Black Buffalo, Food Apartheid, and Residential Segregation

This post is part of our online roundtable on “Black Buffalo.”

Woman carrying Pan-African flag at ‘March for our Lives’ event following Topps mass shooting, June 11, 2022, Buffalo, New York (Shutterstock)

On the afternoon of May 14, 2022, I was sitting at home in my apartment in Buffalo, New York, when I received a text message from my sister asking if I was safe. She had seen online that there was a mass shooting at the Tops Supermarket on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, a grocery store I visit regularly because of its close proximity to my home. As the minutes passed, more and more information came out about the horror that had occurred. On that Saturday, a white supremacist drove three and a half hours from his hometown that is 90% white to the lone supermarket on the East Side of Buffalo, which has a Black population of over 80%.

As a resident of Buffalo since 2015, and as an East Side resident for three years, what happened to the ten Black people that were slaughtered, and the three victims that were injured, is reprehensible; it is beyond words. That Tops Supermarket is in an area that has experienced food apartheid for decades. The term “food apartheid” is used by scholars like geographer Pascale Joassart-Marcelli to highlight the, “racially discriminatory, political, and economic factors that produce food deprivation and have been mostly ignored by the mainstream.” Using the term food apartheid as opposed to food desert clearly signals that lack of food access in certain neighborhoods is an intentional act and not by accident. Since the fall of 2021, I have been studying a neighborhood adjacent to where the mass shooting occurred, called the Fruit Belt. Both areas are part of Buffalo’s broader East Side. While I will focus on the Fruit Belt below, much of this discussion can be applied to the East Side more generally.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, African Americans on the East Side of Main Street in Buffalo shared their residential environment with whites from a variety of ethnic groups including Italian and Irish individuals. The Black community in Buffalo was small, and the neighborhoods on the East Side were racially integrated. As the Black population began to explode in Buffalo due to the Great Migration of African Americans relocating from the South to the North, the white population fled the East Side (early on to other parts of the city and, after World War II, to the suburbs). Premier historian of Black Buffalo Henry Taylor Jr. explained how Black people who moved to the Fruit Belt area thought they were integrating the community, when in reality they were entering an unstable neighborhood that was in the process of undergoing a change in its racial makeup.

Two interactive factors triggered Black migration to the Fruit Belt as it transitioned into a mostly Black community. First, when the Kensington Expressway was built in 1960, it separated the Fruit Belt from the East Side and sharply devalued both properties. Moreover, as Taylor notes, the expressway allowed and encouraged white flight among the neighborhood’s largely German population. Second, urban renewal and removal programs targeted at the broader East Side during the 1950s demolished thirty blocks, including the center of Black Buffalo. This led to many displaced Black residents resettling into the Fruit Belt neighborhood.

In the 1960s, the Fruit Belt became a target of Buffalo’s aggressive campaign to remove dilapidated housing units to make way for new housing units. The city rationalized their proposed actions by arguing that improved housing was critical to the comeback of the Fruit Belt neighborhood. Despite the promise of a regeneration, the end result was the destruction of many homes in the area now known as the medical corridor. The mass demolition of housing in the Fruit Belt, in turn, led to the inability of many Black residents to participate in homeownership and reap the benefits associated with it, especially the development of wealth. Not only did demolition of homes in the Fruit Belt neighborhood physically displace residents, but there was also a loss of community.

In the early 2000s, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) was formed with the help of millions in public and private funds, to create a 120-acre Medical Campus located in the Fruit Belt neighborhood. While local and state government officials viewed the formation of the BNMC—and the subsequent creation of a cancer institute and the University at Buffalo Medical School—as an economic win for a city that had been experiencing economic decline for several decades, Fruit Belt residents felt differently. Urban Planners found that residents in the Fruit Belt were largely unhappy with the changes that occurred in their neighborhood as a result of institutional expansion.

More specifically, residents and community stakeholders of the community argued the following: 1.) not enough money had been invested into the Fruit Belt neighborhood and minority-owned businesses; 2.) residents perceived that physical displacement would occur; 3.) residents of the Fruit Belt and other community stakeholders began to see the name “Medical Park” being used in public meetings with city officials and developers. The name change occurred unofficially and did not involve Fruit Belt residents. The renaming of a historically Black community, they argued, contributed to the marginalization and displacement of Black East Side residents. They, like scholar Davarian L. Baldwin, understand the consequences of living in the shadow of an ever-expanding ivory tower.

My data collection in the Fruit Belt neighborhood has shown that many study respondents are concerned the BNMC will continue to expand into the Fruit Belt residential neighborhood. While residents and community leaders are consistently organizing to stay in their homes, many live with a sense of housing insecurity due to their proximity to the medical corridor. In a recent proposal, Veterans Affairs officials sought to build a new hospital at or near the BNMC,  which has the potential to exacerbate existing gentrification issues in the Fruit Belt.

When we think about what’s next for the Black residents of the East Side after the deadly massacre at Tops, after a century of deep disinvestment, redlining, segregation, and food apartheid, policies that would improve the lives of Black people need to be at the core. The solution is not to allocate more money to police the East Side—the area is already under high levels of surveillance in conjunction with Buffalo law enforcement’s long history of racism, violence, and police brutality against Black and Brown residents. Rather, this time, thoughtful public policy and decisions must be made to protect the East Side in new and different ways that will ensure its success.

 In April 2022, a month before the mass shooting, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced an investment of $225 million in spending on Buffalo’s East Side for workforce training, infrastructure, small businesses, and historic attractions. After the Tops mass shooting in May, Hochul announced there would be an additional $50 million allocated to the East Side of Buffalo to assist struggling homeowners. While this is a start, it is simply not enough. The East Side community is long overdue for reparations for the harm that they experienced at the hands of city officials and urban planners. In addition to reparations, a guaranteed basic income pilot program for low-income residents of the East Side has the potential to address issues of poverty and a lack of a safety net for individuals and families. In the words of former Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton, “I don’t want to hear anything. I want to see action. I want to see legislation. I want to see investments made in communities, so that every person is allowed to be self-determined. I want to see Black communities actually protected and valued. I want to see solutions. I want to see something change.”

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J Coley

J Coley (they/them) is a Sociology Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Instructor at the University at Buffalo. They are an urban sociologist and public scholar who specializes in the areas of race and racism, social inequality, gentrification, and housing. J is a co-creator of the #BuffaloSyllabus and has previously published in Sociological Inquiry. Follow them on Twitter @jcoley716.