The Unthinkable

Aurora, Colorado: Small Town Shaken by ‘Dark Knight’ Shooting

What is Aurora really like? Kevin Fallon reports on the city that was once one of the safest in America.

Barry Gutierrez / AP Photo

Aurora, Colo., is a city of superlatives. It’s appeared on Men’s Health magazine’s list of best cities for men five years in a row. U.S. News and World Report recently ranked five of the specialties at the University of Colorado Hospital as among the best in the nation. Sports Illustrated named it Colorado’s best “Sportstown” in 2003. In December 2011, Forbes declared it the ninth-safest city in America. Just seven months later, Aurora adds another superlative to its list: the site of the worst mass shooting in the U.S. since the 2009 attack at Fort Hood, Texas, and the deadliest in Colorado since Columbine.

A 24-year-old gunman named James Holmes, a former University of Colorado graduate student, reportedly opened fire at the audience attending a packed midnight screening of the hotly anticipated summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises Thursday night, killing 12 people and leaving at least 50 injured. It’s a particularly startling turn of events for a city that, according to FBI crime statistics, had only six killings in all of 2011, making Aurora the cruelest of clichés: the quiet town rocked by unspeakable tragedy.

“People are in shock,” says Melanie Zeitler, director of development and marketing at the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora. “It’s such a horrific crime that it’s just kind of unfathomable to hear of it happening anywhere, let alone five or seven miles from where you work.”

To hear people describe Aurora as a sort of suburban utopia, it’s easy to believe their surprise. It’s the third-largest city in Colorado—population just over 325,000—and the quintessential All-American city. It’s less than 10 miles from the urban sprawl of Denver, yet it’s a High Plains city with picturesque views of the Rocky Mountains. It’s home to the Buckley Air Force Base, populating the city with more than 12,000 military personnel and their families. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both have large outposts there.

Smack dab in the middle of town is the Plains Conservation Center, a 1,100-acre prairie reserve where one of the largest herds of pronghorns in North America roam free as if on the Serengeti—yet just six miles away is the bustling Town Center at Aurora mall, with its Macy’s, Sears, and Century 16 movie theater, where the deadly shooting took place.

“Aurora blends a rural setting with an urban feel,” says Gary Wheat, president and CEO of Visit Aurora, the city’s tourism board. “You feel like you know everyone, but again it’s a city of almost 330,000 people and has all the services that demands.”

By some respects, the town is ubiquitously suburban. Just across the street from Century 16 is a Target. The parking lot for Sears has a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant in it. Strip malls and shopping plazas dot the center of the city. The housing, largely, is in pop-up communities, “cookie-cutter things that are typical of suburbia,” says Zeitler. There are a “plethora” of megachurches and 10 golf courses. No proper Auroran would be caught out on a winter Sunday without their navy and orange on, prepping for the Denver Broncos football game. Want to take advantage of the dozens of hiking trails? Feel free—Aurora averages 300 days of sunshine a year.

Now? The town included on U.S. News and World Report’s list of 10 Winter Wonderlands for Retirement, America’s Promise Alliance’s roster of Best Communities for Young People, and—it bears mentioning again—the Forbes list of safest cities has been invaded by a circus of media reporters and gawkers. The busy intersections surrounding the Town Center mall and Holmes’s apartment building have been cordoned off by police tape, shut down completely. “This obviously takes the breath away of everyone in the city,” Wheat says.

Tonight, less than 24 hours since tragedy struck, between 400 and 500 people—an extremely large gathering by Aurora’s standard—are expected to attend the Eighth Annual Hops for Habitat Festival at the Plains Conservation Center, a beer festival with tastings from 16 microbreweries and two food trucks, and which will feature prairie wagon rides and a campfire marshmallow roast. The current mood in Aurora isn’t exactly what its organizers expected when they planned the supposed-to-be-jovial affair.

“We’re sort of hoping that it’s a community galvanizing event,” says Zeitler, who helped plan the festival. “People need to come together and grieve as a community and also celebrate the fact that life is fragile.”

But don’t expect Aurora to forget recent events any time soon. “I look back at Columbine, which also happened in Colorado,” says Zeitler. “It was years of grieving and healing. You still hear the name Columbine and it elicits all kinds of things. People in Aurora are resilient, but while we can heal, we don’t forget. For a long time, there will be many stark reminders of how delicate life is.”