By Ken Kolb, author of Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate

The mass murder of ten Black residents in Buffalo on May 14th was a horrific act of racist terrorism. The fact that it took place in a grocery store—Tops Friendly Market—added unspeakable pain. Tops had been a symbolic victory for Black residents who had fought for years to recruit the store to the east side of Buffalo. It was a lifeline in an area plagued by retail inequality and a history of racist housing policies.

To understand the significance of Tops to the local community, we have to look back several decades in the history of east Buffalo. At that time, that side of the city was almost exclusively white. In 1950, the census tract where the grocery store is located today was three times more densely populated and held less than 5% Black residents. What happened?

In post WWII America, interstate highway and infrastructure projects across the country paved the way for white households to flee the urban core and build equity in new suburban developments. This “white flight” drained resources from the city centers, just as discriminatory real estate practices funneled black households into those abandoned neighborhoods to fend for themselves. 

According to a 2018 report by the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo area think-tank, the east side of the city experienced the whole panoply of racist housing tactics. From racially restrictive covenants, to redlining, to blockbusting: Buffalo has seen it all.

This is how America made “the poor Black neighborhood.”

Over time, as the housing stock deteriorated on the east side of Buffalo, blighted housing was demolished and replaced by housing projects in the name of “urban renewal.” By 1980, according to the US Census, the area where the Tops grocery store is located today was 96% Black and a prime example of concentrated and segregated poverty. 

But where did all the grocery stores go? Or, a better question, where did all the “good retail” go?

In the 1970s, a major transformation was taking place in the retail industry, including grocery stores. Big box stores and 50,000-square-foot supermarkets began operating on the peripheries of cities, offering “everyday low prices.” Mom-and-pop stores near main street could not compete.

That was when the urban core became inundated with “bad retail.” “Bad retail” is exploitative and caters to vice; think, alcohol, tobacco, and pawn shops. Areas like the east side of Buffalo have been fighting for decades to push “bad retail” out and entice the return of “good retail,” like local businesses run by and for community members.

This is why getting a grocery store like Tops to return to the east side of Buffalo was such a significant accomplishment. Grocery stores generally locate where there are enough people with enough money to sustain their business, and this side of town is short on both. Today, the area around Tops has one third the population density as it did 70 years ago and roughly 25% of those families are living below the poverty line.

Recruiting a Tops Friendly Market was the culmination of decades long battle by Black residents for better retail. It is symbolic ground. The lack of wholesome retail in places like the east side of Buffalo is a product of institutionally racist housing and transportation policies of the past. A new grocery store was meant to right that wrong. For this location to be the site of such a tragedy is absolutely devastating.

This post is part of our #ASA2022 blog series. During the conference, get 40% off the book with code 22E7905.