Conversation: Chicago’s 1995 Heat Wave

November 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez speaks with Eric Klinenberg about his new book on the 1995 Chicago heat wave.


RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” The author is Eric Klinenberg. He teaches sociology at New York University. Heat Wave is part history book, part urban handbook, part detective story, chronicling the days of intense heat that blanketed Chicago in July of 1995, a blistering week of record temperatures that killed at least 700 people, and maybe many more.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you call this Disaster in Chicago. Was it a natural disaster?

ERIC KLINENBERG, Author, “Heat Wave:” Well, it did have a natural dimension to it. In the week of July 14 to July 20, 1995, the temperatures in Chicago were extreme. The humidities were very high. There were a series of meteorological conditions that made it dangerous, but really we’re talking about a social disaster, a political breakdown, the story of a city that couldn’t handle the pressures exerted upon it, because this is a story of 700 people dying, and hundreds of people dying alone, outside of friendship networks, family ties, community organizations’ reach, social service providers. And there’s nothing natural about so many hundreds of people dying alone. The book is an investigation to try to understand why that happened.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, who shares the blame for so many deaths?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, what I say is that when you have hundreds of deaths in a week like this, you can’t easily point a finger of blame and say, “it’s the mayor’s fault or the utilities’ providers’ fault, families’ fault.” You can see breakdowns at almost every level of the social system. That’s clear. What Chicago needs to do, and what cities need to do after a trauma like this is to look closely at themselves and to see where there are breakdowns, why some neighborhoods have higher death rates than others, how agencies, political agencies, can respond effectively, where they go wrong.

RAY SUAREZ: You found when you looked at who died that it was, I think, not surprisingly, more often the poor than the rich, but more often the black than the white, more often men than women. What was going on here? What tied together all those people who died?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Right. The real question is why so many people died alone. Who are the people who are likely to live alone, out of touch with those around them, perhaps in fear in their apartments, so isolated that they die and oftentimes are not discovered for several days afterwards? We know that there are certain groups in the city that are more likely to have high death rates in an event like this, vulnerable populations who always experience traumas more than others.

But what is fascinating and really vexing about the story of the heat wave is that there were certain patterns you would not have predicted. For example, women in the United States are so much more likely to live alone at the end of their lives than men that gerontologists consider aging alone to be primarily a women’s issue. But if you look at the heat wave mortality patterns, you find that men are actually about three times more likely than women to die when you do an adjustment for age. And similarly, we would expect in a city like Chicago, a city that’s famously segregated and unequal according to race, that we would have higher African American mortality than white mortality, but actually if you look very closely at the neighborhoods that had the low death rates and the high death rates, you find that there are actually several African American neighborhoods in Chicago, places over 90 percent black, that are among the lowest death spots in the city.

So clearly the story is not just about race and vulnerability. And if you look even more closely, more intriguing patterns emerge, because it turns out that it’s not just poor neighborhoods that are at risk. It’s specifically neighborhoods that have seen massive population abandonment in the decades before this trauma, commercial completion, abandonment of employers, places that saw the social ecology transform and no longer support the forms of collective life that would keep people connected to one another, protected by social networks. And so it’s in the places in Chicago that had that large population abandonment and the poverty, the violence, the crime that often comes with it, that you found conditions that would keep people in their homes, oftentimes to their peril.

RAY SUAREZ: You looked at two neighborhoods side by side– one almost entirely black, one almost entirely Mexican and Mexican American. The death rate, even with similar levels of poverty, is much lower in the Mexican neighborhood. Have you figured out why?

ERIC KLINENBERG: This was a difficult problem to make sense of, when I first started the research for Heat Wave. The story is you have these two neighborhoods that are literally next to each other, separated by just one street, and train tracks in places. They have almost identical rates of seniors living in poverty and seniors living alone. And they’re characterized oftentimes as poor inner city minority neighborhoods in the way that we conventionally talk about urban life. And yet if you look closely, you found something stunning during the week.

The North Lawndale neighborhood, which is primarily African American, had a death rate that was ten times higher than the death rates in Little Village. That’s something we wouldn’t have expected. Now, some people at the time said this had something to do with family values and the extent to which Latinos cared about protecting their older residents or their vulnerable residents. But I spent a lot of time in North Lawndale and found the same kinds of values, the same kinds of concerns among residents there.

The most striking difference between the neighborhoods was actually not the value structure of the people who were there, but the physical ecology of the place. If you spent time in North Lawndale, you would see a community that’s been devastated by a process of flight, first by the large-scale employers who had been there for decades, and then by the secondary businesses that had been there for a long time — banks and grocery stores, the commercial places that make street life animated and vital. And when they left, residents started to leave. Families began to break up because younger people went away to other regions or other cities to find jobs. And that left a neighborhood that once had over 100,000 people with fewer than 50,000 in 1995, and all of these conditions that would foster withdrawal, reclusion, particularly among older people who didn’t have resources drawing themselves outside.

But just across the street in Little Village, in a neighborhood that looks statistically very similar, you find a totally different kind of physical ecology. This is one of the few places in Chicago that actually gained population, and gained population massively in the period between 1960 and 1995. And so there is no abandonment there. It’s impossible to find an empty lot. The concept doesn’t make sense. Instead you find an area where people are literally living on top of one another. The street life is just booming. There are sidewalk vendors, stores everywhere you look. And those conditions foster a certain kind of connectedness and intensity of social life. What was most surprising to me, I have to say, is that those social-ecological conditions protected not only Latinos, but also many of the white seniors who live in that neighborhood who we would consider to be cultural isolates because they’re cut off from the community that’s come to dominate the area.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we live in a country where we’re going to have another 20 million to 30 million people over the age of 70 just in the next ten to fifteen years.

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s right.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: What should we take away from reading Heat Wave in understanding what it means to grow old here?

ERIC KLINENBERG: This phenomenon of aging alone and of aging in America is an issue of great importance for the United States and for cities beyond the United States as well. It’s a major demographic and historical change in a time that we live in now. Yet we spend very little time talking about what it means to grow old in cities today, what it means to stay integrated into a world when your social networks fall apart, your spouse dies, the people around you start to disappear from the world. They’re deep and challenging questions. I think Heat Wave just begins to touch on them.

But one thing that is clear is that the viability of our neighborhoods, the viability of the places where we make our lives and establish our communities, is of great significance to older people. They need resources that will draw them into a social world that will make their lives meaningful. It’s one thing to keep people alive for a very long time, but it’s another thing to keep them alive and make their lives rich with connections. And what’s clear now is that in some ways our successes have created perils for us, problems for us. We need to find ways to make cities healthy for everyone, not just for the young and the beautiful who enjoy the good things of street life, but also for people who remain committed to the city, who have made it their home, and who need a place to live.

RAY SUAREZ: “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” Eric Klinenberg, thanks a lot.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Thanks for having me.