“I don’t know… looks mighty white.” A friend and I were driving across New York’s Southern Tier, headed west on NY17/I-86 to Buffalo, his first trip there, and we had taken up a kind of call and response: “You wait, you’re going to like Buffalo; it’s a Black city.”
That wasn’t exactly true. Buffalo is 35 percent Black. But as the killer discovered while planning a drive from the same region of the state many years later, a lot depends on your zip code. Mine is 76.7 percent Black. Besides the numbers, our destination, my childhood home, is on the East Side. When I was a girl, those two words pretty much denoted that you were either Black (living nearer to the downtown) or Polish (living a bit farther east). Things have changed a lot over the decades—not many Poles remain, a lot of Bangladeshis arrived—but from at least the time I rode buses past Main Street to the West Side and high school, the city stamped itself in my consciousness as not just divided but profoundly, culturally Black. “I feel very comfortable here,” my friend said when we finally arrived at the house, sitting on the front porch sipping beers, nodding to passers-by, a Black man and a Polish gal waiting for dusk.
The day after the massacre I googled “Black population Buffalo by zip code.” One of hundreds of fragmentary news reports had said the killer chose his target, Tops Market at 1275 Jefferson Avenue, by zip code. I didn’t try to navigate the drab tables of government data but simply followed my search engine’s most straightforward recommendation, to a “color coded Zip Code Heat Map” with one bright red patch: 14208. Population 13,207, 84.94 percent Black, the highest percentage in the city, 13th highest in the state, 231st in the nation. Only some New York City codes were ranked higher, but New York presents itself as too discomfiting, an alien fortress, for many who live upstate; in all events, though closer than Buffalo, it was shunned by the killer, who’d spent his 18 years cosseted in a town of about 5,000 called Conklin, with 30 African Americans, according to the Heat Map, 15 Puerto Ricans, 8 Native Americans, 7 Chinese, 6 Mexicans, and a handful of others he might deem enemies.
The Heat Map’s data might not be correct (I have since seen differing figures for 14208), but ‘correct’ is a word abhorrent for the machinations I am trying to grasp. I imagine the killer scanning the map of the known world, courtesy of the administrative state and numerous private enterprises that depend on US Census data. Binghamton, the nearest city to him, a college town calling itself the Carousel Capital of the World, has only about 45,000 people, and 69 percent of them are white. It is already notorious for a mass shooting, in 2009, when a naturalized citizen from Vietnam attacked an immigrant center where he had been studying English, killing 13 and then himself. Syracuse, an easy drive up I-81, has a large university right off the highway, but the Heat Map says SU’s zip vode is only 22.12 percent Black, and the students who mass in one place—the quad, the little joints on M Street, the pretty stretch of Walnut Park—are a mix, even when they self-segregate. Buffalo is the second-largest city in New York, 255,000-plus souls.
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A “majority minority” city now, it is 43 percent white. I don’t know what high-schoolers learn about their state anymore, but the City of Good Neighbors’ history is linked to waterway commerce, grain milling, heavy industry, the railroad (Underground and over), immigration, electrification, President McKinley’s assassination by the Polish anarchist Czolgosz, the Niagara Movement, the Great Migration, the Long Hot Summer, Rick James, Bob Lanier, white flight, militancy and kneecapping of the working class; and decades of reporting on steel, auto parts, discrimination, decline, separate ethnic neighborhoods (no one named Connolly or Corleone would have lived on my street growing up), urban poverty, urban “renaissance,” Buffalo Bills football, and Black political leadership. At least some of that must filter through to youth in the state’s unnoticed tiny towns, because, in good times and bad, Buffalo is a city that is talked about.
It is said that the killer had never been to Buffalo before. MapQuest calculates the drive from southern Broome County as taking at least three hours and 40 minutes, but people typically speed. Maybe he did, and was either vigilant or lucky, because police are typically well deployed to issue tickets. Drivers familiar with the most direct northwesterly route of sweeping curves and changing elevation carry at least a rough map of speed traps in their head. The killer carried some version of the Heat Map, the bull’s-eye red of his destination as well as lighter red zip codes radiating through the East Side. A brief report in the Buffalo press cited a police source as saying that the killer was aware of other zip codes, options.
Jefferson Avenue stands out on any street grid of 14208 as a north-south thoroughfare, easily accessible via an expressway. But Jefferson isn’t just any avenue; nor is that Tops just any supermarket. A recently erected arch spanning part of nearby Michigan Avenue proclaims the African American Heritage Corridor, a designation adopted by the state to preserve some 19th-century buildings important to Abolitionist activity and the early civil rights movement, as well as the Colored Musicians Club, founded as a union in 1917 because of racism barring Blacks from the dominant guild, and quickly expanded as an after-hours spot which drew some of the most famous names in jazz. This small area is envisioned as the tourism anchor for a wider public-private-nonprofit economic development strategy for the East Side. “Heritage” can be elusive, though, especially when, as on the East Side, so many of its physical markers are gone. Most construction on Jefferson Avenue now is new, much of it built just in the past few years, yet in the mid-20th century “Jefferson” was synonymous with the heart of the Black community and emblematic of the trajectory of the city, and the nation.
The avenue was chockablock in the 1960s with people, cars, clubs, businesses, density. Like the wide east-west commercial streets that intersect it—Clinton, William, Broadway, Sycamore, Genesee—it thrummed with activity, with music from radios and Doris Records in the summer, and the sound of sidewalk banter—the working class at home. Unlike those streets running farther east, the avenue didn’t eventually segue to white, meaning Catholic churches and Polish gin mills on the corner of side streets with Polish names. Jefferson was Black. That hadn’t always been so, as, much earlier, parts of the avenue had been home to Jews and various immigrant groups just starting out in the city. As a child, I didn’t know about redlining and housing discrimination or greedy landlords and racialized job designations in the steel mills. I thought the Blacks stayed on the East Side the way the Poles stayed, while the Germans and the Jews and most of the Puerto Ricans moved on. And Jefferson had cachet: an address always in the air from notices on WUFO and WBLK radio; near to the magnificent Humboldt Parkway and edged by Canisius College and the Hamlin Park neighborhood; home to War Memorial Stadium, where the Bills played from 1960 to 1972, at the corner of Best Street; a block from Fosdick-Masten high school, with its gleaming façade of white terra cotta tile; down a few blocks from the Vermillion Room on East Ferry and Gigi’s restaurant; home to The Challenger and Martin Sostre’s Afro-Asian Bookshop. If “Jefferson” was deployed by some whites as code for “the ghetto,” it also signified a dynamic Black world at a time when the freedom movement, the student movement, the peace movement, and their many cultural reverberations made city life seem thrilling.
When Tops opened in the summer of 2003, the thrill had gone. Jefferson was windswept. “Absence” is the word that comes to mind. Vast tracts of emptiness, on Jefferson, as well as on those big east-west streets of once-crowded sidewalks, the ones that decades earlier had inspired Arlester “Dyke” Christian to write “Funky Broadway.” It was as if half the city had been rubbed raw. Jefferson symbolized everything that had happened in between and, maybe more important, all that had not.
The expressway that likely brought the killer to Jefferson Avenue, and which forms the eastern boundary of 14208, perpetrated a slower, quieter devastation on the community. It had been planned in the 1950s, part of a nationwide strategy of sacrificing Black or mostly Black neighborhoods in the service of white suburbs. As the historian Mark Goldman has explained, this one was sold to the public with illustrations and aerial projections that made it look benign, even leafy. It was completed in 1967, a concrete gash that eviscerated Humboldt Park and plunged streets and residents into chaos. On the East Side, people mourned. Later, when an extension was mooted into a heavily Puerto Rican West Side neighborhood, people organized. Buffalonians have not stopped organizing, and the prospect of burying or otherwise modifying the expressways to repair the city fabric is now a real possibility.
What a kid like me hadn’t realized was how raggedy that fabric already was. White people had been stampeding out of the city: 80,000 of them, 20 percent of the population, had already abandoned Buffalo for the suburbs between 1950 and 1960. The Poles hadn’t all stayed, and more would leave after that “long, hot summer” of 1967. The revolt in Buffalo began on June 26 when police interjected themselves into an argument at a housing project. The cops didn’t kill anyone, as they would in Detroit a few weeks later, and the use of physical brutality on that evening is contested. What was indisputable were people’s descriptions later of the daily spiritual and psychic brutality of interactions with police: the relentless degrading language and actions, the surveillance of political dissidents, the regular experience of harassment and suspicion. The next afternoon, a small group of teenagers at the corner of Jefferson and William Street began breaking car and store windows. By nighttime, hundreds of police and about 1,500 residents were battling. Then came the fire, on Jefferson, on other streets. When it was over, on July 1, 40 residents were injured, about half from gunshots, and a swath of the East Side was smoldering. In a meeting with the mayor, young people had said they were tired—tired of being lied to, tired of never being heard. Violence seemed to be power’s only language. They wanted jobs, decent housing, equal treatment, a future.
I don’t remember how my mother explained the riots, but what I took away was that sometimes people have to blow off steam. I imagine her approach now as akin to a parent talking to a child about a natural calamity: The hurricane was terrible, but don’t be afraid; we will rebuild. Only we didn’t rebuild. Land was cleared for urban renewal and then just sat vacant. Most of the official promises of jobs were not kept. Law enforcement’s approach to the community did not change. The radical thinker and activist Sostre was scapegoated for the uprising (charges that were later dropped) and sentenced to 41 years in prison on a phony charge of possessing $15 worth of heroin. Yet there was energy on the East Side. “War” played from a thousand radios, and then “Keep Your Head to the Sky.” People won political or legal victories over discrimination in the steel industry and in education. More money circulated as more Black workers, including women, got better-paying jobs in steel. And a flurry of agitation, investigation, litigation, uncovered what people knew in their bones about block-busting, racist lending practices, and other affronts to the Fair Housing Act. Martin Sostre, who had become a major voice for prisoners’ rights and whose frame-up was revealed as a COINTELPRO hit, was freed in 1976, granted clemency by the governor. So much was clear and yet occluded, contradictory, patched together, but the political culture still seemed to be pointing left; it really depended on where you were looking.
When Tops opened on Jefferson, almost a quarter-century had passed since the collapse of steel began the deindustrialization of Buffalo, a many-times-told tale. At least 10 years had passed since people, trapped in a food desert, had begun agitating for a supermarket. The Tops chain received $1.5 million in public financing to locate there. When the project was announced, it was wrapped in the boosterish language of development, as if a convenient place to buy food were an amenity, an emblem of progress, and not a bedrock necessity. No question, people in the community were glad. More than 400 reportedly applied for 105 jobs, most of them part-time, at minimum wage. Tops has fresh produce, breads, meats, and fish; specialty items as well as basic goods; and standardized prices across its locations, vital for people long exploited by price gouging. But hoopla over a supermarket as a symbol of your-government-at-work reflected the alternate reality inhabited by the local white media and by city, state, and even national politicians who inflated it at the time the ribbon was cut, and whose attitude toward Black Buffalo for decades has been largely one of neglect. Years more passed after the ribbon-cutting, and with the notable exception of the wonderful Merriweather Library, people looked upon a landscape of want. The building density visible in televised images now is a clear improvement, and yet so many people in the area remain insecure—in terms of housing, income, health.
The spirit of the people who held on—and it cannot be overstated that the East Side has survived because of those people, including the roll of the long and most recent dead—is evident now in the wake of horror. It is memorialized in the names, and the ages, of those killed: Ruth Whitfield, 86: Pearl Young, 77; Katherine Massey, 72; Heyward Patterson, 67; Celestine Chaney, 65; Geraldine Talley, 62; Aaron Salter Jr., 55; Andre Mackniel, 53; Margus Morrison, 52; Roberta Drury, 32. It is exemplified in the outpouring of mutual support. In love and in rage. In endeavors that have grown up from the roots. In commoning projects like the African Heritage Food Co-op, dedicated to providing healthy food and recreating social relations, with its concept of inclusive regenerative ownership. “We are not terrified. We are tenacious,” the co-op’s founder, Alex Wright, tweeted out four days after the massacre.
Everyone should have some perfect moments to say, “I feel very comfortable here.” Many moments… I have a hard time believing anyone could, or should, be able to say that for every moment of every day of every passing year. Reality of what is weighs too heavy. People couldn’t be comfortable even going to a supermarket… There’s a map in my head (in addition to the rough guide to speed traps) whenever I drive across New York State. It was compiled by a Professor Wilbur Henry Siebert, who lived almost 100 years, from 1866 to 1961. The print depicts only county borders, water features and the route of the NY Central Railroad from Buffalo to New York, but it is heavily marked with hand-drawn red-pencil lines. One of them retraces the 90-degree route of the railroad, paralleling the Erie Canal and the Hudson River, but most create a kind of jazz, merging, breaking, looping, diverging and sometimes abruptly coming to an end, across every county in the Southern Tier and the western half of New York. It’s a map of Underground Railroad routes to Canada, across the waters. It’s in my head not actually to track down but to keep conscious of history, all the hidden tenacity and all that it demands.