. Sign up for our newsletter to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.