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The Tops in Buffalo's East Side was a lifeline. Residents wonder if it should reopen

Flowers are left at a makeshift memorial outside of the Tops market on May 15 in Buffalo, N.Y.
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Flowers are left at a makeshift memorial outside of the Tops market on May 15 in Buffalo, N.Y.

Ask just about anyone over the age of 30 in Buffalo's East Side neighborhood and they'll know the day the Tops grocery store on Jefferson Avenue opened.

It was July 2003.

"I remember it was a big deal," Tommy McClam said. He said he was young when it opened. McClam is now the senior director of boys and men of color initiative within the Say Yes to Education organization.

For a long time it served as far more than just a grocery store.

"It was the village watering hole," McClam said. "It was more than just a Tops grocery store. It was a lot bigger than that for that community."

That sense of community was shattered last weekend when a gunman killed 10 members of this neighborhood. The store has been shut ever since, and the company said it may be some time before it reopens.

Tops Supermarket said in a statement Wednesday that they "are committed to opening up this community store as soon as we possibly can."

But the company said it's unable to commit to a specific timeline for reopening due to the ongoing police investigation, not knowing the condition of the store, and wanting to give staff and the community time.

That's a tough pill to swallow for many people who relied on that store. Residents fought for nearly a decade to get a full service grocery store opened on the East Side — an area that is otherwise a food desert.

People gathered outside of Tops market embrace on Sunday.
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People gathered outside of Tops market embrace on Sunday.

A Tops press release from when the store opened said then that the 29,000 square foot store was the "first full-scale supermarket to serve the Jefferson Avenue community in several decades."

According to that press release, this store was the first such grocery store since an A&P market occupied the same corner during the 1960s.

"To the people who live near the Tops supermarket that opened last week on Jefferson Avenue, the rainbows of fresh produce and aisles stocked with rows of cans, boxes and bags are a testament that there's hope for a better future in their community," reads a story from The Buffalo News a few days after the store opened.

It took a lot to get that Tops built, pastor Tim Newkirk told NPR. He is a local historian of sorts, as well as a pastor for GYC Ministries. He says he was part of an effort to get the market built.

"We had rallied together, signed petitions, got the community leaders and spiritual leaders involved" in order to press the city officials and Tops to open a market on Jefferson, he said.

"It was a strong, but well worth the fight," he said.

An archived article from the Orleans Times Herald said the project took two years to complete and was delayed because regulatory approvals took so long.

When construction began, Newkirk said the people building the store were workers of the neighborhood.

"To have our people working on that very site, it gave a wholesomeness to our community, it gave a sense of value, a sense of worth, because we were the ones to put the bricks down, the mortar down," he said.

The attack on the elders of the neighborhood and their store has fractured that feeling, Newkirk said.

"It knocked down the morale and the wholesomeness of a vibrant, thriving African American community."

Less than a week after the attack, neighbors are unsure what they make of the idea of reopening. For many, it's just too soon to consider.

Others want the store to reopen to prevent the return of a food desert. They also believe reopening will be fighting back against the gunman who sought to hurt them.

Pictures of the 10 people killed in last Saturday's shooting at Tops market are set up before the start of a vigil on Tuesday. If Tops does reopen, one idea is to make a piece of the store a memorial to the victims.
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Pictures of the 10 people killed in last Saturday's shooting at Tops market are set up before the start of a vigil on Tuesday. If Tops does reopen, one idea is to make a piece of the store a memorial to the victims.

Larry Stitts, owner of Golden Cup Coffee, proclaimed during a vigil this week that the Tops will reopen.

"We're not gonna let Jefferson die. We're gonna build it up. We're not gonna let that Tops close. We're gonna open them doors!" he shouted to applause from the crowd in attendance.

Others are not so sure they will ever go back inside the store.

"That's sacred ground. A lot of people lost their lives there for no reason at all," said Michael King, a member of the Buffalo Peacemakers. "So I think they should just get rid of that and just build a new supermarket."

In a meeting with some of the kids he works with, McClam heard some share an idea to make one piece of the store a memorial to the victims.

They are considering proposing a mural for one wall with plaques made out to each of the victims. On top of that, the kids talked about creating a scholarship in the names of each of the victims.

"Then at that point, Tops doesn't become a place of sadness, a place of mourning, but a place of life," he said.

Franchelle Parker, the executive director of Open Buffalo, said this may be an opportunity for improvements to be made to the store. Her office for Open Buffalo is just down the road from Tops. She and others would often run in to grab last minute items for events.

Parker, and others that spoke to NPR, said though the grocery store was important, it often didn't have the best quality produce and regularly ran out of items.

Parker said she's heard a lot of gripes from people who think the store definitely needs more options if it does reopen.

At this early stage, with the shock and raw emotions from the immense loss of Saturday's attack still so fresh, she isn't sure if she will go back to the store if it were to reopen.

"I don't know how I feel going back into this location," she said. "So we need something, but I don't know if this current structure is it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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