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Tops is more than a Buffalo supermarket

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Saturday's mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., happened at not just any grocery store. The Tops market on the city's East Side was a store Black residents had fought for years to get built, but it's now closed while investigators process the crime scene. NPR's Adrian Florido reports on what this means.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hours after Saturday's shooting, a reporter asked New York Governor Kathy Hochul where people who shopped at the Tops were going to get their groceries now.

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KATHY HOCHUL: There's families that are still finding out that their loved one is not coming home to dinner tonight. People can get their groceries tomorrow.

FLORIDO: People who know the city's East Side said it seemed the governor didn't realize the store's temporary closure was more than a minor inconvenience.

TRICE SMITH: We don't have much over here. You know, we don't have markets on every corner. You know what I'm saying? We have people that don't have cars.

FLORIDO: Trice Smith and her mother are longtime Tops' customers. Her mom shops there every Saturday.

SMITH: Every Saturday.

FLORIDO: So when she learned of the shooting, Smith's first concern was, was her mom OK? Then it was figuring out how to rework her schedule to get her mother food until the store reopens.

SMITH: It's not going to be easy. We worrying about food, and we worrying about if we're safe getting the food.

FLORIDO: The Tops market on Jefferson Avenue is in the heart of Buffalo's Black East Side, and it's the only grocery store people who live here can walk to.

DELLA MILLER: I just said, oh, my God, that's the only Tops we have in the community.

FLORIDO: Della Miller is a food activist who helped convince Tops' executives to build the store almost 20 years ago. Before then, she used to set up a produce stand nearby.

MILLER: Cases of greens and tomatoes and peppers and we would actually sell them on the street. That was how desperate we were to get fresh produce.

FLORIDO: When the Tops opened in 2003, people were thrilled.

MILLER: You know, we have a Tops. We have a Tops. They were so happy - you know what I mean? - because that was extra dollars in their pocket not having to pay for transportation or getting on the bus.

FLORIDO: The store became an important hub, a place to meet for a fried fish dinner or to pick up a prescription. There's a bank inside. The weekend's racist attack did not only cut short 10 lives, it forced the community to answer a question that most richer, whiter neighborhoods would never face after a similar attack - now how do we eat?

SAMINA RAJA: When there aren't food resources, how do people adapt? And what are the social networks and relationships that help them survive in times of crises?

FLORIDO: Samina Raja is a Buffalo urban planner, food researcher and activist. In the last two days, it's those social networks, she said, that have been getting people through. People have mobilized.

RAJA: We have a farmer on the East Side who's a Black farmer, trying to figure out when she's going to do deliveries. Another person is trying to figure out where there will be cold storage. They have not slept.

FLORIDO: Tops is shuttling customers without cars to other stores. Ride-hailing companies are helping too; so are food banks. No community should have to scramble to find food like this, Raja says. But this, too, is what racism looks like.

RAJA: The community recognizes that there isn't going to be a response, and that's been the case for too long. They're not going to sit around and figure out who's going to come and bring food to them.

FLORIDO: Tops' executives have promised the store on Jefferson Avenue will reopen. Jaylon Jones, who was standing next to the crime scene tape around the parking lot, said he's glad about that.

JAYLON JONES: If you Black and you grew up in around this neighborhood, you know what this Tops means to you.

FLORIDO: But shopping there, he said, won't ever be the same.

JONES: He took that from us. He took that from us.

FLORIDO: It'll be a place to buy food because there is no other place - because you have to, not because you want to.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Buffalo, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.