Martin Luther King Park has been touted as a key to the future of Buffalo's East Side, with a $4.5 million city improvement project progressing and the annual Juneteenth Festival approaching.
Those high hopes were temporarily shattered at about 8:30 Saturday night when a gunman opened fire on a family party that included children, wounding five people and leaving one of them in critical condition.
"The whole design [is] to draw people back to the East Side of Buffalo -- and then something like this happens," said Samuel A. Herbert, chairman of the Coalition to Save Martin Luther King Park.
Herbert joined city officials in condemning the shooting Sunday, calling for the public's help in solving the crime and maintaining that despite the violence, the park remains a safe place to gather.
"Yes, the park is safe. Yes, the city is safe, and we're going to make sure it's safe," Mayor Byron W. Brown said at a news conference in the park, calling the shooting "cowardly" and "senseless."
Those who live in the neighborhoods around the park agreed with that sentiment, as many of them came with their children to enjoy barbecues Sunday in the same pavilions where, hours earlier, the shooting had occurred.
"The park has always been safe, you just get a few knuckleheads coming in," said Robert Robinson, who came to the park with his wife, Coletta, and their two young granddaughters.
Robinson said most of the area's violence happens at night between young men.
"The knuckleheads, the thugs, they don't come out until late," Robinson said.
Four men and a woman -- all believed to be in their 20s -- were shot Saturday night. A police report identified the victims as Marquayle Lee, Edmond Carter, Johand Taylor, Aron Rose and Shaneta Payne.
Lee was listed in critical condition in Erie County Medical Center late Sunday, while Carter, Taylor and Payne were listed in stable condition. Rose was no longer on the ECMC registry, and no further information was available about his condition.
Rachel Garrison said her friend's cousin was one of the victims and remains on life support. Still, she had no problem setting up a barbecue Sunday with her friend and a few young children.
"The gang [things] going out on the streets is limited to that," she said. "I feel safe because I'm not bothering anybody. We're going to have a Mother's Day supper out here today. We're going to pray and hope that everything's OK."
Others, though, said the stark reality that an unidentified gunman fired into a crowd with what a witness described as a semiautomatic handgun lingered in their minds. A tow truck driver was also shot in the head May 5 while on a street across from the park.
"I don't really feel that safe in this neighborhood in general," said Rakim Wise, visiting the park for a remembrance of his friend who was fatally shot near the park three years ago.
"I wouldn't be here if not for [the memorial]," Wise said. "I choose not to come here, because a lot of bad things have happened here since I was living in Buffalo."
Deborah Smith was taking a nap in her Best Street home when she heard the gunfire Saturday night. She rushed across the street to the park to make sure her 8-year-old granddaughter, Symone, was alive.
"When she was out in the park, I assumed she was safe," Smith said. "She doesn't know to drop down [when she hears gunshots]. She came home terribly horrified. If the kids can't play safe in the park, why even have the park?"
While Smith said the park area does not have enough of a police presence, Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said officers regularly patrol the park. Increased summer patrols will begin shortly, he added.
Police are continuing to investigate the shooting, and declined to say whether they have a suspect or a motive for the crime.
Along with Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, they called for the public's help in finding the shooter, who has been described by police as a black male, about 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds and wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and jeans.
"To shoot into a crowd where there's children is just mind-boggling," Derenda said. "We're going to do everything we can to bring this person to justice."
Herbert, chairman of the park coalition, said the shooting was especially unfortunate because the city is in the midst of a $4.5 million park project that includes a wading pool, picnic tables, shelters and restroom improvements.
In recent weeks, Herbert has urged the city to complete some of those improvements in time for Juneteenth, which will be held in the park June 16-17. Wise said the shooting would likely deter some, but not most, people from attending the festival.
"We have to stop these senseless killings and find out who is supplying these guns," Herbert said. "This is our park. This is the only park we have on the East Side. You've crossed the line."
Brown echoed Herbert in saying it is "hip to snitch" about the crime if residents know any information. They directed any information to the confidential TIP-CALL line at 847-2255 or via the "Report a Tip" function on the department's website, www.bpdny.org.
"You've seen from the City Grill killings that we are in a position to catch and put them in jail for the rest of their lives," Sedita said.
Brown added, "Please search your hearts, because there are mothers, grandmothers, aunts, because of this incident, whose lives will never be the same."
News Staff Reporter Jay Tokasz contributed to this report.