The afternoon was bright and hot, not unlike another afternoon exactly two months before.
Just as they did then, community members gathered outside Cold Spring Market & Deli, a staple corner store; elders sat in the shade of the trees at the corner of Landon Street and Jefferson Ave.; dozens more dotted the perimeter of the Tops Friendly Markets parking lot. The sounds, too, were eerily similar: of people talking, of car and bicycle engines revving, of police, fire truck and ambulance sirens.
But July 14 was not May 14.
On May 14, community members, stunned and brokenhearted, gathered to grieve in the immediate aftermath of a gunman’s rampage through the Jefferson Ave Tops, a racially motivated attack that killed 10 people, all of whom were Black. Two months to the day, Tops officials, local and state leaders and community members gathered Thursday in the store parking lot to mark the occasion the day before the store’s reopening to the public Friday morning.
Earlier in the day, Tops held a private remembrance for store associates, their family members and the family members of the shooting victims.
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Kathy Sautter, public and media relations manager for Tops, served as an emcee for the event.
Bishop Darius G. Pridgen, president of the Buffalo Common Council and senior pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, spoke first.
“There’s a story in the Bible about Nehemiah that talks about this wall, the wall that needed to be built. There was controversy on rebuilding that wall,” he says, referencing the decision to quickly remodel and reopen the Tops, which some community members have said was too soon. “It was tough to rebuild that wall. But today we are here because there’s a lot of Nehemiahs in Buffalo, a lot of Nehemiahs that worked inside of this building day and night, a lot of Nehemiahs that protected, a lot of Nehemiahs that fed.”
Pridgen quoted scripture and led the group in prayer.
At 2:30 p.m., the time of the May 14 shooting, Councilmember Ulysses E. Wingo led the group in remembering the victims, followed by a moment of silence. After reading each victim’s name, a firefighter rang a bell. People who were injured, but not killed, were also acknowledged.
In the temporary silence, voices carried from the dozens of community members lining the fence that had been erected around the Tops parking lot.
Grady Lewis, who says he saw the shooting, Cariol Horne and other community members held a bright sign that read, “You want us to shop here yet you have a gate keeping us out.” They cheered, “Let us in! Let us in!” as they stood in the sun near the tents where attendees sat.
“They want us to shop tomorrow, but they don’t want to let us in today?” Horne asked.
Lewis said he is torn about the reopening: While he thinks it is important for community members to have access to items, he thinks the reopening was disrespectful, calling it “a circus.”
“We need a place to shop, but I still want more things done and respect for the community, and they’re showing disrespect,” he said. “None of these people live in the community. Maybe like four people over there live in the community. For me, I feel disrespected being behind a gate in my community, where I played as a kid when it was a field here. … I feel disrespected here.”
Following the moment of silence, Pat Patterson, who works at the Jefferson Ave Tops in the dairy department, read a poem by Jillian Hanesworth, Buffalo’s poet laureate, that is now part of a water memorial inside the Tops.
Tops President John Persons said love and gratitude were the keys to recovering from the heartache caused by the shooting.
“People in Western New York came together in such amazing ways after that hateful attack,” he said. “It was a tremendous outpouring of love to respond to local needs and to ensure that communities still had access to food and other services. That served as a source of inspiration to all of us at Tops as we focused our attention on supporting our associates, our customers and the entire Jefferson Ave neighborhood in the days that followed the shooting.”
Persons praised the resiliency of the Tops staff, 75% of whom returned after the shooting. He said team members adopted the phrase “Jefferson Strong” as a mantra to “regularly remind themselves and all of us that they will not let adversity and evil beat them.”
In an interview with the USA Today Network, Mike Patti, regional vice president of Tops, said employees did not receive an increased salary, though they were paid from the time of the shooting until now. Neither he nor Persons knew how many of the estimated 29 employees who were in Tops during the shooting chose to return.
“We want to say to our community, we are here for you. Today and for years to come,” Persons said.
Attorney General Letitia James, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes also spoke.
Jackie Mines, African American Cultural Center Interim Director, performed a contemporary dance that “emphasized healing as the new store opens to the community.” During her performance, set to the gospel song “Total Praise,” the audio cut out. Those gathered sang acapella as Mines continued dancing.
Tops officials said the renovated building had a different feel that it previously did, something they said community members requested. Among safety improvements, a new surveillance system includes enhanced video monitoring. The Buffalo Police Department will provide professional security coverage inside and out, and the store has installed an emergency evacuation audible/visual alarm system, with additional emergency exits.
There is a new store layout, with new flooring and LED lighting, new and expanded self-checkouts, all of which have video monitoring; and upgraded ventilation systems.
Other changes include improved foods, expanded organic options, new dairy products and an expanded prepared food case for to-go meals. In collaboration with Anderson’s Flower Shop, a local florist, there is now a dedicated floral department, along with expanded personal care products, health education screenings, and more items from Black-owned businesses. The store is also waiving its grocery delivery fee through the end of August.
On the store’s exterior, Adinkra symbols from Ghana have been added, greeting shoppers with the signs for peace, harmony, welcome and farewell.
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