After deciding that I was going to an ethnographic study of neighborhood identity and the role that immigrants play in defining that identity I realized that the neighborhood I chose in Aurora, Colorado was made up primarily of Spanish speakers. I don’t speak Spanish. But, I do skateboard and I’m down to check out a new church or two. Kids from the skatepark introduced me to their parents and all the Nigerians and Kenyans I met at churches added another dynamic to the research. Did some really good interviews. The paper that my colleagues, Annetta and Xizhu, and I wrote is below.
What would help organizations like Centro Humanitario create successful community centers for immigrants and day laborers based on community opinion or perception of immigrants and their contributions to the neighborhood?
Like many immigrant populations across the country, the diverse mix of foreign-born residents of “Original Aurora” face significant barriers to integration within the community. This paper looks at the attitudes of both foreign-born and native-born residents on the topics of community identity, definition of an immigrant and thoughts on immigrant integration in the original downtown of Aurora, Colorado. To begin to discover how these attitudes contributed to or hindered integration in this specific community, we begin by doing community mapping, engaging in participant observation and eventually, forming relationships with members of various populations with whom we conducted structured and semi-structured interviews. By interviewing both foreign-born and native-born residents, the obstacles that this community faces becomes clear, including major factors such as language, trust, cultural understanding, camaraderie and lack of a place for people to gather. Aurora’s residents generally keep to themselves and foreign-born residents self-segregate, whether consciously or unconsciously, even further. Fear and the lack of common values drive the community apart. However, through this research, three possible solutions for integration emerge including: education and advocacy; arts and the celebration of cultural diversity; and, community redevelopment. By uniting the community in an effort to get to know their neighbors, improve the neighborhood and build trust in one another, significant progress can be made toward a transformation of “Original Aurora”—a transformation that not only benefits the City and its economy, but also improves the lives of the people who are most invested in it, its residents.
Like many immigrant populations across the country, the diverse mix of foreign-born residents of “Original Aurora” face significant barriers to integration within the community. This paper looks at the attitudes of both foreign-born and native-born residents on the topics of community identity, the definition of an immigrant and thoughts on immigrant integration in the original downtown of Aurora, Colorado. We focused on these three topics to gain a better understanding of community attitudes in order to illuminate the need for a place for all residents, foreign-born or native-born, to come together in camaraderie. Seeing the success of Centro Humanitario in Downtown Denver lead us to wonder why such a place did not exist in Aurora. We believed the Downtown Denver neighborhood to be lacking in community, something we thought we would find an abundance of in Aurora—a more suburban setting. To begin to discover how these attitudes contributed to or hindered integration in this specific community, we began by mapping the community, engaging in participant observation and eventually, forming relationships with members of various populations with whom we conducted structured and semi-structured interviews. Our team of researchers, small, but mighty, consisted of Albin Sikora, Annetta Crecelius and Xizhu Xiao. Most of us have worked with vulnerable populations, but have limited experience in ethnography. We attempted to be as inclusive as possible of all voices within the community, despite language barriers. By interviewing both foreign-born and native-born residents, the obstacles that this community faces became clear, including major factors such as language, trust, cultural understanding, camaraderie and lack of a place for people to gather. Aurora’s residents generally keep to themselves and foreign-born residents self-segregate, whether consciously or unconsciously, even further. Residents and outsiders fear the neighborhood due to its bad reputation. Fear and a perceived lack of common values drive the community apart. However, through this research, three possible solutions for integration emerge including: education and advocacy; arts and the celebration of cultural diversity; and, community redevelopment. By uniting the community in an effort to get to know their neighbors, improve the neighborhood and build trust in one another, significant progress can be made toward a transformation of “Original Aurora”—a transformation that not only benefits the City and its economy, but also improves the lives of the people who are most invested in it, its residents.
When determining areas in which to conduct our research, we chose to focus on the core of original downtown Aurora and the neighborhoods adjacent to El Centro Humanitario (Centro) in downtown Denver. Before conducting interviews, one team member began surveying downtown Denver near Centro where day laborers are known to gather. Another team member started walking around the original downtown of Aurora, transecting the area two blocks north and two blocks south of Colfax Avenue, from Yosemite to Havana (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Map of the research area. Also highlights areas of the neighborhood where gangs, day laborers and homeless individuals are known to gather.
As time ran short and lack of Denver interviewees became apparent, we abandoned the aspect of comparing the data and interviews found in Aurora to that in Denver. We then focused solely on the Aurora area, taking note of the types of businesses present and where people gather. One community member took us on a tour of the area, driving us around, showing us his favorite Mexican restaurant, and pointing out City Council’s efforts to curb gang-related activity near Boston and Colfax. As we investigated further, we saw that the neighborhood is sprinkled with a number of barber and hair-braiding shops, liquor stores, restaurants, check cashing places, and mechanics. Colfax is bustling with people on the move, cars driving by, and loud music booming. Within the hurried world along Colfax, Aurora also has a budding Arts District that can hardly go unnoticed, murals on buildings, artwork on benches and even, electrical boxes decorated with scenes of nature.
Walk just a few blocks north or south of Colfax, however, and the neighborhood morphs into a more ordinary scene with houses lining the streets, well-manicured lawns, families and children out and about running errands. Aurora has its own City Park, at 16th and Dayton, complete with kids playing on basketball courts, running around and jumping on playground equipment, kicking soccer balls on open fields, and even, landing tricks in a small skateboard park. The community is filled with people of varied ethnicities and voices speaking different languages. In observing the neighborhood, during the week, large groups of men were noted congregating on Dayton Street, just off of Colfax. Every Sunday, large groups of churchgoers were also noted gathering outside their respective churches—perhaps a more traditional venue for assembling. Through interviews with community members, we also learned that gangs congregate in the area between Boston and Alton, between Colfax and 17th. Additionally, another community member informed us that, due to the lack of a homeless shelter in Aurora, homeless persons gather in the park near the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, just east of Dayton on Colfax.
In addition to getting the lay of the land by walking the neighborhood, we engaged in participant observation. During multiple trips to the community in the early weeks of our research, we focused on getting the whole picture without informing residents of our presence or asking questions related to our research. We entered the neighborhood by car and by bus, but walked around on foot to observe the landscape and environment, taking note of houses, businesses, churches, parks and even, significant streets. As we walked, we also observed the everyday lives of the residents, casually making small talk along the way, paying close attention to body language, facial expressions, attire and attitude. In order to gain a better understanding of the community and its residents, we simply explored, experienced and monitored the neighborhood.
Once we were ready to interact with residents, we began attending community events. With IRB approval, we were prepared and now, authorized to start engaging residents in semi-structured interviews about the neighborhood. On several occasions, we visited local churches, including an African church and a Catholic church, during public, street events. During these events, we interacted with church-goers, revealing our identities, intent and purpose. Our casual conversations and subtle questioning was, for the most part, well received. By participating in these events, we were better able to construct an image of what residents’ lives are really like, what values and beliefs they hold dear, how they relate to one another and how the community works together with such diversity.
Our team members had extensive experience conducting interviews and were ready to dive into this mode of gathering information. We wanted to proceed in an orderly and coordinated way. After having mapped and observed specific areas of concentration, we collaborated on the phrasing of the questions we wanted to ask long-time and newly arrived residents in Aurora. With every intention of conducting structured interviews, we discovered that simply meeting people on the street and talking to shop attendants, priests and pedestrians did not lend itself to the stringency we initially imagined our work to carry. Early on however, we understood the importance of meeting people where they were and not imposing our views on them. We re-phrased our questions, making them more general, which allowed people to speak freely, even if we did not have time to build the rapport with them that we would have liked to. Our ability to adapt to the elements we encountered in various environments and our respectful approach to people in the community–quickly realizing that our presence and the data we sought took a backseat to the dignity of the individuals we encountered–granted us entree. While we would gather important data from these semi-structured interviews, we did not disregard our original interview questions.
Aurora Councilwoman, Sally Mounier, was instrumental in finding current and former residents from her district who were interested in doing structured interviews with us. Two standout participants, with differing but not always contradictory views of the history, present state and possible future of Aurora, enriched our sense of the community and explained logistical questions we had about the locations where day laborers and homeless individuals gather and their place within the community, the possibility of a revival of the downtown business district and the impediments to development that the city faces. All of this information helped color in the practical issues of who moves to Aurora, who leaves, and how these factors affect community identity.
It was our intention to gather our data along the line of two distinct groups: native-born and foreign-born residents. However, the line appeared to be more blurry than we imagined; such a hard and fast distinction could not be made. The brevity of time we were able to spend in the community also prohibited us from delving deeper into how residents segregate themselves, how they integrate and create community, and what affects these processes.
Limitations of Methodology
Our most obvious limitation was a lack of time and the impact this had on our ability to be in Aurora both observing the setting, noting changes and similarities, and building rapport with key informants which would have allowed us to move beyond quick exchanges and into more personal and revealing ones. While we were able to glean varied viewpoints from interviews by asking questions on the topics of community identity, immigrant integration and safety, we were only able to do a second round interview with one participant, and the interview was done before we were able to sufficiently code our data, connect patterns and find themes. The interview was only a continuation of the first, instead of a reflection on it. Our intent was to interview immigrants and non-immigrants in Aurora and Denver. Our lack of Denver interviewees afforded us no comparative data. While our work was confined to Aurora, which in itself was more practical given the time restraints, most of the immigrants who we interviewed were people we met after the outdoor service for St. James Catholic church, and we suspect that in focusing on such an environment the attitudes and responses of participants were too mild, colored by the message the interviewees had just received at mass. Even if we interviewed the same people, just on different days, their responses may have been less sugarcoated. The structured interviews we conducted were with very knowledgeable subjects who had plenty of time, were interested in the community and were willing to share openly. They were done with non-immigrants who do not live in Aurora but whom either had lived there or who work there. This reflected a selection bias, which came via recommendations from Councilwoman Mounier. Our group learned a lot about the history of Aurora and about potential paths to a brighter future for the city, but the viewpoints, as we learned from our participant observation, only represented a fraction of the community. Almost on par with the limitations we faced because of time was the inability of any of our team members to speak Spanish. If even one of us spoke Spanish, it may have broken down barriers between us and the community bringing us closer, quicker, to the immigrant populations we worked with in Aurora.
One cannot search for what one knows nor for what one does not know. This is the paradox that Plato introduces in his, Meno. Considering the former, no search is necessary because one has already found it and in the case of the later, one will not know what to search for because his or her knowledge does not extend to include it. However, by engaging in a dialogue, even Meno’s slave is able to demonstrate a profound understanding that had he remained silent, neither he nor anyone else would have known him capable of.
In order to begin a dialogue with both vulnerable and non-vulnerable populations we must gain acceptance into the communities where we will be working. The only way to gain access and acceptance to a person or place is through trust. For this reason, we began by transecting the city of Aurora, specifically the areas two blocks north and south of Colfax Avenue, from Yosemite to Havana. While we were eager to test our theories and conduct interviews, we spent weeks engaged in participant observation, and even after we began conducting structured interviews, we did not neglect continuing participant observation and conducting semi-structured interviews. While it is essential to collect data, we know that without being aware of the activities people take part in, where they shop and how they live, the data we collect will not be very rich.
In an effort to do only benevolent research, aimed at doing good, as well as non-malevolent research, which does no harm, we will not impress or force our interests on members of the communities in which we are guests. There is always the temptation to arrive on the scene with a checklist in tow and hasten to check each item, feel accomplished and move on. Instead of assuming that we possessed knowledge about a community, we let it speak to us. Collecting data that would help us understand the increasing diversity in Aurora and some of the challenges perceived by foreign-born and native-born residents alike, we respected all the people who choose to participate in our project, as well as other members of the communities who were indirect participants.
While we only had ten weeks to transect Aurora, engage in participant observation and conduct interviews, we were fully part of the process of our work, never compromising our ethical standards to garner responses from interviewees that aligned with our thoughts or pressed for information of any kind. In his essay, “Thinking About the Ethics of Field Work,” Ken Wilson states that, “Even if your presentation is limited, it can enable, for example, the views of the powerless groups in the population to be articulated alongside those of the dominant and thus contribute to the initiation of developments in the future” (1993, p. 189). The contact that we have and the data that we collected, done so ethically, even if not totally comprehensive, will benefit all of those involved with our project.
The limited time we had in the field and the fact that most of the people we interviewed and events we attended were done only once made the first impressions we gave more important than they would have been had there been opportunities to get to know people over time. More importantly than our appearances and reactions to the community was our entry, which affected our intentions, interactions and the information we received in Aurora. We are three students pursuing graduate degrees for whom this project is one of a kind, but one of many we are working on this academic quarter. While none of us exude wealth or prestige in our appearance and actions, the fact that we are students at the University of Denver, backed by many resources and opportunities, highlights a difference between us, and the more vulnerable populations we encountered. While we were among immigrants and have studied laws concerning immigration, we are not impacted, in a practical sense, in the same way that our subjects are.
Each team member interpreted the information he or she received while conducting fieldwork in Aurora through his or her own past experiences, none of which came from Aurora. While someone from Aurora doing a similar project would have a different bias, our individual biases affected the conclusions we made about our data because ultimately we connected themes and drew comparisons not only from within the confines of the time we spent in Aurora. However, we are conscious of and have thoroughly investigated the starting point and intentions for the project and how our experiences in the field meshed with them. Not only as a group did we have a particular approach to this project but we did so individually as well. Through discussions among group members about privilege and backgrounds, we worked to better understand the position from which each of us was entering the community and in doing so brought honesty and transparency to our work.
Context and Background for Original Aurora
Original Aurora is five square miles within the city of Aurora, Colorado bordered by the City of Denver to the West at Yosemite Street, the neighborhoods of Stapleton and Fitzsimmons to the north, Interstate 225 to the East, and 6th Avenue and Lowry Air Force Base to the South. Original Aurora serves as home to roughly 45,000 people, or 14 percent of Aurora’s population. Therefore, Original Aurora’s population density is about 9,000 people per square mile compared to the city’s population density of only 2,000 people per square mile (City-data.com, 2013a). “From the 2010 Census data, Aurora was the most racially diverse city in the metro region and 38.9 percent of the population identified their race as a category other than White” (City of Aurora, 2012, p.19). Even more racially diverse than that, within the Original Aurora neighborhood alone, 70.8 percent of the population identified as a race other than White (Demographics Data, 2011). The city of Aurora has seen a rapid growth in the Hispanic population, increasing 530 percent between 1990 and 2010, with the highest concentration of Hispanics/Latinos living on or near Colfax Avenue in Original Aurora (City of Aurora, 2012, p. 20). In fact, of Original Aurora’s population, nearly 40 percent are foreign-born, and of that, nearly 10 percent are naturalized citizens (City-data.com, 2013b). With such varied backgrounds, the language too is varied, with more than 90 languages spoken in the neighborhood (Verlee, 2012). Twenty-three percent of people say they do not speak English well or at all. The median household income is about $45,000, 20 percent less than the Colorado average; and, more than 35 percent of families and households reported incomes below the federal poverty level in 2010 (City-data.com, 2013b). More than half the population rents, rather than owning a home. Most males work in construction or maintenance occupations (33 percent), while most women work in service occupations (41.8 percent). In more than 75 percent of married-couple homes, both are working (City-data.com, 2013a). This data confirms that although Original Aurora is rich with diversity, its residents are living in poverty and uncertainty.
Nearly 122 years ago, a real estate tycoon Donald Fletcher moved to Colorado for health reasons. He founded a town on the plains east of Denver in 1891 and named it after himself (Barber & Barber, n.d.). Two years later, he left this town because of the shortage of water; however, residents who stayed behind surprisingly survived the drought and protected this small town from being annexed by Denver. In 1907, this small town got a new name: Aurora, which means: “dawn” in Latin (Aurora History Museum, n.d.).
With this fresh start, Aurora was began to blossom. During this process, Colfax Avenue’s influence could not be ignored. Colfax links Aurora, Denver and Lakewood, and is also responsible for stimulating post-war prosperity since it connects America from coast-to-coast by highway, playing a significant role in commercial transportation. In addition, stores, public facilities, and municipal offices are all located near or on Colfax, reinforcing its pivotal position (Aurora History Museum, n.d.).
However, by 1970, the situation of Aurora started to deteriorate. The crime rate was rising, while income was decreasing. “They sold off properties to a developer interested in putting up a high-rise in its place or leaving the home abandoned. The demographics of people left behind were an underclass of transients and renters” (Wikipedia, 2013). Jack Kerouac, in his novel On The Road, writes that they “roared east along Colfax and out to the Kansas plains” (Kerouac, 1991, p.112); Playboy Magazine also commented that Colfax is “the longest, wickedest street in America” (Wikipedia, 2013). The deterioration of Aurora left an unrestrained, restless and turbulent impression on residents as well as the ineffaceable impact to economy and public security that still affects development of Aurora and Colfax Avenue. As one of our interviewees described: “Colfax is full of prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, and people just trying to survive.” Today, Aurora is famous for its diverse immigrants population.
Church—Community within the Community
There are over 60 churches in Aurora representing 15 different religious traditions. Among those represented are Baptist, Catholic, Nazarene, Lutheran and Episcopal. In our research, we focused on two churches: Kingdom Connection Christian Center and St. James Roman Catholic Church. We attended church services and attended church-sponsored events, using these opportunities to conduct interviews with parishioners.
Located on Del Mar Parkway, Kingdom Connection Christian Center is a commodious building, which can accommodate over 100 people. It has a diversified population from over 18 African countries, but churchgoers are predominantly from Nigeria. The services held in Kingdom Connection Christian Center demonstrate uphold African traditions. For example, their church celebrations usually last over two hours and sometimes, over three hours, if it is a special event. In addition, when attending events, the majority of people dress in traditional, African costumes. Also, they have special hymns with African-style rhythm that would not be heard in other churches.
St. James Roman Catholic Church is a church community which welcomes Catholic Christians from over 15 countries as diverse as Poland, Peru, Mexico, India, Turkey, Colombia and Honduras who speak more than seven different languages, such as English, Spanish, Indian, Polish, Turkish and Italian. In order to involve various people in the Aurora area, especially on Colfax Avenue, the pastor, Father Felix, held special street events six Sundays in a row on Colfax. He invited missionaries to give speeches about the journeys they traveled to arrive at an understanding of God. We witnessed a man talk about the difficulties he endured when he was distanced from his family because of work and how he nearly lost his faith in the Lord. We also met a missionary from Poland who travels from country to country, preaching and organizing services that incorporate singing, dancing and group activities. Those in attendance shared that they have rarely experienced such activities in Catholic services, but these very activities draw them to St. James parish.
A woman who has been attending St. James church services for over 10 years told us: “St James church, for the last 15 years, has been working to establish the church as a community, as well as encouraging us to intentionally share it with others.” During other interviews, we heard similar comments repeated several times. Therefore, residents and immigrants in these two churches appreciate and acknowledge what churches have done to develop and unite the community. Moreover, they also believe that involving people in church is a good way to minimize danger in this area, and that growing community within churches will facilitate communication amongst community members and ensure the community’s prosperity.
We observed that most of people who attend Kingdom Connection Christian Centre have vehicles. Similarly, most people who go to St. James street events also drive, and sometimes, assist with carrying banners, chairs and tables. A large proportion of those who belong to St. James parish do not live in that area. In fact, one woman who we interviewed drives 20 minutes to attend services. We discovered that immigrants make up the majority of these two churches but only a small number of immigrants who regularly attend these churches have been well educated and are working with organizations concerned with immigrant rights. Therefore, in our opinion, although churches’ efforts could not be understated, it is also possible that churches have divided the community into two parts: a part of immigrants and residents who are eager to work together to create prosperity for the community and another which has been left behind. This latter group is exactly the group to which churches, society and community need to pay attention.
Who is an Immigrant
We worked the question, “Who is an immigrant?” into most of our interviews because we were interested in gaging the various answers to this question to discover where similarities and differences existed among community members. We have classified two types of answers to this question: one from people whose families are not originally from the United States and another one from residents who are originally from Denver or other cities in United States.
The first type shows that there is a struggle for self-identification amongst immigrants and their children. A woman who was born in Texas but whose parents are originally from Peru, told us: “I am an immigrant, even though I was born here, I still consider myself an immigrant.” Similarly, two girls whose families have immigrated from Mexico a long time ago also expressed: “I think an immigrant is anybody who brings something different, like language or culture, regardless of whether it is good or bad, that the established community does not have.” Another woman commented that, “An immigrant is a person who comes into a new culture, which originally has a certain belief…it’s something inside of me.” Therefore, on the one hand, they lived in US culture almost for their whole life or they were born and raised as US citizens; on the other, personally, they still consider themselves as outsiders because of the way they look, their native culture, and other behaviors and beliefs that render them less confident in the United States.
We also noticed that some longer-term immigrants experience difficulty embracing the new diversity within the community. Not only are they struggling with local culture, but also with new immigrants. A woman who migrated from Colombia 10 years ago told us: “People will get annoyed with the immigrants who are newly arrived since we need to share a home with more people. But to me, I understand it. It’s a normal migration procession. And after a while, I will have my own house and my own home.” Therefore, old immigrants will melt into this community after a while and their identities will start to change from those of immigrants to residents.
The second type reveals that original residents or Caucasians have stereotyped immigrants, distinguishing them by ethnicities and looks regardless of whether some so-called “immigrants” were born in this country. The representative answer of this question was: “I think immigrants are those who come from other countries with different cultures.”
Community Identity—View from the Skatepark
I (Albin) had the experience of entering Aurora by car with my team members and getting dropped off on Colfax by a friend, but most times, I entered on the #15 Colfax bus. When I took the bus I would have my skateboard and I always felt most comfortable entering the community in this fashion. There is a smooth transition from being on the bus and stepping off, along with other people from the bus, as opposed to pulling up in a car, alone or with one or two other people, which could be arriving from across the city or across the country.
The way in which one enters a community says a great deal. By taking the bus, no matter where one comes from, what he or she does for work or what he or she will do upon leaving the community, it sends the message that the fieldworker is part of the community, or at the very least, not above anyone. If the people he comes into contact with do not share this thought, then at least the fieldworker carries such a perception of himself and meets people from this place.
While mapping, participant observation and interviews can inform the fieldworker and enable him to form ideas and make connections to the question he is asking, the conclusions he makes and knowledge he has obtained will most likely remain on paper and not go back into the community. Having learned that there was no homeless shelter in Aurora through an interview with Mr. Bradley and having the hotel where homeless men and women can get vouchers from the city to spend the night pointed out to me, I knew something of minor importance. Riding the bus into Aurora one day however, the knowledge became very important because I met a man who had just been released from prison and he was trying to find this hotel. I had the information and was in an environment where it was useful.
Any of the kids I met at the skateboard park in Aurora would have been able to do the same thing. Most of them are from the neighborhood and either skate or take the bus to the park. If someone skateboards, he or she is by definition a street person, attuned to the cracks in the sidewalks and the slope of the streets but also to the people who share the streets or work at places for whom the act of skateboarding is an annoyance. For this reason, skateboarders are usually cordial with one another and welcoming in a general sense but like their surfing forefathers, they can be overly protective when there are a limited number of breaking waves, or in this case, a limited number of skate spots.
I approached the kids at the Aurora skate park both as a fieldworker and as a skateboarder. My initial interest was in talking and gathering information immediately, having production goals in mind, but I understood that this would be both awkward and unproductive. The first time I went to the park was on a warm Saturday afternoon. I had no idea that it was there and just stumbled upon it so I did not have my skateboard. Instead of trying to explain myself and why I was there, I only watched for a while and made note of who was really good on a skateboard, what the dynamics of the park were, i.e. whether it appeared as a ‘locals only’ place, and who the gatekeepers might be. When I returned the next week with a skateboard, it did not take long before I shook off the notion that I was an outsider, only there to do research, and I just skated. I did not go out of my way to talk to anyone. In the process of riding around the park and figuring out lines (various tricks performed in a row) I could do, I forgot that I had stock questions in mind and began talking to kids about the park itself, getting that it was anywhere from one and a half years to three years old, where they are from, Aurora to Denver to Kansas, and what the neighborhood is like, which varied from “dangerous,” to “safe,” to “boring.”
I learned that everyone at the park knew one another and there was no obvious bad blood. There were two predominant groups: those who mostly skated and those who mostly sat on their skateboards, talked and watched. This is the case at most skate spots. Bernard explains that, “Fieldwork can involve two quite different roles–that of participating observer and that of observing participant. By far, most anthropological research is based on the first role, that of participating observer” (1994, p. 136). While I was a participating observer in Aurora, within the skate park itself, I was more of an observing participant, focused more on skateboarding than researching.
Frog and his brother Sega turned out to be the gatekeepers. They are two brothers who live “about three blocks” from the skate park and they go there almost every day. They are both in high school, but I did not ask them their ages. Once we had talked for awhile, I asked Frog to show me how to get air off of one of the ramps which turned into a contest of who could go higher. Then, Scan joined in and when we were waiting for our turns, I found out that Scan recently moved to Aurora from Topeka, Kansas. He likes his new home and feels comfortable here and I suspect it has something to do with, first, his having a place to go–the skate park–and second, with his being accepted by the people there. I got the impression that Scan could have moved anywhere with a skate park and skaters and felt comfortable. This is also the feeling I got when talking to people at the St. James outdoor Catholic mass. One woman in particular explained that the people who are part of the parish bring different things with them, tangible and intangible, but while people may bring crosses that are different shapes, colors and styles; they all bring crosses. In the same way, everyone at the skate park brings a different style and background, but they all bring a skateboard.
While I explained that I was a graduate student doing a research project in their community none of the kids were very interested. They understood that the community was diverse and that many different languages were spoken there, but I did not have the time to build rapport with the skaters to ask them questions about their parents’ lives and work experiences or even to ask to meet and interview their parents. Everyone had Mexican origins, except Scan, who was white and Clyde who was black. Not speaking Spanish was a barrier to doing more in depth research.
This was the first time that I did participant observation in an environment, at least generically, where I had spent a lot of time. The ramps and rails similar to the ones I had skated on for years. Like Bernard explains in his hypothetical example of doing participant observation at a Laundromat where he was a regular customer he would realize that, “Participant observation would help you intellectualize what you already know” (1994, p. 140). I learned that more important than the size or quality of a place is the existence of the place itself. The skate park filled the role of facilitator of friendships, training center, after school club and babysitter (there was one little boy who could not have been older than three). Just by being with kids, learning about their perception of themselves and the neighborhood and their awareness of how they think others not from the community perceive it, taught me a lot. Frog assumes that people not from the community are scared of it, but having lived there his whole life, he does not see it as a scary place. My ability to skateboard and although I was older than all the other skaters, not appearing to be too old helped cut down on the problem of “reactivity,” which Bernard defines as, “people changing their behavior when they know that they are being studied” (p. 141). The kids just wanted to skate and be with their friends. It was like the world outside the skate park did not exist, but by entering and exiting on the #15 bus I was never forgetful that it does.
Privilege and “Place”
Through Councilwoman Mounier’s constituents, we were able to secure two structured, in-person interviews. Interviewees were middle to upper class white males over the age of 50 who had some connection to the neighborhood, either through past residency or current employment. Both come from a place of privilege. Those “who are socially privileged are rarely explicitly self-conscious of the nature of their privilege or willing to examine their privilege because they see their state as natural and normal” (“Privilege”, 2013). White privilege and male privilege afford these two men the illusion that their customs, culture, food, religion, etcetera are all the norm, “othering” anything and anyone that differs from that. Neither actually lives in the neighborhood, but in other parts of the Denver Metro region with higher median incomes and lower crime rates. Although both community members have similar backgrounds, each has a different attitude toward the neighborhood: one negative and one positive.
Speaking with Mr. Anderson, we encountered a rather grim view of the neighborhood. As someone who lived in Aurora’s Ward I for nearly 40 years before moving to a nearby neighborhood, Mr. Anderson watched the neighborhood change from a developing thoroughfare to a dilapidated downtown. When describing the city, Mr. Anderson says, “There is no community. There is no downtown.” He believes that City Council is to blame for this decline. Moving the city government buildings out of the downtown core and endorsing shopping centers rather than small businesses has left Aurora without a central hub in which to bring the city and its residents together. The Aurora Municipal Center was completed in February 2004 and is located nearly 5 miles away from original downtown, no longer on Colfax Avenue, but off of Alameda Avenue and South Chamber’s Road (Todd, Rapp, Charlson, & Holsteen, 2004, p. 92).
As the area has changed over the years, Mr. Anderson believes that residents have become more segregated, generally sticking to themselves. The crowds of day laborers on the street and homeless persons loitering in public spaces deter him and other residents from venturing downtown. He has felt afraid and speculates that others share that sentiment: afraid of large groups of men with “nothing better to do” and afraid of being “hassled for change”. We proposed the idea of creating a place for these day laborers to gather in order to minimize these fears. His assumption of the city’s reaction to this solution was, “Not in my backyard,” explaining that most people would think it a good idea, but do not want it close to them. Instead, he suggests taking a cue from Denver and creating new neighborhoods out of blighted neighborhoods, providing incentives for new builds. The only drawback to this solution would be gentrification, pricing low-income and poorer residents out of the neighborhood. Much like the Denver neighborhoods of the Highlands, Sunnyside, Five Points, Capitol Hill and Auraria, urban renewal in Original Aurora could push lower income families and those living below the poverty line out of the neighborhood (Fitzgerald, 2011). Contradicting his first suggestion, he then states that cities need “entry” neighborhoods like this. Mr. Anderson pointed out “there will always be an exploited population.” We realize this is a population to which he does not belong.
From a more positive perspective, Mr. Bradley sees potential in Aurora. As a Denver resident and Aurora business owner, he has grown familiar with the neighborhood and his fellow business owners over the last 15 years. Mr. Bradley’s business is successful, allowing him to do charity work in other countries, as well as within the community. As he took us on a driving tour of the downtown area—approximately the same area we had mapped out on foot—he pointed out businesses to which his company was able to provide pro-bono or discounted work, making improvements to the property aesthetics. He also identified some of the local businesses that do good work in the community, including those that offer health services or refugee services for little to no charge. Through his eyes, we saw a glimpse of interconnectedness among neighbors and fellow business owners.
While Mr. Bradley admits that Aurora has its problems—gangs being one of them, showing us where they gather and City Council efforts to “stop” them—he believes that Aurora gets its bad reputation from Denver news. He claims that when the Denver Post publishes bad news headlines, it always starts with “in Aurora” as opposed to saying “in Denver”. He speculates that people unjustly fear the downtown area. While Aurora’s crime rate is higher than the national average—as is Denver’s—this fear seems to be unfounded for Original Aurora. In fact, Aurora’s major crimes reported for District 1 (which includes Original Aurora) was down by two percent in 2012 from 2011, whereas citywide, Aurora reported a two percent increase in crime (Aurora Police Department, 2012).
Despite stigmas about the neighborhood, Mr. Bradley, like us, sees the need for “place” in the community. As scholar Ashcroft explains, “place is never simply a location, nor is it a static cultural memory…like culture itself, place is in a continual and dynamic state of formation, a process intimately bound up with the culture and identity of its inhabitants” (Hall, 2010, p. 11). With a large collection of cultures and customs, Original Aurora’s population, both native-born and foreign-born, needs a “place” to renegotiate its identity. Its residents need the opportunity, whether it is a community center, a park, an event, or some other space, to overcome the disconnectedness from the neighborhood and their neighbors. Both foreign-born and native-born residents seem to have the same feeling about Original Aurora. It is strange to them, both strange to foreign-borns, as it is unlike their place of origin, and strange to native-borns, as it has changed from the Original Aurora they once knew. Residents need to work together to create a “place” and a new identity for the neighborhood—a place to commune together through food, religion, art, music, literature, tradition and so on.
Solutions for a Stronger Community
Research shows that Aurora is an incredibly diverse and culturally vibrant city. However, foreign-born residents and native-born residents have mixed views on integration, remaining segregated and disconnected. Some native-born residents see foreign-born residents—more specifically large gatherings of day laborers—as intimidating, frightening and even, violent; whereas, other residents see an opportunity for vital cultural integration within the community. There are a number of cities across the country—like Aurora—that have seen an influx in immigrant populations over the last 10 to 20 years. Every city takes a different approach to newcomers, but those that encourage participation from everyone in the community—foreign-born residents, native-born residents, community organizations, and local government—are most successfully integrated, resulting in stronger communities both socially and economically. Even former Mayor of Littleton Susan Thornton said, “Communities that don’t reach out to newcomers risk having separate and divisive ‘we-they’ neighborhoods. It’s essential to provide the tools that will help immigrants put down roots and become true members of our community,” (Petsod, Wang & McGarvey, n.d., p 40). With that in mind, three possible solutions to encourage better integration and stronger community in “Original Aurora” include: education and advocacy; arts and culture; and, community redevelopment.
Education and Advocacy
Of the barriers that exist for immigrants, difficulties with language, technology, employment, cultural understanding and political engagement could be reduced through more education for, both immigrants and their receiving community, as well as advocacy for equal rights and employment. Organizations, like Boulder-based Intercambio Uniting Communities, which organize volunteers within the community to teach their immigrant peers the English language, help eliminate the language barrier for immigrants, making it easier to connect with their neighbors and even in finding better employment. In addition to simply learning English, Intercambio reports that students and teachers form lasting friendships, students feel more comfortable in their neighborhoods and at their jobs, and students gain a better understanding of U.S. culture (Our Impact, 2012). Hiring centers, like Centro Humanitario, and educational institutions “help provide a ‘bridge’ between unemployed immigrants and local employers” (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2006, p 2). Immigrants have the opportunity to develop personal and professional skills through workshops and classes—learning basic techniques for new technology or essential information about workers’ rights. Centro Humanitario, attentive to the often overlooked basic needs of immigrants, offers health and wellness seminars as well as instructions on how to navigate the public transportation system in Denver. Furthermore, to assist immigrants in acquiring citizenship, a successful Citizenship Mentoring Program in Littleton “pairs citizen mentors one-on-one with immigrants studying for the naturalization test” (Downs-Karkos, p 9). Similar to Intercambio, this program uses volunteers from the community to help their immigrant neighbors, resulting in a high success rate as well as close friendships between mentors and students (Downs-Karkos, p 9). Making a connection with a native-born resident through programs such as this provides opportunities for foreign-born residents to enter a new network of friends, building relationships with residents they might not have otherwise met. Finally, linking immigrants to their political leaders can be achieved through organizations, like Rights for All People, which give immigrants a voice in the political arena and help them advocate for “proactive legislation for positive change” (History of RAP, n.d.). These types of organizations and public programs help immigrants become contributing members of society and help further community integration, giving immigrants a sense of pride in themselves and giving neighbors opportunities to build trusting relationships. Knowing that immigrants are taking advantage of organizations like RAP to make their community a better place to live would increase the likelihood of native-born residents seeing foreign-born residents as positive contributors to the community rather than outsiders looking for a handout.
Arts and Culture
Revival of arts and culture within other cities around the country has helped bolster the economy and provide a common bond among neighbors. An successful example of this can be found in Santa Ana, California, a city of similar size with a population that is 74 percent Hispanic. Santa Ana went through the same rapid growth as Aurora and revitalization efforts emphasized the city’s rich historical and cultural heritage. In the 1990s, the Santa Arts District was born in one central building that housed artists and art exhibitions (History, n.d.). The Arts District was so successful that it spread to fill an eight-block radius, drawing tourists from around the city and surrounding areas. With investment in urban revitalization, Santa Ana has seen even more growth (About SAAD, n.d.). Similarly, integration of cultures and neighbors could be facilitated in Aurora through the arts. With the help of local government, an arts and culture committee could be formed with the mission to improve Aurora’s downtown through the creation and maintenance of an arts district. According to its website, Aurora currently has an arts district, but some residents do not see it as fully fledged or even, appealing. Appointing members from diverse backgrounds to the arts and culture committee will further help with integration of the neighborhoods, bringing insight from various cultures and backgrounds to help create a more robust and engaging arts district. Similar to Santa Ana’s efforts, Aurora could bring in more public art installations to not only beautify the area, but also draw in more foot traffic. In addition, Aurora could focus more City funding on community street festivals similar to Denver’s People’s Fair or the Five Points Jazz Festival. This would draw more people from outside the neighborhood in and help dispel the “dangerous neighborhood” stigma. Highlighting the history of the neighborhood and creating a walking tour of downtown would also give residents and visitors an opportunity to get to know the neighborhood. Community festivals and neighborhood tours also give neighbors the opportunity to get to know each other, share stories and find commonality.
Again, Aurora can mimic community redevelopment and integration ideas already being implemented in nearby communities like Denver and Boulder. City Council or local organizations can facilitate a dialogue between neighbors similar to a Boulder County program Colorado’s Dialogues on Immigrant Integration. This program provides opportunities for conversation among neighbors and lawmakers on both large and small scales (Downs-Karkos, p. 6). One option for Aurora would be to form a Business Improvement District (BID) that allows for communitywide planning between foreign born and native born residents, businesses, public schools, faith-based organizations and so on. This community task force would be the engine behind community redevelopment or improvement plans taking into consideration all of the stakeholders represented. Ideas the BID could implement would include block parties and neighborhood watch programs—block parties to bring neighbors together and neighborhood watch programs to build trust (Downs-Karkos, p. 11). Neighborhood revitalization ideas might involve “greening” of the community through tree planting, transforming the “park” in front of the MLK library from concrete to grass, or hosting a regular farmer’s market in “original downtown” (Sherer, 2006). Our solutions for a stronger community in Aurora would integrate immigrants into the community without drastically and immediately changing the livelihood of Aurora’s residents.
We recognized potential in the community for integration, better interconnectedness among neighbors and economic growth within the city. We were not able to account for the disconnecting factors between foreign-born and native-born residents, but we did find evidence of “pocket” communities in churches, the skatepark and soccer leagues. We provided solutions for a stronger community based on substantial examples of success in other cities. These solutions go beyond helping just foreign-born residents, but spread throughout the community to indirectly benefit relatives, neighbors and city officials. In addition, the city of Aurora has already begun to implement some of these solutions. This, combined with the limitations of our study, provide a springboard from which more research should be based.
With more time and relevant language skills, future research should include a more representative sample by conducting in-depth interviews with foreign-born residents, collecting background information, including expectations of the community that would receive them. For a better understanding of the community, additional parties to be interviewed could include law enforcement, doctors, teachers, firefighters, park rangers and leaders of organizations working with these vulnerable populations. Furthermore, comparative data with Downtown Denver, as we originally wanted to include, would give our future research more context in which to analyze the data. Finally, taking the research even further, additional study could combine the examination of attitudes and opinions with an analysis of foreign-born residents’ entry into the country and entry into social networks.
About SAAD, (n.d.). Santa Ana Arts District. Retrieved from
Aurora History Museum. (n.d.). Aurora, Colorado History Quick Fact Sheet. Retrieved from
Aurora Police Department. (2012). 2012 Year-End Report [Data file]. Retrieved from
Barber, J. & Barber, A. (n.d.). Original Aurora. Retrieved from
Bernard, H. R. (1994). Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative
Approaches. 2nd Edition. Sage Publication. p. 136-154.
City-data.com. (2013a). Original Aurora neighborhood in Aurora, Colorado (CO), 80010,
80011 detailed profile [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Original-Aurora-Aurora-CO.html#ixzz2V0UYtnjh
City-data.com. (2013b). 80010 Zip Code Detailed Profile [Data file]. Retrieved from
City of Aurora. (2012). Who is Aurora? An overview of demographic and social data and trends.
Retrieved from https://www.auroragov.org/cs/groups/public/documents/document/013586.pdf
Demographics Data. (2011). Income and Population Demographics for 80010 [Data file].
Retrieved from http://www.freedemographicsdata.com/colorado/aurora/colorado-aurora-80010.html
Downs-Karkos, S. (2011). The Receiving Communities Toolkit: A Guide for Engaging Mainstream
America in Immigrant Integration. Retrieved from http://www.welcomingamerica.org
Fitzgerald, T. (2011, May 4). The ‘best’ neighborhoods in Denver: Middle-class comfort at an
uncomfortable price. UCD Advocate, Retrieved from http://www.ucdadvocate.com/the-best-neighborhoods-in-denver-1.2219522 – .UapseGTJFst
Hall, M.L. (2010). Re-constituting place and space: Culture and communication in the
construction of a Jamaican transnational identity, Howard Journal of Communication, Vol. 21(2), pp. 119-140.
History, (n.d.). Santa Ana Arts District. Retrieved from
History of RAP. (n.d.). Rights for All People. In About. Retrieved from http://www.rap-dpt.org/history/
Kerouac, J. (1991). On The Road. New York, New York: Penguin Books.
“Privilege.” Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2009.
Credo Reference. 9 July 2010. Web. 1 June 2013. Retrieved from
Petsod, D., Wang, T., & McGarvey, C. (n.d.). Investing in Our Communities: Strategies for
Immigrant Integration. Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org/~/media/Pubs/Topics/
Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (2006). From Immigration to
Integration. Policy Brief, November 2006. Retrieved from
Our Impact. (2012). Intercambio Uniting Communities. In About. Retrieved from
Sherer, P. M. (2006). The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open
Space. Retrieved from http://www.eastshorepark.org/benefits_of_parks%20tpl.pdf
Todd, P., Rapp, J. G., Charlson, K. & Holsteen, D., (2004). Aurora Municipal Center’s Stunning
Design Showcases the Possibilities of Precast Concrete Solutions. PCI Journal, November–December, 2004, 80–93.
Wikipedia. (2013). Colfax Avenue. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colfax_Avenue
Verlee, M. (2012, September 27). Aurora, Colo., Tries To Capitalize On Its Ethnic Riches.
National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.wbur.org/npr/161885219/aurora-colo-tries-to-capitalize-on-its-ethnic-riches
Wilson, K. (1993). Thinking about the Ethics of Fieldwork. In Devereux, S. & Hoddinott, J. (Eds.)
Fieldwork in Developing Countries. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, pp. 179–199.
- Do you live or work in or near this neighborhood? How long?
- Are you from Colorado originally? If no, where are you from?
- What do you like about the neighborhood?
4. What do you dislike about the neighborhood?
- How has the neighborhood changed, i.e. population, look, feel, property value?
- In your opinion, how could the neighborhood be improved?
- Have you ever felt unsafe? What caused these feelings?
- How would you categorize someone as an immigrant?
- Do you think immigrants feel welcomed in the neighborhood?
- Do you think that immigrants pose a threat to the community?
- Do you think that immigrants can integrate into the neighborhood? Why or why not?
- How do you define community?