01 June 2008

Aurora: While Waiting For The American Dream

Aurora, Colorado, Denver's neighbor to the East is probably the most ethnically diverse city in the state.

In raw numbers, the ethnic breakdown of Denver and Aurora are rather similar. Aurora has a larger black and Asian population percentagewise, Denver has a larger Hispanic population (and smaller non-Hispanic white population). But the overall percentages mask a critical fact. Denver is far more segregated than Aurora.

There are many neighborhoods in North Denver that are overwhelming black, many in West Denver that are overwhelmingly Hispanic, and many in Southeast Denver that are overwhelmingly white. Aurora's neighborhoods aren't color blind, but also aren't so monolithic.

A mom and pop Chinese restaurant on Havanna Street where I had lunch yesterday is typical. At one table an Ethiopian taxi driver warily kept his eye on his cab as he ate. A Chinese woman taking a break from cooking enjoyed a glass of water in a corner while reading a Chinese language broadsheet, while the proprietor offered up a mix of English, Chinese and Spanish to customers and kitchen staff. An African-American man and blonde white woman took turns holding a baby as they choose their dinner. A Mexican American man spoke in Spanish to his wife at a table in the middle of the restaurant as their several chidren ran circles around them stopping to eat now and then. A pair of Latino teenaged girls discussed boys in English at another table. A weary middle aged white woman in an even more weary looking Buick sent her pre-teen daughter in to pick up some take out. I had my lunch at another table.

A minority of Aurora residences are single family homes, and an even smaller minority are owner occupied single family homes. Sprawling, low rise mega-apartment complexes fill large swaths of the city. The apartment complexes, like Aurora's neighborhoods in general, are not nearly so segregated as Denver's. Long boulevards are lined with lonely sidewalks, low shabby subdivision walls, strip malls, and oversized churches.

Aurora has fewer people who are truly well off, and fewer who are truly destitute than Denver, something reflected in the educations of the people who live there. In Aurora, 15% of the adult population didn't graduate from high school, while 24.5% completed at least four years of college. In Denver, 21.1% of the population didn't graduate from high school, while 36.5% completed at least four years of college. The Aurora Public Schools have fewer children who score "unsatisfactory" on the CSAPs than the Denver Public Schools, but also fewer children who earn "advanced scores," despite the fact that the two districts have similar numbers of students who are "proficient" or better on the CSAPs.

Housing prices tell a similar story. In Aurora, just 2% of owner occupied homes are were worth $300,000 or more in 2000 (11.0% were worth more than $200,000), while 9.9% were worth less than $100,000. In Denver, 13.2% were worth $300,000 or more (33.7% were worth more than $200,000), while 10.7% were worth less than $100,000.

Aurora's residential neighborhoods are bustling compared to Denver's, and the people out and about seem more optimistic, for example, on the Aurora side of East Colfax, than on the Denver side. Despite guarded progress, long stretches of Denver's East Colfax seem to be full of people who have almost given up on life. On East Colfax in Aurora, from the border all the way to Fitzsimmons, the prevailing attitude seems to be the tomorrow will be better, in a mix of immigrant optimism and respect for medical center driven economic growth.

Denver is a place of stark contrasts between haves and have nots, where vagrants hang out on the sidewalks never to half a million dollar plus per unit condominium towers. Aurora's sprawling subdivisions offer a more uniform picture of working class to middle-middle class people who are getting by, but haven't quite attained the full fledged American Dream.

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