Fearful Symmetries

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22 April, 2010

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg



With summer edging closer I decided to read Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, in which author and sociologist Eric Klinenberg analyzes the week-long heat wave which descended upon Chicago in July 1995 and resulted in the deaths of over 700 people from heat-related causes. While the intense heat (highs in the 90s-100s) and humidity serve as the proximate cause of death, Klinenberg digs deeper than the weather to look at the social environments of many of the decedents to find man-made causes of death.

While it was true, as the city claimed, that people from all area of Chicago died from the heat, most of them were elderly, black, poor, or some combination thereof. Indeed, blacks were more likely to die from the heat than any other racial group. Why should this be so? The real meat of the book comes when Klinenberg discusses the "social ecology" where these "typical" decedents lived. He compares and contrasts North Lawndale, a predominantly black neighborhood on the west side, and South Lawndale, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood bordering North Lawndale. Despite having similar numbers of elderly living alone, South Lawndale had a very low death rate from the heat whereas North Lawndale had the ignominious distinction of having one of the highest.

Klinenberg goes into great depth about the large numbers of elderly living alone. Children grow up and move away to seek their fortunes while their parents "age in place", as they say. But what we learn from comparing the two neighborhoods is that, depending on the social ecology, the experiences of the elderly can vary dramatically. In addition to health issues, many older people are fearful to leave their homes. North Lawndale is ridden with empty buildings and lots which fosters gangs and crime. Seniors are often afraid to go out because they're afraid of being mugged. And, when the heat wave came along, opening a window meant exposing oneself to intruders. Poverty enters the picture as we discover that some seniors who are lucky enough to have an air conditioner refused to turn it on because it would generate bills they could not afford to pay with the end result being their electricity would be cut off.
South Lawndale, on the other hand, had a social ecology which included busy streets full of people, shops, restaurants, etc. People in the neighborhood were out and about which contributed to a much lower crime rate than its neighbor to the north and less gang activity. The elderly of South Lawndale weren't anywhere near as afraid or isolated and so were more likely to leave their homes, open windows, and the like.

When Klinenberg looks at the role of the city in the disaster, he cites "five key features of the current mode of urban governance":

1) The delegation of key health and support services to paramilitary organizations, such as the Fire and Police Departments, where administrative systems and top officials are not always attuned to the new demands for such "soft services".

2) The lack of an effective system for organizing and coordinating the service programs of different city, county, state, and federal agencies.

3) The lack of political will and public commitment to provide basic resources for the protection of city resident.

4) The expectation that city residents, including the elderly and frail, will be active consumers of public goods, expert "customers" of city services made available in the market rather than "citizens" entitled to social protection.

5) The practice of governing by public relations.

It was #4 that struck me the most, although it certainly goes hand-in-hand with #3. (Klinenberg notes that #3 is the result of attitudes which find such things acceptable and a "taken-for-granted feature of urban life". I think that these attitudes are beginning to permeate Madison, hence my previous post about poverty here.) The heat wave happened in 1995 and I wonder if things have gotten better or worse as far as the notion of citizens being consumers in a marketplace as the Internet has rapidly spread. The first thing that springs to mind is the recent Greyhound pick-up spot debacle here in Madison. Yes, this is not strictly about the government, but it gets to a larger concern of mine which is that Internet access is becoming more and more important for people to understand their options in any given marketplace. As Brenda Konkel noted when the Greyhound pick-up spot dust settled: "you still can't buy tickets without internet access and a credit card".

As more and more citizens gather information about city services on the Internet, are cities also responding to those who don't have Internet access? If a heat wave hits Madison, what would be the city's response? Will it simply send out text messages saying "Go to the library to cool down" or would it actively seek out the most vulnerable and most likely to not be on the Internet (presumably with the help of various governmental and non-governmental groups) to check in on them or offer a ride?

Lastly, the book takes on the media. I've read plenty of books which critique the media so, although the content was new to me, the ideas weren't. That is, I understand ideas about image-obsessiveness, deadlines, and framing the story. Klinenberg is pretty harsh on the Sun-Times and Tribune for essentially using pictures of the dead bodies piling up at the morgue as a launching pad for framing the disaster in non-social terms with city officials getting their views out loud and clear. Plus he also chides editorial opinions which simply blame families for abandoning their elderly relatives. And it was interesting to see that the Tribune used photos of white kids trying to keep cool for suburban editions of the paper while those in the city got photos of Latinas.

Tellingly though, neighborhood rags and the Chicago Defender brought the issues of poverty and fear into the mix when explaining the disaster.

Heat Wave was an eminently fascinating book. I bought it because it pertained to my hometown but being a native son of Chicago certainly isn't necessary in understanding Klinenberg's social autopsy. It gave me much food for thought including how my home – Madison – is dealing with a growing population and a growing population of the poor. Furthermore, the Baby Boomers are aging which means more elderly than ever before. Will this simply mean more marginalized people? Lastly, I recalled my grandmother who died last year. Luckily she did not die isolated from family, unlike hundreds of people in Chicago in July 1995. And now that my mother is in her 70s, what obligations does that entail for me?
|| Palmer, 4:23 PM

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