Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse. (2022)

BUFFALO — Route 33 tears through the heart of Buffalo’s East Side, a scar in a segregated city that nearly demolished a Black community.

The highway devastated the economies of Black Buffalo’s commercial centers and sucked value from historic real estate, spitting grime and grease onto the windows of neighboring homes.

The East Side, where the Black population here has concentrated for more than 70 years, is hemmed in by Main Street to the west and Eggert Road to the east. Route 33 cuts a gnarly gash between the two. The effect is a community stuck in what locals describe as a cycle of poverty and neglect.

Then the East Side was attacked.

A gunman opened fire on Tops Friendly Market grocery store on Jefferson Avenue on May 14, killing 10 shoppers and employees — all of whom were Black — and injuring three more. An 18-year-old White man was charged with first-degree murder.

A week later another 18-year-old in Uvalde, Tex., shot dead 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school before he was killed by authorities. Over Memorial Day weekend, there were 15 more mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, marking a bloody start to another American summer.

Buffalo, locals say, is a poignant case study of some of the worst aspects of the country’s gun violence epidemic. Investigators say the slayings here were motivated by racist hate, and that the alleged gunman purchased his weapon legally in Pennsylvania.

Locals say the attack feels like a symptom of generations of destructive policies in Buffalo. Now it has worsened another persistent problem: With its main grocery store closed, the East Side is running low on food.

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“We like to call this food apartheid because the absence of these grocery stores is reflective of the range of policy choices and decisions that public and private sector leaders made,” Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo, said.

“The consequences of not having this store open,” said QueeNia AsheeMa’at, a local activist, “is going to be greater than we can all imagine.”

“There is so much need,” said Andrae Kamoche, senior pastor at Rehoboth House of Prayer, a Buffalo church. “And it didn’t just start with the shooting Saturday.”

“There’s a quote,” said Alexander J. Wright, who runs the African Heritage Food Co-op in Niagara Falls, “that says, ‘The fork will kill you faster than the bullet.’ And here in Buffalo, we’re experiencing both, both the fork and bullet.”

It’s a struggle that reveals larger challenges for urban Black communities across the U.S., still struggling with the impacts of redlining that often blocked minorities from homeownership and urban renewal projects that tore up existing neighborhoods and depressed wages and property values.

The tough economic conditions led businesses to locate in more affluent areas where consumers had more spending power, opening the door for others that experts consider “predatory.” The East Side — a community of about 130,000 people — has four major grocery stores, according to a Washington Post analysis, and a couple dozen smaller stores with more limited selection.

Tops was the only major grocery store within Route 33, and one of few places on the East Side for residents to fill prescriptions — another service it supplied in a chronically underserved area. Weighted by population, Buffalo’s majority White areas have 22 percent more pharmacies than its majority Black areas, according to The Post’s analysis of data gathered by market research firm Data Axle.

Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse. (1)

Percentage of the population that is Black

20

40

60

80

100%

Grocery stores

Small neighborhood grocery

Major grocery

U.S.

NEW YORK

Buffalo

CANADA

ONTARI0

Tops

Friendly

Markets

Fort

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Erie

5

main st.

33

Kensington Expressway

was constructed in the

early 1960s

Lake

Erie

190

Downtown

1 MILE

Note: Major grocery stores are stores with at least 10

employees and chain full-service stores, such as Wegmans

and Tops. Other food stores included corner stores.

Convenience and variety stores were not included.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse. (2)

Percentage of the population that is Black

Grocery stores

Small neighborhood grocery

Major grocery

20

40

80

100%

60

U.S.

NEW YORK

Military

North

Park

CANADA

Buffalo

ONTARI0

Grider

Tops

Friendly

Markets

Fort Erie

Grant

Ferry

Martin Luther

King Park

Masten

Park

33

5

(Video) Philadelphia Kensington Avenue, What happened on Monday, June 28 2021.

main st.

Kensington Expressway

was constructed in the

early 1960s

190

Lake

Erie

Downtown

1/2 MILE

Note: Major grocery stores are stores with at least 10 employees and chain full-service stores,

such as Wegmans and Tops. Other food stores included corner stores. Convenience and variety

stores were not included.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse. (3)

Percentage of the population that is Black

Grocery stores

Small neighborhood grocery

Major grocery

20

40

80

100%

60

NEW YORK

U.S.

Military

North

Park

CANADA

Buffalo

ONTARI0

Grider

Tops

Friendly

Markets

Fort Erie

Grant

Ferry

Masten

Park

Martin Luther

King Park

33

5

main st.

Fruit Belt

190

Kensington Expressway

was constructed in the

early 1960s

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Downtown

Lake

Erie

1/2 MILE

Note: Major grocery stores are stores with at least 10 employees and chain full-service stores, such as Wegmans and Tops.

Other food stores included corner stores. Convenience and variety stores were not included.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Even before the shooting, Buffalo’s East Side was a “food desert,” experts say, a term used to describe areas that lack convenient and affordable healthy foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Finding nutritious food is so difficult, residents said, that this shock to local commerce could force thousands of households toward hunger.

Elected officials and civil rights leaders here have pledged to hold accountable not just alleged shooter Payton Gendron, but also the right-wing figures who inspired his attack, and the gunmakers and distributors and social media platforms they say enabled it.

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But some locals see another accomplice, one that has bolstered Buffalo’s racial division: “the 33.”

“How did this guy know to come to this grocery store?” said activist David Lewis. “He researched it. He found out we all lived here. And that’s because we’re segregated.”

‘I live in front of a chasm’

To know Buffalo’s East Side is to know its minor celebrities.

In a past life Stevo Johnson, a charter school teacher, helped style Mary J. Blige. Sirgourney Cook, the first lady of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, is a trained opera singer and performed backup for Jennifer Hudson.

Cariol Horne, a former police officer, stopped a White officer in 2006 from choking a Black detainee to death. She was fired for her actions, then beat back her dismissal in a lawsuit that was resolved in 2021.

There’s a reason they all live here. The Great Migration brought Black families to Buffalo shortly after the Civil War, then again in massive numbers after World War II. They settled on the East Side, said Taylor, the urban studies professor, because that was the city’s industrial hub. They worked and lived alongside mostly White European immigrants, sometimes in the same boardinghouses. There’s evidence, Taylor said, that Blacks taught themselves to speak and write German to better communicate with their neighbors and co-workers.

LEFT: Before Route 33 was built, Humboldt Parkway at Northland was a leafy thoroughfare that connected the East Side to other parts of the city. (Courtesy of The Buffalo History Museum) RIGHT: Route 33 changed the character of the Parkway and so many other parts of the East Side. “It slices through all of those neighborhoods creating a path of destruction and devaluation,” said Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., a professor of urban planning at University at Buffalo. (Courtesy of The Buffalo History Museum)

Eyeing the postwar suburban boom in the 1950s, area political leaders planned a highway — Route 33 — connecting downtown Buffalo to a new airport built in the White suburbs. They chose to run it through the East Side because it had the lowest property values, Taylor said, a common metric urban planners use when deciding where to place major infrastructure projects without disrupting civic life.

The choice may not have been racially motivated, Taylor said, but disproportionately harmed Black Buffalonians nonetheless; Blacks were largely concentrated on the East Side because of existing financial and legal restrictions on housing. City leaders dug out part of Humboldt Parkway, a historic and scenic green strip that connected the city’s park system, for the highway’s route.

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“It slices through all of those neighborhoods creating a path of destruction and devaluation,” Taylor said.

“The tearing up of the parkway ... would not have happened if that had been in a White community,” added New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (D), who represents the East Side.

Today, Buffalo’s East Side is a shell of its former self, with vacant storefronts and empty homes. The highway is a constant source of frustration for residents due to its noise and air pollution.

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White workers fled to the suburbs: Amherst, Williamsville, Clarence, Orchard Park. Black families faced steep obstacles to move into those areas, either because of the price of homes or discriminatory financial structures. Funding for schools followed White families out of the city. Businesses did, too. Over time, as property values fell around the highway and rose in the suburbs, it became harder for families to sell their homes and buy in more affluent areas.

By 2020, Buffalo was the 17th most segregated city in the country, according to data collected by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.

“I live in front of a chasm,” said Emere Nieves, a food security activist whose home borders Route 33. Weekly, she scrapes solidified scum from exhaust pipes off the windows on her oversized porch. “It was colossal what they did, and it was idiocrasy.”

As food runs low, neighbors mobilize

The morning after the shooting, Buffalo’s East Side needed to eat. At a prayer vigil, volunteers arrived with dozens of Paula’s Donuts, an iconic sweet treat here. Two neighborhood safety groups, the Peacemakers and Buffalo FATHERS (Fathers Armed Together Helping to Educate, Restore, and Save), started a cookout, flipping burgers and hot dogs on a three-sided grill.

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“We’ll be here as long as it takes for this supermarket to reopen,” said Lenny Lane, a retired firefighter and co-founder of the FATHERS, “and we don’t know how long it will take. But we’re not going back the way it was. It can’t be just a new coat of paint.”

Inside Family Dollar next door across Landon Street, the mood was more desperate. One mother looked for milk and eggs and fresh fruit with her children. Another asked a cashier if the store sold chicken or beef; it did not. Another customer asked for help identifying what food items he could buy with money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

“I don’t know,” the cashier said. “This is not what we usually do.”

In the days after the shooting, East Side residents came together to get food to their neighbors through cookouts and free food distributions. But residents acknowledged that the loss of Tops was creating a desperate sense of need. “When you create these distant travels to get foodstuffs, you increase the cost of it,” Henry-Louis Taylor Jr. said. “If somebody is paying 40, 50 percent of their income on housing, when they get to the store and they look at a bottle of orange juice for, say, $4, and a bottle of pop for $2, they’re buying the pop every day and twice on Sunday. They’re going to make unhealthy food choices, many people.”

Neighbors with cars — reliable public transportation is not a given here — took friends to the McDonald’s less than a mile away on Main Street.

Tops set up a shuttle to take shoppers from the East Side Tops to another in North Buffalo, but the offer, locals said, was not very enticing. The shuttle ran only a few times an hour, and dropped off back at Jefferson Avenue, leaving customers to haul the groceries back home.

By Tuesday, World Central Kitchen, the food relief agency run by celebrity chef José Andrés, arrived to hand out hot meals on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and East Utica Street, a major intersection.

Locals work for long-term relief

Officials have promised relief, and soon. Tops spokeswoman Kathleen Sautter said in an emailed statement that the store was dedicated to resuming service on the East Side as soon as possible, but executives still don’t know when that will be. Law enforcement has closed the building indefinitely to investigate the shooting.

“Our engineers and construction management team are working closely with local contractors and equipment suppliers to establish the quickest possible timeline for reopening,” Sautter said. “We hope to have a clearer understanding of that timeline in the coming weeks.”

But community members have already begun planning for the future. A group of neighbors is petitioning for a second Tops on the East Side.

“Somebody asked me today, what do I want to see in six months?” said the Rev. Julian Cook, the senior pastor at Macedonia Missionary. “I want to see talks of another grocery store, of another grocery option in the community, a viable grocery option. I’m not talking about putting some fruits and vegetables at a bodega.”

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Others are working with officials to get rid of part of the highway. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) 2022 budget includes $1 billion to cover a portion of Route 33 and lay green space on top of it, recreating a portion of the old Humboldt Parkway.

The project will take years to complete, and New York is competing with other states for funding as part of President Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan.

But tunneling the highway is only a start, community leaders say. The East Side still needs to attract businesses to the area. To do that, residents need more buying power. That requires generational wealth, Taylor said, which means affordable homeownership on property that can appreciate. Residents are already wary of gentrification.

East Side residents fought for five years to bring this Tops to their neighborhood and are bracing for another fight to get more supermarkets into their area. In the meantime, neighbors are working together to make sure everyone has access to fresh food.

In the meantime, community members say they’ll continue working to help one another, even if government officials and private businesses don’t step in.

One recent morning, Andrae and Sharifah Kamoche, husband and wife and the senior pastors of Rehoboth House of Prayer, backed a U-Haul truck into the Family Dollar parking lot and unloaded, by their math, 3,200 pounds of fresh food. A local produce wholesaler donated the items for them to distribute around the city. That afternoon, they had cucumbers, lemons, bananas, oranges and melons.

“The blessings of the Lord,” Andrae said to one client, handing her a crate of 36 cucumbers. “Take a whole box.”

About this story

Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Video editing by Angela Hill. Copy editing by Jamie Zega. Text editing by Amanda Erickson. Data analysis by Sahana Jayaraman and Ted Mellnik. Graphics reporting by Hannah Dormido. Graphics editing by Tim Meko. Design and development by Jake Crump. Design editing by Madison Walls.

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FAQs

Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse.? ›

Buffalo's East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse. Locals say last month's shooting has worsened another persistent problem: With its main grocery store closed, the East Side is running out of food.

Is Buffalo NY A food desert? ›

The Tops in Buffalo's East Side was a lifeline. Residents wonder if it should reopen. With the Tops closed for the foreseeable future as authorities continue to investigate the shooting, the community around it has been left without easy access to healthy and affordable food. In other words, it has become a food desert ...

Where is the eastside of Buffalo? ›

The East Side (East Buffalo) is a large district of Buffalo, New York, and the city's physically largest neighborhood. It is bordered by Main Street to the north and west, I-190 and the Kaisertown neighborhood to the south, and the town of Cheektowaga to the east.

Does New York have food deserts? ›

As CBS2's Lisa Rozner investigates, the inequitable access to healthy and affordable food is something that more than two dozen neighborhoods in New York City experience every day. In some parts of the Bronx, there are more than 35 bodegas for every supermarket, according to the city's Food Policy Center.

Why is Buffalo a food desert? ›

Across Buffalo's East Side, many Black residents live in what is known as a “food desert” — an area with little access to low-cost, healthy selections.

Is the eastside of Buffalo safe? ›

The poverty in which many East Siders live doesn't always translate to high crime rates: yes, the most dangerous neighborhoods in Buffalo are found within this district, but it has its share of quiet areas too.

How many people live on the east side of Buffalo? ›

East Side is a neighborhood in Buffalo, New York with a population of 41,807.

What is considered downtown Buffalo? ›

Downtown Buffalo centers on Main Street from Goodell Street to the Buffalo River. Within this two mile area are three separate centers: the Theater District in the north, the civic and commercial center around Niagara and Lafayette Squares, and the Waterfront area at the south end.

What is the west side of Buffalo? ›

West Side is a neighborhood in Buffalo, New York with a population of 27,125. West Side is in Erie County and is one of the best places to live in New York. Living in West Side offers residents an urban suburban mix feel and most residents rent their homes.

What is considered Northern Erie County? ›

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – A travel advisory has been issued for northern Erie County, including all of Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Lancaster, Alden, and areas north to the Erie/Niagara County line.

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