Chicago’s killer heat wave of 1995 deserves more than remembrance–it deserves to be understood. In his 2002 book, Heat Wave (University of Chicago Press), sociologist Eric Klinenberg, now at NYU, sought to explain why hundreds of Chicagoans–disproportionately elderly, black, poor, and male–died ten years ago in one blistering July week. He identified a collection of policies and problems that made the extreme heat deadlier than it had to be, including social isolation, dangerous neighborhoods, social service cuts, misleading media coverage, and a city government that blamed victims and messengers instead of taking forceful action. In the three years since Heat Wave was published, many colleagues have applauded Klinenberg’s effort, but others question whether he proved the connections, contending that his key comparison between largely black, high-mortality North Lawndale and largely Latino, low-mortality Little Village was flawed: North Lawndale is much poorer than Little Village, making it hard to tell whether poverty (lack of air-conditioning) or some other neighborhood factor made the heat more lethal there. How can we keep it from happening again? Keep old folks in the family home? Hire more social workers? Reinstitute low-income energy assistance? Privatize more intelligently? Reshuffle City Hall staffers? The book only hints at answers to these questions. Hopefully at this forum, “Unnatural Disasters: Lessons From the Deadly Chicago Heat Wave,” Klinenberg and fellow panelists Bernardine Dohrn, Quentin Young, and Beth Richie will address them more directly. Moderated by WBEZ host Steve Edwards, the event’s sponsored by the Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council and the Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law; it’s free, but reservations are required. Thu 7/7, 6:30 PM, Thorne Auditorium, Northwestern University School of Law, 375 E. Chicago, 312-422-5580.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rona Talcott.