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Guest Essay: Why 'He wasn't from here' doesn't matter on Buffalo's East side

Eileen Elibol Koteras
Buffalo Toronto Public Media

When the Tops shooting happened, sportswriter John Wawrow did what writers do— he wrote. In this guest essay, prepared in conjunction with his appearance on our "Buffalo, What's Next ?" program examining the shootings and the issues it raises, he examines the way the shooting was initially couched as being something from the outside, as if racism wasn't a local issue to confront.

That Payton Gendron was not from Buffalo, New York, is largely beside the point.

A racist attack at a supermarket located in a predominantly Black neighborhood has left 10 dead and three others wounded. The mass-killing allegedly conducted by the 18-year-old white man who traveled hundreds of miles from his home outside of Binghamton laid open what has been a largely suppressed discussion over race and poverty in a community which prides on calling itself “The City of Good Neighbors.”

But is it?

The answer may best be measured in how a place known for its blue-collar ethos of enduring adversity in relation to its bitter winters, devastating economic downturns and losing pro sports franchises, confronts the reality of having its long inherent inequalities exposed by an outsider.

“We have wonderful allies in the Black community in Buffalo, absolutely. But now it’s time to take it to the next level,” said retired Buffalo educator Dr. Theresa Harris-Tigg, who personally knew two of the people killed. “It’s time to do more. It’s time for white folk to talk to white folk and really have honest conversations.”

For her, those talks begin with geography in how Buffalo is partitioned demographically and split into the city’s poorer east side, where the shootings occurred, and much prosperous — and whiter — west side.

Hear John Wawrow with WBFO's Dave Debo
Hear John Wawrow with WBFO's Dave Debo

Among the dividing lines are Main Street, with neighborhoods further partitioned by The Kensington Expressway, which cuts through the middle of the city and built in the late 1950s to better speed traffic from downtown to the suburbs.

“It’s unconscionable to think that Tops is the only supermarket in that neighborhood, in my neighborhood,” Harris-Tigg said in referring to the supermarket which opened just 19 years ago and filled a major gap in what was considered a food desert in a Black community where residents otherwise had to travel three miles and beyond for a major grocer.

“This is a problem in Buffalo, but this is not a Buffalo problem,” said Drew Ludwig, a Presbyterian minister. “This is a problem that is throughout American culture.

It was Ludwig who spoke at a multi-denominational service a day after the shootings to honor those killed in challenging his community to use this tragedy in aspiring to its neighborly reputation.

“I want us to be the city of good neighbors. And I do hope that we aspire to live up to that nickname,” he said. “But I feel like we can’t get there until and unless we tell the truth about the white supremacy and racism that is already present in our town.”

Ludwig specifically referenced the predominant number of Black inmates who have died at Erie County’s Holding Center. He noted the county ranked second in the U.S. for the number of people participating in the Capital Building insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. And he recalled the racial hatred directed at former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick that took place before and during the 49ers visit to Buffalo in 2016.

Some two years ago, the city became divided over George Floyd protests, which led to city police launching teargas cannisters to suppress protesting marchers — and after three officers were struck by a car — two miles from where the shootings took place on Saturday.

“I don’t think that we can solve a problem that we’re not willing to mention or talk about,” Ludwig said. “One of my favorite religious and social teachers is Mr. Rogers. And one of his more famous quotes is that anything that is mentionable is manageable.”

Aside from being home of the chicken wing, Buffalo mostly gets a bad rap when it makes the national headlines.

The city is frequently featured because of its infamous snowstorms, which can be measured by yards, not feet. The economic news is seldom positive in a place where Buffalo’s once prosperous past as a Great Lakes hub is evidenced by abandoned steel refineries, rusting grain mills and empty lots where houses once stood in once-prosperous east-side neighborhoods.

Buffalo can’t even get a break from its sports teams, the NFL Bills and NHL Sabres, whose improbable losses are forever embedded in the national conversation by their names: Wide Right, Music City Miracle, No Goal and the most recent, 13 Seconds.

What’s significant is how the city’s citizens have persevered.

Neighbors, Black and white, spend snowstorms helping each other dig cars out of mountainous snowbanks. “It’s what Buffalo does,” a Black person told a white person one cold winter night.

A recently redeveloped waterfront has become a mecca for the entire community to celebrate the arrival of summer.

As for the sports teams, there’s always next year, with tailgating at Bills games reflecting a vibrant and diverse fan-base of all genders, races and religions. This is, after all, a place that considers itself as being “A drinking town with a football problem.”

Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas has seen firsthand how the community rallies in times of difficulty.

Bills fans raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Josh Allen’s charitable cause, the city’s Oishei Children’s Hospital, after learning of the death of his grandmother two years ago. They did the same for quarterback Andy Dalton’s foundation after the then-Cincinnati quarterback led the Bengals to a last-minute season-ending victory over Baltimore to push Buffalo into the playoffs and end a 17-year drought in 2017.

“There’s a little divided here and there, and hopefully we can work on that. But when it comes to helping, we’re right at the top of the list,” Thomas said. “It’s remarkable and it’s amazing how we all come together. I just wish sometimes we can come together on something that’s positive instead of a negative.”

A day after the shootings, a make-shift food bank was set up not far from the supermarket to serve a neighborhood that lost its only grocery store. The Buffalo Community Fridge announced it received enough monetary donations that it will distribute some of the funds to other local organizations.

Pastor James Giles has also witnessed the community’s support firsthand in times of crisis. It was no different in the wake of the shootings, when Giles juggled calls from area churches, local businesses, the Bills, completing grocery stores and even the utility company seeking ways to help.

“That’s what I like and love about this city that with all of its challenges it’s not like people are pushing stuff under the rug,” said Giles, the coordinator for the Buffalo Peacemakers, an anti-violence group. “No. We’re acknowledging and we’re coming together to try to rectify.”

- John Wawrow is a long-time sports writer, who has been based in Buffalo since 2000.

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  • What’s Next? is a program that uncovers and discusses the issues and topics pertinent to marginalized and underrepresented populations of Western New York and Southern Ontario. From inception, days after the racist May 14, 2022 shooting in Buffalo, the show has tasked itself to be a champion for social equity and justice. Moving forward we will continue to feature voices from all parts of our shared community to celebrate our individual differences as well as the commonalities.The show is broadcast live on the air from 10am to 11am Monday through Thursday, and airs again at 9pm Monday through Thursday as well as Sundays at 6pm on WBFO. It is also available digitally through WBFO’s website, apps, and as a podcast.Listeners can participate by using the "Talk to Us" feature in the WBFO mobile app, available on Apple and Android devices. Open the app and scroll to the bottom bar where the "Talk to Us" button allows listeners to send audio recordings straight to the newsroom. You can also reach the production staff by e-mailing WhatsNext@wbfo.org.