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Residents Struggle With Tragedy's 'Stain' On Aurora

Pastor Mary Lu Saddoris (left) prays with Isaac Pacheo (center) and Courtney McGregor near a photo of their friend Alex Sullivan on Saturday at a memorial near the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. (AP)

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.

Copyright 2014 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.cpr.org.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, Aurora is the third largest city in Colorado, but probably not many people have heard of it before now. Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports on how people in Aurora are responding and what they think the shooting means for their city.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: It's become a familiar reaction after events like this, local officials standing up before the media, vowing not to let a single act of violence change the character of the place they call home. Democrat Su Ryden represents Aurora in the state legislature.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE SU RYDEN: I think we're prepared to overcome it and to come together like we always do and rise above it and, you know, hopefully be better for it.

VERLEE: But away from the TV cameras, people in Aurora aren't quite ready to rise. Anthony Buford lives near the shootings. On Friday, he walked over to check out the scene.

ANTHONY BUFORD: It's my community, it affects me. My kids go to that theater. You know, I go to that theater. A lot of people I know go to that theater.

VERLEE: Buford was standing in the nearly empty parking lot of the Aurora Town Center mall, 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, usually, this is a busy place.

BUFORD: Aurora mall is the center of Aurora, you know, where everybody goes to congregate, watch movies, hang out, play video games, socialize, do whatever.

VERLEE: Aurora is a massive city, more than 100 square miles, with 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 it's always struggled in Denver's shadow, dismissed as Saudi Aurora, a far-off land few Denverites bother to visit. Sitting in an Aurora cafe, lifelong resident Joseph Nguyen says it's unfair his city will now be associated with this tragic attack.

JOSEPH NGUYEN: It's definitely a stain onto our city, but there's nothing specific about this incident that screams, oh, this is Aurora. We're going to have this crazy guy dress up in full SWAT gear shooting up the place.

VERLEE: But while this crime may be random, Nguyen, who reports on the city for The Denver Post, admits Aurora's image problem goes back much further.

NGUYEN: Especially here in the metro area, Aurora's always had this stigma to it of being a little seedy, like this is crime ridden.

VERLEE: 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.

In the Zephyr Lounge, patrons are starting to arrive to the 2 p.m. happy hours. Owner Myron Melnick has watched the neighborhood change for the past 15 years.

MYRON MELNICK: It's getting better, but it's taken a long time. It's still not there yet. I always say, in New York City, you can gentrify in three years; in Colorado, it's 20.

VERLEE: While outsiders 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 wildfires across the state. Outside the Zephyr, Terez Jackson says this entire summer, it's been one thing after another.

TEREZ JACKSON: I mean, with all the fires, on top of it this happens and then, I mean, you're like, what else? What else is there to happen? And it's like we're cursed all of a sudden.

VERLEE: But still, Jackson doesn't blame his hometown. He says there's no place he'd rather live than Aurora. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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