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Buffalo plagued by economic neglect, segregation long before filming, locals say: NPR


People hug near a memorial for the victims of the shooting outside Tops grocery store on May 20, 2022 in Buffalo, New York.

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Buffalo plagued by economic neglect, segregation long before filming, locals say: NPR

People hug near a memorial for the victims of the shooting outside Tops grocery store on May 20, 2022 in Buffalo, New York.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Buffalo is one of the most economically stunted cities in the country. It is also one of the most isolated.

In the city’s East Side — where last week black shoppers were mowed down by an accused racist gunman — the contrast is stark.

The Tops grocery store where the murders took place had been a lifeline for many in the community – the only grocery store in the neighborhood for much of the past two decades.

But even in Tops, brought to town after fierce lobbying by neighborhood residents, some say the town’s neglect of its black people was evident.

“It’s like a big 7-Eleven, basically,” Erica Huffnagle said.

Huffnagle and other interviewees describe much higher prices in Black East Side Tops than elsewhere in the city, as well as substandard product quality that would never be tolerated in the more affluent neighborhoods and the whitest in town.

“I don’t shop at this Tops because it’s just one of the worst,” Huffnagle said.

Huffnagle grew up in Buffalo, always wanting to escape the city’s flaws.

“You always knew which parts of town you probably shouldn’t go to as a black person,” she said. “That realization was there even when I was a kid.”

Huffnagle eventually left and spent much of her adult life in New York City. But shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit, her father fell ill and she returned home to help care for him.

She moved to a house off Jefferson Avenue – within walking distance of where the accused shooter targeted black people doing their daily errands.

“I try not to get emotional because Saturday is when I shop,” Huffnagle said.

Although she usually avoids shopping for food at the neighborhood Tops, she enjoys spending time at the library across the street.

On the Saturday of the shoot, rather than making her usual left to get to the library — to the Tops and into the chaos — she snagged a right to grab a coffee first.

She heard about the shooting via a text from her sister as she was about to leave the cafe.

“I was just kind of dumbfounded,” she said. “My convenience store called me, because this is the kind of town I live in, and asked if I was okay.”

Buffalo plagued by economic neglect, segregation long before filming, locals say: NPR

Children walk hand in hand down a street near the scene of a shooting the day before at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, Sunday, May 15, 2022.

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Buffalo plagued by economic neglect, segregation long before filming, locals say: NPR

Children walk hand in hand down a street near the scene of a shooting the day before at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, Sunday, May 15, 2022.

Matt Rourke/AP

City of Good Neighbors

Huffnagle’s experience with its convenience store is not unusual in a place dubbed “the city of good neighbors.”

But for all outward appearances of collegiality, locals here describe a pernicious, barely-simmered undercurrent of racism and apathy toward the city’s poor.

“I want to tell you the truth about my home. The place that is so close to my heart,” said Whitney Walker, northeast director of the interfaith organization Faith in Action.

She described Buffalo as one of the poorest, most segregated and racist cities in America.

“So when our elected officials want to express their surprise and shock that a mass murderer has entered our community, I can’t be surprised,” she said.

Walker’s grim outlook on Buffalo’s racial politics is backed up by research.

A 2018 study by the Buffalo Public Good Partnership described a wide and growing racial and socioeconomic chasm in Buffalo.

“While racial segregation has declined slightly in recent years, economic segregation has increased, leading to neighborhood conditions worsening – not improving – for most people of color in the region,” the study found.

“Segregation imposes a wide range of costs on people of color, compromising their health, education, access to jobs, and wealth. People living in segregated neighborhoods generally have less access to services that support a standard of living adequate, and their economic mobility is severely impaired.”

While black people and other people of color are most affected by the current climate, Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, who does not live in the same neighborhood as the Tops, said the problem can only be solved if white residents use their voice and get involved.

“We have to show up,” Freirich told a press conference on Friday. “We need to stop asking our black brothers and sisters how to solve racism. Trust me, if they knew, they would have solved it.”

“It’s not another neighborhood. It’s all of us. It’s a national tragedy unfolding in Buffalo.”

Freirich said one of the first steps in healing Buffalo is to address the conditions that led a shooter to target that particular Tops grocery store so easily.

“I got up this morning and went shopping in my co-op next to my [Dash’s Market] in my neighborhood and brought milk to my family. But where is it in this community?” he said.

“We’re in the same boat. And someone once said, we’re not all in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm. My boat is next to a supermarket.”

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