Buffalo market reopens to debate healing and sensitivity
Cariol Horne started his morning outside the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, placing white roses on a colorful memorial to the 10 black people killed two months ago by a white gunman.
On the other side of the fenced parking lot, the chairman and employees of the supermarket chain were preparing to lead the media on a preview of the renovated store, a day before it reopens to the public on Friday.
Earl Horne, a 54-year-old activist and retired Buffalo police officer, was among those in the neighborhood who say it’s too soon.
“We pretty much buy people’s blood,” she said. “I think it’s more about putting people to work than letting them heal. … Just two months ago, these people were running for their lives.
Yet even Horne carries the mixed emotions of seemingly everyone in the community, where the store doubled as a gathering place for two decades.
Her 97-year-old father, a World War II veteran, lives close enough to the market to shop there on his own. Tops’ products are fresher than foods available at small neighborhood convenience stores and bodegas, she said. She gets it.
How do you decide how, when, or even whether to let the site of a mass atrocity go back to what it was before it was a crime scene? How do you help people move on without erasing the memory of an event that was so devastating?
It’s quite difficult to answer these questions when it comes to a school, a church, a synagogue. That’s a different kind of difficulty when it comes to a place of business, especially one as central to a community as Tops is east of Buffalo.
It took six months for a movie theater to reopen in Aurora, Colorado after a mass shooter killed 12 people there in 2012. It was a room in a 16-screen suburban cineplex.
Tops is the social center of his neighborhood. That’s why frequent shoppers, store managers and employees, community leaders and those who lost loved ones to the hail of bullets two months ago simply tell The Associated Press: This is complicated.
On the one hand, residents fought for years to win over a grocery store on Buffalo’s east side, which had long suffered from divestment and lackluster economic activity. Tops’ arrival in 2003 was a boon to an area that was considered a food wasteland.
On the other hand, polishing store fixtures and floors falls far short of addressing systemic inequality and unhealed trauma in East Buffalo’s black community, several residents said.
Tops chairman John Persons said Thursday that the company began hearing from customers, community members and city leaders the day after the May 14 shooting. Almost immediately, the company began arranging a free shuttle from the neighborhood to other Tops stores.
Ultimately, the management team was convinced that store associates and most area residents needed and wanted the store to reopen.
“I’ll be honest, these were the people we really wanted to listen to, people who were in the neighborhood, people who were in the Jefferson Avenue neighborhood and the immediate community to find out what they thought of it,” said People. said.
On Friday morning, store associates handed out single carnations to customers as they entered the newly reopened store. Some also received Tops gift cards — the store planned to give out more than 200, a rep confirmed.
“The key to life is to start living again,” said shopper Alan Hall, who lives two blocks from the Jefferson Avenue store. “We are happy that it is open. It looks good. It’s well stocked. Of course, there is always this undercurrent of grief, which will never go away. But it’s good to be back.
The store has a soothing palate of muted grays and greens. Above the entrance are Adinkra symbols, one representing peace and harmony, another hospitality and generosity and a third, farewell and goodbye.
“Everything you see here has been knocked down to the bare walls,” Persons said. “Everything is fresh produce. This is brand new equipment. Everything from the ceiling to the floor has been repainted or redone.
It is also designed to be safer, with a new emergency evacuation alarm system and additional emergency exits. Outside, the parking lot and perimeter have new LED lighting.
Fragrance Harris Stanfield, a Tops customer relations employee, returned to the store Thursday for the first time since the shooting. She had trouble getting past the lobby at first, just inside the entrance.
“I couldn’t really cross the threshold. In that moment, it was just extremely overwhelming, very emotional,” Stanfield said. “But everyone was so supportive and they knew I needed a moment.”
What calmed her down were the water fountains flanking a memorial and a poem displayed in honor of the victims of the shootings. At the foot of the fountain, a sign reads: “To respect the requests of some of the relatives of the victims, the names do not appear on this memorial.
Tops says he is working with state, city and community leaders to create a permanent public memorial to be erected outside the store.
Stanfield said she understands why some think it’s too early to reopen.
“I think there’s still a place of grieving and grieving,” she said. “We’re still in a blame space, where they need a place to focus that energy. And so it’s just concentrated here, which is completely understandable.
Near the entrance to the store, signs labeled “community councils” hung from erected tents. On Thursday, residents watched from behind the fence, some of them angrily, as Tops executives staged the press event.
Part of the anger stems from the feeling that not enough effort has been made to seek out enough voices in the community.
“Nobody went door to door asking people who live within a mile, or four blocks, or even two blocks of Tops, ‘Are you comfortable with this? What do you want here?” said David Louis, another activist who, like Horne, recognizes that others not only miss the goods on Tops’ shelves, but also the good ones in its aisles.
“It’s such a family-friendly store, it’s so close to everyone’s homes,” said Louis, who frequently walked the four blocks to the store wearing Crocs and house pants. “When I’m in Tops, I know these people don’t judge me.”
Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, said reopening a mass atrocity site can be like walking a tightrope. The Buffalo market, in particular, isn’t just a typical business, he said.
“It’s really kind of the hub of this community, and so it has enormous cultural and practical significance,” Neimeyer said. “It’s as important a place to live as it is to mourn.”
Still, he said, “not every mass homicide site in the United States can become a 9/11 memorial, whether in Uvalde or Buffalo.”
He said store managers would send a strong message to the community if Tops directed some of the proceeds from grocery store sales to a scholarship fund.
“That way even shopping in the store becomes a commemorative act,” Neimeyer said.
Mark Talley, the son of Buffalo shooting victim Geraldine Talley, said he grew up going to the Tops on Jefferson Avenue with his mother. Now he hopes to honor his memory through advocacy, community service projects and a fledgling nonprofit.
The 33-year-old also attended the Tops preview event on Thursday and said he understood why there were mixed feelings.
“When I was first asked this question weeks after it happened, I said, ‘No, I want the Tops closed. I just want it to be dedicated to all the loved ones out there,” Talley said.
“But if you do that, then you succumb to defeat,” he said. “I don’t want Buffalo’s east side to look weak. I want us to get stronger than that. Let’s just rebuild it.
Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson contributed to this report. Morrison is a New York-based member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.