As investigators dig deeper into Friday’s mass shootings at a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora, residents also are trying to piece together what happened and what it means for their city.
Aurora is Colorado’s third-largest city, but it’s probably not one many people had heard of before now.
Sitting in a cafe, life-long resident Joseph Nguyen says it’s unfair his city will now be associated with the tragic attack that left 12 people dead and dozens more injured.
“I mean it’s definitely a stain onto our city,” he says, “but there’s nothing specific about this incident that says, ‘Oh this is Aurora. We’re going to have this crazy guy dress up in full SWAT gear shooting up the place.’ “
While this crime may be random, Nguyen, who reports on the city for The Denver Post, acknowledges that Aurora’s image problem goes back much further. “Especially here in the metro area, Aurora’s always had this stigma to it — a little seedy, crime ridden,” he says.
The area that gives Aurora that reputation is actually around where suspected shooter James Holmes lived. It’s a dull stretch of poorly aging apartment buildings, a prime spot for immigrants and refugees seeking a low-rent introduction to America and for people caught on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
Myron Melnick, owner of the nearby Zephyr Lounge, has watched the neighborhood change for the past 15 years.
“It’s getting better, but it’s taken a long time,” Melnick says. “It’s still not there yet. I always say, in New York you can gentrify in three years; in Colorado it’s 20.
Anthony Buford lives near the theater where shooting took place. On Friday, he walked over to check out the scene.
“It’s my community, it affects me,” Buford says. “My kids go to that theater. I go to that theater. A lot of people I know go to that theater.”
Buford was standing in the nearly empty parking lot of the Aurora Town Center mall, which was closed because of the shooting. Other than the media, the only cars around belonged to moviegoers who were unable to drive away after the attack. Buford says it’s usually a busy place.
“Aurora Mall is the center of Aurora, you know, where everybody goes to congregate, watch movies, hang out, play video games, socialize [and] do whatever,” he says.
Aurora is actually a huge city, more than a hundred square miles. It’s got a bit of everything: a military base, a major medical campus, an award-winning microbrewery, wide suburban swaths and dense old urban neighborhoods. Ethnically, it’s more diverse than Los Angeles. But the city has always struggled in Denver’s shadow, dismissed as “Saudi Aurora,” a far off land few Denverites bother to visit.
While some outsiders might want to draw connections to the Columbine massacre, people in Aurora have more recent events on their minds: a string of gang-related shootings, the killing of a policewoman at a jazz festival, even the recent wildfires across the state.
Outside the Zephyr Lounge, Terez Jackson says this entire summer it’s been one thing after another.
“I mean, with all the fires, on top of it this happens and it’s like what else? What else is there to happen? It’s like we’re cursed all of a sudden,” Jackson says.
Still, Jackson doesn’t blame his hometown. He says there’s no place he’d rather live than Aurora.