BUFFALO, NY – People here simply call it “Jefferson Ave,” a historic neighborhood on the city’s near East Side.
Jefferson Avenue and surrounding streets form a place where people live and work and shop. It’s a place to buy books, coffee, clothing, groceries. A record shop here once nurtured the musical interests of a young Rick James.
Community members know each other like family, people who live here say, and look out for each other like family, too. Elders gather to pass the time sitting in cars parked beneath the shade of trees that give the perimeter of the Family Dollar parking lot. People who used to call it home still come back, drawn by the pull of family, friends and community.
Then, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, a stranger arrived.
A white 18-year-old gunman drove three hours from his home to the Top Friendly Markets store and opened fire, officials say. Ten people were killed and three others injected in a shooting authorities believe was racially motivated. Eleven of the 13 victims were Black.
In a matter of minutes, the attack transformed the tight-knit neighborhood of Jefferson Ave into an epicenter of raw grief and outrage. The community was overwhelmed with questions, as people struggled to make sense of the unimaginable: Why Buffalo? How could this have happened? What will they do now?
Glen Marshall was drawn to the Tops on Saturday by the same sense of connection that draws people back to this neighborhood even after they’ve moved away. He wasn’t present during the shooting but said it’s important to be present now.
“This is the neighborhood Tops. This is the Black community – this is the heart of the Black community,” said Marshall, who is from the area. “If we don’t live in this community, we grew up in this community. Everybody comes back to the community.”
Jefferson Avenue runs north and south through Buffalo’s East Side, where 78% of the residents are people of color, according to a 2019 economic development report. Forty-two percent of the city’s residents live on the East Side and 40% of the city’s working-age population call it home. The American Community Survey data show that the median household income in the zip code area that encircles the Tops market is less than $ 25,000.
On Sunday, hundreds of people crowded together near the scene of the shooting, mourning together in a vigil and march.
But they began gathering well before then. Before outsiders descended on their community, neighbors were there, supporting each other.
Just hours after the shooting, dozens of neighborhood residents congregated in the parking lots and sidewalks near the tops. Two older men had been sitting in their usual spot, a parked minivan, when one of them heard gunshots. He was in shock, he said, and couldn’t shake the question from his mind – why had the gunman picked Buffalo?
Five longtime residents of the neighborhood, all in their 30s and 40s, stood watching the scene unfold after the shooting. All of them, rattled by what had occurred.
Misty Walker, a lifelong Buffalonian, was mourning one of the victims, a retired Buffalo police officer working in the store as a security guard who confronted the shooter. She called him a “good, good man.”
Many residents on the East Side are older, with low incomes and limited transportation. Lemar Williams, who has lived in Buffalo since the 1970s, had planned to take his nephew to work at Tops that Saturday. But his nephew got a call that he didn’t have to go to work that morning – moments later, he found out why.
Like many in the neighborhood, Williams wants to know why no one stopped the shooter before he executed the plans he’d posted online.
The suspect may have been known to the police. Last year, the suspect threatened an attack at his high school, resulting in a referral for a mental health assessment, a law enforcement official told USA TODAY on Sunday. The incident was reviewed by state authorities at the time.
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On Sunday, Takesha Leonard of Buffalo cried during a prayer vigil across the street from the Tops.
“I want to know why the government didn’t have any scope on this kid,” Williams said. “The government got a scope on everybody, so why didn’t they have one on this young man that assassinated and killed people?”
Jemar Amine, Williams’ nephew, was outside the tops following the shooting. The 21-year-old was visibly shocked and hurt – his friends were working in the store at the time of the shooting.
“Buffalo is Buffalo,” they said. Racism “ain’t nothing new. I can’t even say that’s crazy.”
Marshall was concerned people wouldn’t want to shop at the tops anymore, haunted by the massacre that unfolded in the heart of their community.
Williams was worried about a more immediate concern: Along Jefferson Ave, where many people don’t have cars, Tops are their only grocery store.
Tops has since announced a free bus shuttle service to the next closest location, and community groups have begun organizing to help provide groceries to people in need.
But in the immediate wake of tragedy, in a neighborhood forced to grapple with overwhelming questions of “why” and “how,” Williams asked one more:
“Where are we supposed to shop at tomorrow?”
Adria R. Walker is the Upstate New York storytelling reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s New York State Team. Follow her on Twitter at @adriawalkr.