Book reviews don’t often make the front page, but Harold Henderson’s “City On the Hot Seat”— an analysis of Northwestern sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave—made for essential reading when it hit the Reader cover on July 25, 2002.
Two decades ago this July, approximately 700 Chicagoans died during a week-long heat wave that scorched the city with temperatures as high as 105 degrees and heat indexes that climbed into the 120s. It was the second deadliest week in Chicago history, yet one that the city had trouble grappling with because of the slow-burning and invisible nature of high temperatures.
There was no fire to fight, no flood to evacuate from, and many white and wealthy residents simply turned up their air-conditioning units and comfortably stayed inside. The victims of the 1995 heat wave were disproportionately poor, elderly, and died slowly in isolation and it took authorities time to find the bodies and piece together the causes. City officials and the news media alike struggled to make sense of the massive death toll (the Tribune’s front-page headline on July 18, 1995 falsely claimed that the heat victims were “just like us,” Henderson noted).
Seven years later, Klinenberg’s Heat Wave increased our understanding of the summer of ’95 because it broke down the complex set of factors that led to the shocking death toll: a lack of proper response by the city to provide emergency cooling services, poor public information, and the reluctance of some to open their windows in violent crime-ridden neighborhoods. Klinenberg also noted the racial demographics of the victims, who lived in disproportionately black neighborhoods like North Lawndale and Garfield Park.
In his Reader essay (which can be read online) Henderson applauded much of Klinenberg’s “social autopsy,” but also poked holes in the author’s pat “left liberal” analysis that pointed a big finger at income inequality and the city’s increasing reliance of the privatization of services. (“We have collectively created the conditions that made it possible for so many Chicago residents to die in the summer of 1995,” said Klinenberg early in the book). Henderson noted the “Latino health paradox” and the fact that while blacks died at twice the rate as whites in the heat wave, comparatively poor and downtrodden Latinos died much less than either. Men also died at almost three times the rate of women—a “dramatically greater difference than that between racial and ethnic groups.”
In other words, this was a social as well as a civic breakdown—a problem insufficiently fixed by throwing more money at it by government. “Nothing in this book suggests that such a governmental about-face would help the isolated old people, poor people, black people, and men whose plight Klinenberg has dramatized,” Henderson concluded. “What will?”
This week is the 20th anniversary of the tragic heat wave, but that question still hasn’t been sufficiently answered.