Portrait of a Suburb: Aurora Gets on the Map — But Not the Way It Wanted

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Zalubowski / AP

Police officers arrive at the Century 16 theatre east of the Aurora Mall in Aurora, Colo., on Friday, July 20, 2012.

Aurora has always been a town with a chip on its shoulder — something I say with love because it's my hometown. It's the biggest suburb in Colorado, but the fate of suburbs is to be overshadowed. The professional sports teams have Denver on their jerseys, the airport (though it is closer to Aurora) has Denver in its name.

A former mayor once predicted that someday the region would be known as Aurora-Denver. You know, like Minneapolis-St. Paul, or Dallas-Fort Worth. Most people just rolled their eyes.

But today Aurora becomes an internationally known dateline. The shopping mall where I spent my mall rat years is on the world's television screens today, and a rapidly growing contingent of reporters is gathering at my high school a few hundred yards from a horrific murder scene. James Holmes, 24, walked into the midnight showing of the new Batman movie and wounded 71 people in a hail of bullets, at least 12 of them fatally.

It's likely that the victims are of all races and shades, because Aurora is a melting pot. Forget that old image of lily-white suburbia, Wally and Eddie and the Beav. That was the Aurora of 1961, perhaps, the year I raised the rapidly growing population by one. We lived in a little cookie-cutter insta-house built by developer Sam Hoffman for the trolley-riding young working dads of a postwar boomtown.

But today, Aurora is as diverse a city as you are likely to find: 60% white, according to the 2010 Census, 28% Hispanic, 16% black, 5% Asian. You notice that doesn't add up to 100. That's the beauty of diversity: more and more people don't fit neatly into a single category. Kids in the Aurora Public Schools come from 125 countries and speak more than 100 languages, according to the district website.

The constant in that half-century of change is that Aurora has always been a working-class town, a place where communities aren't gated and most golf courses are open to the public. The average resident is a little younger than the Colorado average and the average household income is a little lower. It's a good place to start out.

And a good place to find those middle-class working family folks that politicians are always talking about, though rarely actually talking to. Aurora is a swing city in a swing state, a place that voted for George W. Bush and for Barack Obama. When I was a kid the neighborhood Democrats held their precinct caucus at a house across the street from the neighborhood Republicans, and a significant proportion of both groups joked that they would prefer to caucus in lawn chairs halfway between the two. So you can bet that the president and his rival Mitt Romney will both take Aurora's present pain very seriously in very photogenic ways.

Demography is different, however, from identity. Aurora's identity has long been its lack of one. As Gertrude Stein said of her hometown of Oakland, there is no there there. Aurora sprawls over a greater land mass than its famous neighbor, Denver, yet has no core. The original city center is now blighted, like so many inner-ring American suburbs, and development over the past half century has spread like water spilled on the floor. The current City Hall is across the street from the mall where the shooting occurred, but most people would get in their cars to make the trip.

It's a low-slung place on the Western edge of the arid high plains; neither the trees nor the buildings get very tall. Cheaper to build sideways than up, because there is so much empty sideways available. The glamorous part of Colorado, the spectacular Rocky Mountains with their pricey ski resorts and private jet terminals, is a distant vision on the horizon.

Perhaps it is fitting that the leading employer in this often ignored place is an industry that only whispers its name. Aurora's central location, high elevation, and clear prairie air long ago moved the Pentagon to locate classified and high-tech radar arrays on the edge of town. As a boy I would look from my bedroom window at the mysterious giant golf ball shapes and picture the Soviet missiles homing in on them. Aurora was certainly on the Kremlin's map during the Cold War.

Since 9/11, that function has been expanded, and now the Buckley Air Force Base employs more than 12,000 people to monitor spy satellites and Predator drones and who knows what all secret business. Defense contractors like Raytheon and Northrup-Grumman employ thousands more.

It's a shame that those extraordinary devices, which can see a man walking in the Yemeni desert or spy a campsite beside the Khyber Pass can't discern a deranged individual and his growing arsenal in time to prevent a massacre down the street. There would be more people alive in Aurora today, and fewer grieving families. And the overlooked city would still be largely unknown, which, we now see, is not so bad after all.