Aurora, Colo., became a familiar name this summer, in the wake of a mass shooting at a local movie theater.
But there’s much more to this Denver suburb than the recent tragedy. Just ask Ethiopian immigrant Fekade Balcha. Balcha’s apartment, on Aurora’s north side, sits in a dense neighborhood of squat brick apartment buildings and tiny homes. The area is full of immigrants seeking a low-rent introduction to America.
“You see, in our apartment, there are Russians, Mexicans, Africans,” Balcha says. “From Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, and something like that.”
Aurora is a real mixing bowl of a city, with more than 90 languages spoken in the public schools. In recent years, city leaders and residents have been trying to leverage its diversity to its economic advantage.
Aurora is also a sprawling giant. Drive a few minutes down a road and you’ll see split-level middle-class houses. Travel a few more minutes, and you’re amid shiny new subdivisions.
It can take work to make a place this big feel like home, but Aurora is trying. City Manager George Noe says diversity is a big part of Aurora’s identity.
“If you think about the melting pot that we have right here in Aurora, that’s what makes our country rich, that’s what makes our community rich,” Noe says. “The challenge obviously is figuring out ways to build on that.”
But that’s not always easy. People have to feel comfortable before they put down roots in a community. But the fact is, the most ethnically diverse part of Aurora also has a lot of problems, like poverty, transient residents and crime.
Convincing Newcomers To Stay
At a recent community meeting, Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates — flanked by a half-dozen interpreters — welcomes a crowd. The purpose of the gathering, he says, is to help the neighborhood residents to feel more comfortable with local law enforcement, and for the community and the police to “continue to work on our relationship together.”
While instilling greater trust in the police is one part of turning this neighborhood around, the meeting also has a deeper goal: getting residents to trust each other. Bhutanese refugee Kadar Katiora has come to a number of similar events with his neighbors.
“Before, I am also new and they are also new, and we are quite scared to talk with each other,” Katiora says. But right now, we all are friend. They are like our relative, and we are living as a brotherhood to each other.”
That sense of brotherhood is no accident. Aurora’s non profits have been working to build it for years. Just a few blocks from the police meeting, Jenny Pool Radway, the program coordinator for the Original Aurora Community Integration Collaborative, has been leading that effort.
To help build community, Pool Radway picked an intriguing tool: She’s organizing immigrants and refugees into neighborhood watch groups.
“If people feel safe in their community, if they get to know their neighbors — even if they don’t speak the same language — they’re going to want to better their community and stay here,” Pool Radway says.
And, she says, staying here means that as these newcomers move up economically, they’ll hopefully bring the neighborhood up with them.
A Diverse Community, A White City Council
Enchiladas are sizzling on the griddle for a mid-afternoon customer at La Cueva Mexican restaurant. In the front of the house, owner Alfonso Nunez stands ready to greet patrons.
When he’s not at his post, Nunez spends a lot of time trying to organize Aurora’s immigrant and minority business owners with a simple pitch.
“You know, this way, at least you’ll have a voice,” Nunez tells them. “And if 60 members of a business association show up at a city council meeting, then it becomes a concern.”
That is of particular importance to Nunez because Aurora’s entire city council is white. Aurora has had some Black and Hispanic politicians over the years, but not in numbers that reflect their share of the population.
After several failed election bids of his own, Nunez is hoping economic organization among the city’s racial and ethnic minorities could make up for a lack of political clout.
Nunez’s efforts are part of ongoing outreach by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. But Chamber President Kevin Hougen says that, across the country, groups like his have struck out in their bids to bring in more immigrant and minority members.
“It just seems like there’s this road block out there,” he says. “Why are we not, even after a generation, getting a little more involvement? And so nobody seems to have that answer. I think if anybody did have that answer, it would be very valuable.”
One possible payoff? Better cooperation could help sell the city as a cultural destination for people seeking international experiences in the Denver area. Despite its intense ethnic diversity, to the rest of the state, Aurora still suffers from the stigma of being a vast, bland suburb.
“It’s like, ‘You live in Aurora? Oh I’m so sorry!,” says Adrian Miller, a soul food historian and Aurora native. “I always rise to the defense of my town. I say, ‘Hey, Aurora’s got a lot of stuff going on. You just don’t know because you don’t even go out there.’”
Creating ‘Culinary Tourism’
Over a meal at a restaurant specializing in South Indian cuisine, Miller discusses the city’s efforts to promote what he calls “culinary tourism.” The local tourism office recently commissioned a guide to lure regional residents to explore the city’s ethnic and independent eateries.
The guide’s author Rebecca Caro, who is white, says getting white diners into restaurants like this can be tough. People hesitate, she says, wondering, “‘If I come in and I’m the only white person, am I going to be welcome, and am I going to feel comfortable? Or are they going to be angry that we’re invading their space?’”
But, Caro says, she’s had only positive experiences dining in Aurora’s ethnic restaurants. “People are so excited to share about their culture,” she says.
Food historian Adrian Miller, who is black, says food is a gentle start to the tough work of building cross-cultural ties.
“A lot of times, people don’t experience a lot of folks from another culture, may not become friends with them, may not come to their home,” Miller says. “But if they come to a place like this, they can start to at least make that first foray into finding out what that culture’s like.”
On the official level, the big money in Aurora is still focused on big development projects, like a medical research campus and a possible convention center.
But at the ground level, many hope they can find the key to making ethnic diversity an economic driver — and that their efforts can transform Aurora’s image from Denver’s sprawling suburb to a vibrant and worldly community in its own right.