Cariol Horne started her morning outside the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., placing white roses at a colourful memorial to the 10 Black people slain there two months ago by a white gunman.
Across the fenced-off parking lot, the supermarket chain’s president and employees were preparing to lead media on a preview of the refurbished store, a day ahead of its Friday reopening to the public.
Count Horne, a 54-year-old activist and retired Buffalo police officer, is among those in the neighbourhood who say it’s too soon.
“We’re pretty much shopping on people’s blood,” she said. “I think that this is more about putting people to work rather than letting them heal. Just two months ago, these people were running for their lives.”
Yet even Horne carries the mixed emotions of seemingly everyone in the community, where the store has doubled as a gathering spot for two decades.
The reopening has raised questions about how, when and whether to let the site of a mass atrocity return to being what it was before it was a crime scene.
Community gathering place
Tops is the social hub of its neighbourhood. That’s why frequent shoppers, the store’s managers and employees, community leaders and those who lost loved ones in the hail of bullets two months ago tell The Associated Press simply: It’s complicated.
On the one hand, residents fought for years to win a grocery store on Buffalo’s east side, which had long suffered from disinvestment and lacklustre economic activity. The arrival of Tops in 2003 was a godsend to an area that had been considered a food desert.
On the other hand, polishing store fixtures and floors is a far cry from addressing the systemic inequality and unhealed trauma in east Buffalo’s Black community, several residents said.
Tops president John Persons said Thursday that the company began hearing from customers, community members and civic leaders the day after the May 14 shooting. Almost immediately, the company started running a free shuttle from the neighbourhood to other Tops stores.
Ultimately, the management team felt confident that store associates and most area residents needed and wanted the store to reopen.
“I’ll be honest, those are the people that we really wanted to listen to — the people that were in the neighbourhood,” Persons said.
The store was “taken down to the bare walls,” he said. “It’s all fresh product. This is all new equipment. All throughout, from the ceiling to the floor has been repainted or redone.”
It is also made to be safer, with a new emergency evacuation alarm system and additional emergency exits. Outside, the parking lot and perimeter have new LED lighting.
Tops says it is working with state, city and community leaders to create a permanent public memorial to be installed outside the store.
On Friday morning, store associates handed single carnations to customers as they entered the newly reopening store. Some also received Tops gift cards — the store planned to hand out more than 200 of them, a representative confirmed.
“The key to life is to get back to living,” said shopper Alan Hall, who lives two blocks away from the Jefferson Avenue store. “We’re happy that it’s open. It looks good. It’s well stocked. Of course, there’s still that undercurrent of grief, which will never leave. But it’s good to be back.”
Fragrance Harris Stanfield, a customer relations employee of Tops, returned to the store Thursday for the first time since the shooting. She initially struggled to get past the foyer, just inside the entrance.
Stanfield said she understands why some believe it’s too soon to reopen.
“I think there’s still a place of mourning and grieving,” she said. “We’re still kind of in a blaming space, where they need somewhere to focus that energy. And so it’s just being focused here, which is completely understandable.”
Near the store’s entrance, signs labelled “community counselling” hung from pitched tents. On Thursday, residents looked on from behind the fence, some of them angrily, as Tops managers hosted the press event.
Part of the anger stems from a sense that not enough effort was made to seek enough voices from the community.
“No one’s come door to door to ask the people, who live within a mile, or four blocks, or even two blocks of Tops, ‘Are you comfortable with this? What do you want here?”‘ said David Louis, another activist who, like Horne, recognizes that others miss not just the goods on Tops’ shelves but the good in its aisles.
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