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Buffalo plagued by economic neglect, segregation long before shooting, residents say

People embrace near a memorial for the shooting victims outside of Tops grocery store on May 20, 2022 in Buffalo, New York.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
People embrace near a memorial for the shooting victims outside of Tops grocery store on May 20, 2022 in Buffalo, New York.

Buffalo is one of the most economically stunted cities in the nation. It is also one of the most segregated.

In the city's East Side neighborhood – where last week, Black shoppers were mowed down by an accused racist gunman – the contrast is clear.

The Tops grocery store where the killings took place had been a lifeline to many in the community – the neighborhood's lone grocery store for much of the past two decades.

But even at Tops, brought to town after dogged lobbying by neighborhood residents, some say the city's neglect of its Black people was apparent.

"It's like a big 7-Eleven, basically," said Erica Huffnagle.

Huffnagle and others interviewed describe prices much higher at the Tops in the Black East Side neighborhood than elsewhere in the city, as well as a substandard quality of goods that would never be tolerated in the city's more affluent – whiter – neighborhoods.

"I don't shop at that Tops because it's just one of the worst ones," Huffnagle said.

Huffnagle grew up in Buffalo, wishing all the while to escape the city's shortcomings.

"You were always aware of what parts of town you probably shouldn't go into as a Black person," she said. "That awareness was there even as a child."

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

She moved to a house off of Jefferson Avenue – walking distance from where the accused shooter targeted Black people going about their daily errands.

"I try not to get emotional because Saturday is when I do my shopping," Huffnagle said.

While she generally avoids buying food from the neighborhood Tops, she enjoys spending time at the library across the street.

On the Saturday of the shooting, rather than making her usual left to get to the library – towards the Tops and into the chaos – she hooked a right to grab a coffee first.

She got news of the shooting via a text from her sister as she was preparing to leave the coffee shop.

"I was just kind of stunned," she said. "My corner store called me, because that's the kind of city I live in, and asked if I was okay."

Children walk hand in hand in a street near the scene of a shooting from the day before at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sunday, May 15, 2022.
Matt Rourke / AP
Children walk hand in hand in a street near the scene of a shooting from the day before at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sunday, May 15, 2022.

City of Good Neighbors

Huffnagle's experience with her corner store is not unusual in a place dubbed "the city of good neighbors."

But for all the outward appearances of collegiality, residents here describe a barely simmering, pernicious undercurrent of racism and apathy towards the city's poor.

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

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

"So when our elected officials want to express their surprise and their shock that a mass murderer came into our community, I can't be surprised," she said.

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

A 2018 study from Buffalo's Partnership for the Public Good described a wide, and growing, racial and socioeconomic chasm within Buffalo.

"While racial segregation has declined slightly in recent years, economic segregation has increased, resulting in neighborhood conditions growing worse – not better – for most people of color in the region," the study found.

"Segregation imposes a wide range of costs on people of color, impairing their health, education, job access, and wealth. Individuals living in segregated neighborhoods tend to have less access to services that allow adequate standards of living, and their economic mobility is severely impaired."

While Black people and other people of color are the most harmed 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 voices and get involved.

"We need to show up," Freirich said at a Friday news conference. "We need to stop asking our Black brothers and sisters how to solve racism. Trust me, if they knew, they would have solved it."

"This is not some other neighborhood. This is all of us. This is a national tragedy taking place in Buffalo."

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

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

"We are in this together. And somebody once said, we are not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm. My boat is next to a supermarket."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.
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