The grapevines of Grape Street are gone, now. The cherry trees of Cherry Street were buried by the expressway that tore this neighborhood in half, along with the house where Veronica Hemphill-Nichols was born. Arson destroyed the mansion on Peach Street; three more houses in the Fruit Belt burned the same night.
Hemphill-Nichols tried for 16 years to save the houses. Here in the Fruit Belt, the oldest neighborhood for African Americans on Buffalo’s East Side, Hemphill-Nichols knows every dandelion field was once a home, and every home contained a family — a Black family, like hers — whose dreams died in the dirt where their houses fell.
Now it’s her turn. Two days after a gunman opened fire in a supermarket next to her new apartment, Hemphill-Nichols drove to her former home in the Fruit Belt. It was here that she organized to fight the mayor, to block the gentrifiers, to rat out the drug dealers. To raise her four sons.
Unbeknownst to her, Hemphill-Nichols’ house recently was demolished. The only remaining trace is a bulldozer track in the mud. Seeing the destruction this week for the first time, Hemphill-Nichols started to cry.
A white terrorist came to Buffalo on a hot Saturday in May spouting lies about a “great replacement.”
He has the situation perfectly backward.
“This is what replacement really looks like,” Hemphill-Nichols said, lifting her sunglasses to touch both cheeks with a napkin. “It’s like that part of my life never happened. I was replaced.”
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The real replacement
Hemphill-Nichols’s family has lived in East Buffalo for six generations.
They’re not replacing anyone.
Among segregation, mortgage redlining, highway construction, dangerous housing, gentrification and few full-time jobs, many Black families in East Buffalo remain trapped in intergenerational poverty, said Henry Taylor, an urban planning professor at the University at Buffalo.
“Black people are not replacing white people,” Taylor said. “They’re not even competing with white people” for housing or jobs, he said.
Now that East Side land is relatively cheap, land speculators, many of them white, are driving up home prices and forcing Black people like Hemphill-Nichols to leave, Taylor said.
If there’s “replacement” to be found in Buffalo, it is Black people and Black culture that are under attack.
“It’s a form of mass dispossession,” Taylor said. “It’s the challenge of Black people always trying to build their communities on land that belongs to other people.”
The city does what it can. Buffalo recently built 3,500 units of affordable housing, Mayor Byron Brown said. It has demolished more than 8,000 dangerously dilapidated houses, offered to help people pay back taxes and keep their homes, and partnered with New York State on a $65 million workforce training center.
It’s not enough, Brown said.
“No local government has the resources to address all of these government-sanctioned harms done to Black people and the Black community,” Brown said. “We need federal intervention to address hundreds of years of discrimination, of segregation. Without that, we will continue to see only incremental gains.”
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Yet even as the Census Bureau reports that net migration to the United States is plummeting, powerful political leaders and influencers including Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson warn of an “invasion.” Hours after the Buffalo massacre ended, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik repeated a version of the gunman’s replacement conspiracy theory by tweeting, “Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote.”
Elsewhere in western and upstate New York, Black families keep running faster, only to fall farther behind.
The Fruit Belt bounce
When Eric Klapper’s great-grandparents moved from Germany to Buffalo in the early 1900s, they ran a general store on Grape Street in the Fruit Belt. They sold the store to buy a farm in Snyder, now a suburban community near Buffalo.
The old farmhouse became Klapper’s childhood home. His parents still live there. Their bedroom is a converted chicken coop.
“Absolutely, my family built on that generational wealth” of owning a home and land in a stable white community, said Klapper, 39.
Klapper is the executive director of Tapestry, a public charter school in Buffalo. His employee Yvonne DuBois is the school’s social worker. They’ve worked together less than a year.
But Klapper and DuBois share four generations of East Side roots. DuBois’s great-grandmother was a Black woman who moved to Buffalo in 1910, a few years before the Klappers arrived. Her daughter opened a dry goods store and a liquor store near Main Street, which remains the boundary between Buffalo’s Black East Side and white West Side. She owned a three-story house nearby, with ornate trim framing the porch.
From the 1990s on, the block was rife with drug dealing and occasional murders. Rather than an asset for future generations, the home lost value.
“It was worth almost nothing,” DuBois said. “Maybe $20,000?”
When DuBois’ grandmother died, she left the house to her grandson, who was addicted to drugs, DuBois said. He failed to pay the property taxes. The city took possession of the home in 2016.
Months later, DuBois’ brother died of an overdose. Meanwhile, her husband felt overwhelmed by depression, fatherhood, poverty and starting a landscaping company. He had no money or insurance for mental health counseling. He died by suicide in 2018.
“We lost more than we ever owned,” said DuBois, 37.
Her son is 8.
“There’s a disproportionate amount of poverty” on the East Side, said Pastor George Nicholas of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, which is a mile from the site of the supermarket attack. “So you have a community with terrible health outcomes. I think there’s a sense of despondence. Frustration. Anger.”
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Buffalo by the numbers
Erie County, which includes Buffalo, is “hyper-segregated,” according to Henry Taylor’s research. Most white people — 84% — live in the suburbs, while 76% of Black residents live in the city. Of those, 73% live east of Main Street.
This segregation was planned. In 1936, the U.S. Homeowners Loan Corporation invented redlining by declining to buy mortgages sold to Black families, on the presumption that Black residents in white areas signaled neighborhood decline. Redlining wasn’t banned until the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, but some lenders continued the practice for decades.
In 2015, Buffalo’s Evans Bank paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit by the state attorney general, who produced a map drawn by the bank’s managers declaring the East Side off-limits for loans. In 2021, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a settlement with Buffalo’s Hunt Mortgage Corp. finding that the company had demonstrated “poor performance in lending to people of color and in majority-minority neighborhoods.”
Nearly a century after they were created, these policies by government and private companies continue to perpetuate a system of “residential apartheid” across Buffalo and its suburbs, Taylor wrote. Artificially depressed property values deny most Black families the primary asset — homeownership — that white families use to escape poverty and join the middle class.
“The East Side of Buffalo is a community where people are stuck in place,” Taylor said.
Since 1990, Black families steadily lost wealth compared with whites, Taylor found. The median income among Black Buffalo residents grew by 6% over 30 years, to $42,000 in 2020. Nationally, median family incomes jumped 34% during the same period, to $67,521 in 2020, according to the census.
In 1990 and today, unemployment among Black Buffalo residents has remained in the double digits, Taylor found. Then as now, more than a third of Black residents lived in poverty, and a third owned homes. On average, those homes remain the least valuable in Erie County. Black Buffalo residents are more likely not to have a high school diploma than to have a college degree, a situation that hasn’t changed in 30 years.
Rather than Black people in Buffalo “replacing” whites, the data shows an “enduring sameness” over the last three decades, Taylor wrote, in which African Americans continue to “lose the competitive struggle with whites.”
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Racing to fall behind
If anyone can break this cycle, it’s Yvonne DuBois. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s in social work and a second master’s in business. She has a well-paying job. And her mental health training helps her process her family’s many traumas.
“I really view myself as a person who is supposed to break a lot of generational curses,” DuBois said.
Yet she is falling behind. DuBois had planned to buy a home by 2017. Five years later, she still rents. Emergency car repairs, replacing lawnmowers for her husband’s company, and the cost of heating a three-story home through Buffalo’s winters all made it difficult to save, not to mention the tragedy of her husband’s death.
Will she ever buy a home, the first step in building generational wealth for her son?
“I don’t know,” DuBois said. “I think it will take twice as long as I’ve been expecting.”
DuBois loves her neighborhood and fears it simultaneously. Mostly she fears the young men who stand at the end of her block, selling drugs. Yet for months after her husband died, friends dropped by delivering armloads of paper towels and toilet paper. Others took her car to fill the tank with gas. She loves sitting on her porch to talk with neighbors, drink lemonade and read a novel. She loves it when children she doesn’t know run up to the door and ask her son to play.
A hero is trapped
Jerome Bridges stood in Aisle 14, at the back of the Tops supermarket, when a gunshot rang in the parking lot. It sounded like a firecracker. Then the terrorist walked inside and kept shooting.
Bridges, an assistant manager, saved everyone he could. He led two fellow managers, a cashier and six customers to a conference room behind the dairy case. Bridges heaved an oak table against the door, then pressed his body against the table.
“He was shooting at the dairy cooler,” Bridges, 45, said of the gunman. “He knew the layout of the store. It seemed he was trying to hit us people behind the cooler.”
Tops will pay the store’s workers their regular wages while the location remains closed. Bridges will receive a week of free mental health counseling. These short-term responses are critical, Bridges said, and he appreciates them.
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In the long term, however, Bridges’ life as a Black man on Buffalo’s East Side grows increasingly tenuous. His grandmother once owned a house nearby. She couldn’t afford the taxes. When a water pipe burst, she couldn’t afford the repair. In 2014, Bridges said, she forfeited the house to the city.
After that, Bridges and his cousin paid $1,200 a month to rent a house with leaky walls and a cracked porch.
“My ceiling had a hole in it,” Bridges said. “You could look up into the sky.”
He moved out. Immediately, the landlord renovated the place, Bridges said.
“He drove us out on purpose,” Bridges said. “He said he wanted to fix it up and sell it.”
Bridges earns $15.70 an hour at Tops. Between the supermarket and a side job as a sneaker store security guard, he works 50 hours a week.
Yet he is stuck. Bridges has lived on the East Side his entire life. As land speculators drive up rents, he can’t afford any of the apartments for rent in his own neighborhood, he said.
Buying is another option. The average home in East Buffalo sold for $92,000 in April 2022, according to the real estate company Redfin, a 15% increase over the previous year. Across the region, a 17% spike since last year caused the average home value to reach $210,000 in April, a new record, according to the Buffalo News. With a salary of around $40,000 a year, Bridges could afford the mortgage payment on a typical house anywhere near Buffalo.
But even if he paid 10% upfront for a typical East Side house, Bridges can’t raise $9,000 cash for a down payment.
“The prices for houses in Buffalo are ridiculous,” Bridges said.
So for now, he sleeps on a friend’s couch, in a rented house, half a block from Tops. He has no home, no car, no savings.
Bridges, a hero of America’s latest white supremacist attack, isn’t replacing anyone. He can’t afford even to stay where he is.
“They’re targeting Black people again,” Bridges said. “And I don’t understand why.”
Christopher Maag is a columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his unique perspective on New Jersey’s most interesting people and experiences, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.