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.
"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."
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 residents 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 nonprofits 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 midafternoon 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 Kevin Hougen, the chamber's president, 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 roadblock 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 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.
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.
As part of its NPR Cities Project coverage, All Things Considered host Robert Siegel spoke with Richard Florida, co-founder of The Atlantic Cities and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, about the prospects for cities hoping to capitalize on ethnic and racial diversity.
Striving To Make It
New immigrant communities offer significant benefits to a city, Florida says. They're often full of people trying to make it in America.
"Communities that have more of this ethnic diversity, controlling for other factors, tend to do better," he says.
Florida cites his adopted home of Toronto as an example. Toronto set out to attract immigrants as a matter of policy, he says. And while the city does have its share of poverty and crime, "on balance, it has created an enormous economic pathway [that has] led to waves of entrepreneurship and business formation" — all in a richly diverse community.
The Energy Of Suburbs
Aurora, Colo., is a very different environment from the urban metropolis of Toronto. With more than 300,000 people, Aurora straddles two identities: It's a midsize city on its own, but is also a sprawling Denver suburb.
Suburbs are becoming more diverse across America, Florida says. Aurora and its efforts could provide an example of how other suburbs around the nation might attempt to benefit economically from growing minority populations.
As for Aurora's effort to market its ethnic restaurants with its new Yum Guide, Florida says he's all for it.
"It's certainly a long stretch for Aurora to be a globally cosmopolitan destination," he says. "But can it be a better Aurora? Can it be a more exciting Aurora? Can it use food to lure in people from the center city? Of course it can."
And, Florida says, those efforts to boost the local economy may offer a lot better "payoff for the dollar" than the large-scale research campus and convention center in which the city is also investing.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel. And now to the NPR Cities Project.
(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS CITY NOISES)
SIEGEL: In recent weeks, we've heard about ethnic groups and the urban economy. Well, today, a story about efforts to capitalize on a city's diversity. Aurora, Colorado, now bills itself as majority minority - with 115 languages spoken by students in the public schools. And some want to use the city's increasing diversity to its economic advantage. We're going to talk, in moment, with one scholar who's written about diversity as a key to a vibrant economy. And we'll start with reporter Megan Verlee, of Colorado Public Radio, who will tell us a bit about Aurora.
MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: If that name sounds tragically familiar, it's because Aurora is where this summer's mass shooting at the movie theater, took place. But there's so much more to this Denver suburb. Just ask Ethiopian immigrant Fukada Balcha.
FUKADA BALCHA: In our apartment, there are Russians, Mexicans, Africans - Africa, when you say Africa, from different countries: from Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, and something like that.
VERLEE: I'm outside of Balcha's apartment, on Aurora's north side, a dense neighborhood of squat, brick apartment buildings and tiny homes. This area is full of immigrants seeking a low-rent introduction to America. Aurora is a giant sprawl of a city. Drive a few minutes down the road, and you see split-level, middle-class houses; a few more minutes, and you're into shiny, new subdivisions. It can take work to make a city this big feel like home.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
VERLEE: I recently went to an event designed to help with that, and ran into city manager George Noe. He says diversity is a big part of Aurora's identity.
GEORGE NOE: 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. The challenge is, obviously, figuring out ways to build on that.
VERLEE: That's not always easy. Because the truth is, the most ethnically diverse part of the city also has a lot of problems: poverty, transience, crime. To get people to put down roots in a community, they've got to feel comfortable.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEETING)
VERLEE: That's what this meeting is about - getting them comfortable with law enforcement. Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates welcomes the crowd, flanked by a half-dozen different interpreters.
CHIEF DANIEL OATES: And then you will learn more about our department tonight, and we continue to work on our relationship together.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: (Foreign language spoken)
VERLEE: While trusting the police is one part of turning this neighborhood around, tonight has a deeper goal: to get residents to trust each other. Bhutanese refugee Kadar Katiora has come to a number of events like this, with his neighbors.
KADAR KATIORA: I am also new, and they are also new; we are very scared to talk with each other. But right now, they all are our friend. They are like our relative, and we are living as a brotherhood to each other.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
VERLEE: That sense of brotherhood is no accident; it's something Aurora's leading nonprofits have been working on, for years. To find the woman leading the effort, you just have to leave the police meeting and walk a few blocks down busy Colfax Avenue, until you get to a nondescript brick office building, just off on a side street.
JENNY POOL RADWAY: Hi. I'm Jenny Pool Radway, and I'm the program coordinator for the Original Aurora Community Integration Collaborative.
VERLEE: To help build community, Pool Radway picked what might seem like an odd tool: She's organizing immigrants and refugees into neighborhood watch groups.
RADWAY: 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.
VERLEE: And staying here means that as these newcomers move up economically, they'll hopefully bring the neighborhood up with them.
SIEGEL: That's reporter Megan Verlee in Aurora, Colorado. We'll hear more from her, in a few minutes. First, we're going to turn now to urbanist and scholar Richard Florida, of the University of Toronto. His book "The Rise of the Creative Class" linked diversity and creative occupations to the economic rebirth of city neighborhoods. Welcome to the program.
RICHARD FLORIDA: It's great to be with you.
SIEGEL: Has Aurora, Colorado, got it right here?
FLORIDA: Well, I think so. I think that more diverse places get a lot of energy. And there's a fabulous study by an economist. He's an Italian, but he teaches in the United States; at the University of California, Davis. His name is Giovanni Peri. And Peri finds that on the one hand, we get very high-skill immigrants, doing computer programming or biotech engineering. But on the other hand, we get very low-skill immigrants, who do jobs that Americans might not want to do. But he says they bring complementary skills. They bring new ways of looking at problems, or doing things. So a diverse community is a community that has a lot of energy, and it also can have a lot of upward mobility. So I think it's a good thing to find this kind of diversity, in places like Aurora, Colorado.
SIEGEL: We're talk about - inevitably, an organic process of immigrants arriving, communities taking shape, businesses developing. Can a community actually say, hey, let's gamble on the immigration that we've received here, and let's promote it as a virtue of Aurora, Colorado?
FLORIDA: Well, I think so. I think that what we know is that places that have had large and diverse waves - maybe not homogeneous waves of all low-skill immigrants, from one part of the country; or a border town that's flooded with low-skill, low-wage immigrants, who might not have work. But when you look at the kind of immigration that was just talked about - a hundred variants of languages - that kind of diversity tends to come with a lot of energy.
It may not be a lot of college degrees - it may be some; it may be some - but it comes with a lot of energy, and a lot of ambition. And communities that have more of this ethnic diversity - controlling for other factors - tend to do better. And certainly, you mentioned that I'm an American who teaches at the University of Toronto. I mean, your average Torontonian would tell you, 30 years ago, Toronto was kind of a boring place. But Toronto went out, looking at what happened in the United States; and really went out, to attract immigrants. It's now a minority majority community. And I think most people report, even though there are problems and struggles and crime - and certainly, not all immigrants are doing high-skill work; some of them feel trapped in low-wage jobs - but on balance, it has created an enormous economic pathway for the community, and led to waves of entrepreneurship and business formation and a more thriving, diverse climate. And I'm just happy to see it happening in smaller suburban towns, like Aurora.
SIEGEL: Richard Florida, let's return now, to Megan Verlee's story; to hear about the challenge in Aurora, Colorado, of involving minorities in the civic and commercial life of that city. Nearly a third of Aurora's businesses are minority owned. That's a potential economic powerhouse, some in the city are trying to tap.
VERLEE: At La Cueva Mexican Restaurant, enchiladas sizzle on the griddle for a midafternoon diner. 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 businesses. His pitch to them, is simple.
ALFONSO NUNEZ: You know, this way, at least you'll have a voice. And if 60 members of a business association show up at a city council meeting, then it becomes a concern.
VERLEE: That matters more to Nunez because Aurora's entire city council is white. After several failed election bids, he's hoping economic organization could make up for a lack of political clout. Aurora has had some black and Hispanic politicians over the years, but not in numbers that reflect their share of the population. Nunez's efforts are part of ongoing outreach by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce. Chamber president Kevin Hougen says across the country, groups like his have struck out in their bids to bring in more immigrant and minority members.
KEVIN HOUGEN: It just seems like there's this roadblock out there. Why are we not, even after maybe a generation, getting a little bit more involvement? And so nobody seems to have that answer. I think if anybody did have that answer, it would be very valuable.
VERLEE: One possible payoff? It could help sell the city as a cultural destination, for people seeking international experiences in the Denver area. Despite its intense ethnic diversity, in the eyes of the rest of the state, Aurora suffers under the stigma of being a vast, bland suburb.
ADRIAN MILLER: It's like, you live in Aurora? I'm so sorry.
VERLEE: Adrian Miller is a soul food historian, and Aurora native.
MILLER: 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.
VERLEE: I met Miller and some foodie friends, for lunch at an Indian restaurant; to talk about Aurora's efforts to promote what he calls culinary tourism. Of course, first, we had to do some of it ourselves.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Try more fish, if you like - or try more eggplant; this eggplant's really good.
VERLEE: The tourism office here recently commissioned a guide; to try to lure people who live around Aurora, into exploring the city's ethnic and independent eateries. This place specializes in southern Indian fare from Kerala, in Tamilnadu. And the guide's author, Rebecca Caro, is at the table with us. Caro is white, and she says getting white diners into restaurants like this can be tough.
REBECCA CARO: Like, oh, if I come in and I'm the only white person, am I going to be welcomed? And am I going to feel comfortable? And - or are they going to, like, feel angry that we're invading their space? I would say, like, every experience that I've had is that people are so excited to share about their culture.
VERLEE: Adrian Miller, who is black, says food is a gentle start to the tough and ticklish work of building crosscultural ties.
MILLER: A lot of times, people don't experience a lot of folks from another culture; may not become friends with them, may not be in their home. But they feel 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.
VERLEE: 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. It's down at the ground level where a lot of people are hoping their individual efforts will eventually change Aurora's image from Denver's sprawling suburb, to a vibrant and worldly community in its own right; and find the key to making ethnic diversity an economic driver. Sampling a plate of fish curry and fried okra, at Jai-Ho restaurant in Aurora, Colorado, Megan Verlee for the NPR Cities project.
SIEGEL: And listening to Megan's report with us, is author and urbanist Richard Florida. And Richard Florida, what do you think? Does Aurora have a chance of actually becoming Aurora, worldly city in Colorado; or is it, frankly, destined to a suburban identity as Aurora, a place near Denver?
FLORIDA: Hmm, that's a great question. A couple of things come to mind. The first is the fact - when the fellow said, you know, it's hard to get immigrants involved. And that's true, you know. The last thing my own Italian grandparents wanted to be, was involved in the municipal life of Newark. They wanted to make a living; and, you know, in Robert Putnam's studies of social capital, he finds that immigrant communities tend to be low, in terms of social and civic involvement. That's because they're busy. They're trying to harness the American dream. But what I liked about that is the fellow saying, we're trying.
And in my book "Rise of the Creative Class," I say we have to proactively try to include people - especially from immigrant communities who might not be inclined. The second point that I really quite enjoyed, was the point about using food. Food is a way of not only feeding oneself, but of starting a restaurant and making money. And in his book on food, the economist at George Mason, Tyler Cohen, points out that if you want to find interesting food in Washington, D.C. - interesting ethnic food - you have to head to the suburbs, where the really interesting Vietnamese and Ecuadorian dining is. So I think there is a little bit of a possibility.
But I think it's certainly a long stretch for Aurora to be a globally, cosmopolitan destination. But can it be a better Aurora? Can it use food to lure in people from the center city? Of course, it can. And it probably is a lot better payoff for the dollar - as Megan said - to do those small, locally grown, organic, up-from-the bottom exercises; than to try to build these giant, top-down - whether they're factory-attracting or convention-center building, or medical-center-complex creating. It's the small stuff that tends to pay off a lot more. And I think Aurora has that right.
SIEGEL: Well, Richard Florida, thanks a lot for talking with us.
FLORIDA: Thank you so much for having me.
SIEGEL: Sure. Richard Florida, senior editor at "The Atlantic" magazine, where he's co-founder of the Atlantic Cities website. His book is "The Rise of the Creative Class," and you can follow the NPR Cities Project on Twitter @nprcities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.