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Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Illinois) [Paperback]

by Eric Klinenberg
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 15, 2003 0226443221 978-0226443225 First Edition
On Thursday, July 13, 1995, Chicagoans awoke to a blistering day in which the temperature would reach 106 degrees. The heat index, which measures how the temperature actually feels on the body, would hit 126 degrees by the time the day was over. Meteorologists had been warning residents about a two-day heat wave, but these temperatures did not end that soon. When the heat wave broke a week later, city streets had buckled; the records for electrical use were shattered; and power grids had failed, leaving residents without electricity for up to two days. And by July 20, over seven hundred people had perished-more than twice the number that died in the Chicago Fire of 1871, twenty times the number of those struck by Hurricane Andrew in 1992—in the great Chicago heat wave, one of the deadliest in American history.

Heat waves in the United States kill more people during a typical year than all other natural disasters combined. Until now, no one could explain either the overwhelming number or the heartbreaking manner of the deaths resulting from the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Meteorologists and medical scientists have been unable to account for the scale of the trauma, and political officials have puzzled over the sources of the city's vulnerability. In Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg takes us inside the anatomy of the metropolis to conduct what he calls a "social autopsy," examining the social, political, and institutional organs of the city that made this urban disaster so much worse than it ought to have been.

Starting with the question of why so many people died at home alone, Klinenberg investigates why some neighborhoods experienced greater mortality than others, how the city government responded to the crisis, and how journalists, scientists, and public officials reported on and explained these events. Through a combination of years of fieldwork, extensive interviews, and archival research, Klinenberg uncovers how a number of surprising and unsettling forms of social breakdown—including the literal and social isolation of seniors, the institutional abandonment of poor neighborhoods, and the retrenchment of public assistance programs—contributed to the high fatality rates. The human catastrophe, he argues, cannot simply be blamed on the failures of any particular individuals or organizations. For when hundreds of people die behind locked doors and sealed windows, out of contact with friends, family, community groups, and public agencies, everyone is implicated in their demise.

As Klinenberg demonstrates in this incisive and gripping account of the contemporary urban condition, the widening cracks in the social foundations of American cities that the 1995 Chicago heat wave made visible have by no means subsided as the temperatures returned to normal. The forces that affected Chicago so disastrously remain in play in America's cities, and we ignore them at our peril.

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Editorial Reviews

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Like motorists who slow down to stare at the aftermath of car crashes, most people are fascinated by meteorologic disasters. The perils of weathering a hurricane, a tsunami's destruction of property, and the human drama of a flood all make for riveting tales of struggle and survival. Yet one kind of weather-related catastrophe -- a deadly wave of heat and humidity -- seems not to get nearly the notice given the others, despite the fact that it kills more than all the other kinds combined. Why heat waves are such a quiet menace and how social conditions contributed to more than 700 deaths during a week-long wave of unprecedented heat and humidity in Chicago in 1995 are the focus of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, written by sociologist Eric Klinenberg. The term "social isolation" is usually applied to those living in remote locations, but Klinenberg demonstrates that this unfortunate condition also applies to thousands of people (primarily senior citizens) in our nation's largest cities. And so it was in 1995. Thousands of Chicago's elderly lived alone (many of them in or near poverty), isolated in many ways and by many factors. When the record-breaking heat and humidity arrived and stayed, these men and women started dying, one at a time and quietly, behind closed, locked doors. The immediate reasons were apparent. Many seniors did not have air conditioning in their houses or apartments. Of those who did have air conditioning, many chose not to use it, fearing utility bills that they could not afford to pay. Fear of crime kept others from leaving their homes to use free neighborhood "cooling centers." Still other elderly Chicagoans knew, from a physiological standpoint, that they were hot but were simply unaware that they were in danger. Klinenberg shows in detail how the tragedy was compounded by many factors and interests, including a public health and medical establishment that did not anticipate the magnitude of the looming danger and local news media that treated the severe heat and humidity as little more than a novel topic for lighthearted feature stories. The author also examines key sociological factors relating to the elderly, including the perils of "aging in place" while the surrounding environment changes; the idealization and valuing of personal independence among seniors; and differences between men and women in the establishment of friendships and other interpersonal connections. Heat Wave is a fascinating book, in part because the social conditions that led to Chicago's 1995 tragedy still exist, for the most part, throughout our nation and its aging population. People are still at risk. The book is not without its flaws. Klinenberg strays from sociological analysis and into a politicized attack when he examines the 1995 response of Mayor Richard M. Daley and his administration. He makes far too much of the mayor's brief questioning of exactly what constitutes a "heat-related death" -- a question, I might add, that most of us had at the time. The author erroneously claims that the response of the Daley administration was driven more by public-relations damage control than by a desire to understand the tragedy and prevent further deaths and that a report issued by the Mayor's Commission on Extreme Weather Conditions was little more than "spin," when it was in fact the product of careful deliberation by leading figures in public health, medicine, gerontology, meteorology, and other fields. Indeed, the report laid the groundwork for Chicago's successful response to extreme weather, which was credited with saving hundreds of lives in the summer of 1999. The report has been widely requested by and circulated to public health planners throughout the nation. Other descriptions of the mayoral response are similarly off-base. As a deputy commissioner of the Health Department in 1995, I was there for every step of the action, in front of the cameras and microphones and around the table at meetings about emergency response. Klinenberg and his sources were not there. Klinenberg also puts considerable emphasis on racial disparities in the 1995 heat deaths. (The raw death totals indicate a rough parity between mortality rates in the black and white populations, but age-adjusted rates supplied by the author claim otherwise.) In his biography posted on the Web site of Northwestern University, where he teaches, Klinenberg notes his interest in the exploration of "race as a principle of vision, division, and domination." His focus on race is therefore understandable, but many do not see race as the risk factor that he claims it is. Its flaws aside, Heat Wave is a thought-provoking examination that challenges everyone in medicine and public health to look beyond our training to consider sociological conditions as risk factors. It issues a call for all segments of the population to reestablish those familial and social connections that we once seemed to have but now, all too often, do not. John Wilhelm, M.D., M.P.H.
Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

A forceful account of what it means to be poor, sick and alone in the era of American entrepreneurial government -- Charles Taylor, Salon.com

A provocative, fascinating book, one that applies to much more than weather disasters -- Chicago Sun-Times

A trenchant, multilayered and well-written social autopsy of disaster. -- Micaela di Leonardo, The Nation

Klinenberg draws the lines of culpability in dozens of directions, drawing a dense and subtle portrait of exactly what happened. -- Malcom Gladwell, The New Yorker

Revealing and provocative. -- London Review of Books --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Series: Illinois
  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; First Edition edition (July 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226443221
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226443225
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #140,208 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology, Public Policy, and Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University, and editor of the journal Public Culture. His latest book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, was published in February 2012 by the Penguin Press.

The press reports that Going Solo "is causing a sensation." Time Magazine featured it as the #1 Idea That is Changing Your Life in the March 12, 2012 cover story. Vanity Fair called it "trailblazing." Psychology Today called it "so important that it is likely to become both a popular read and a social science classic." The New Yorker argued that the book "suggests that our usual perceptions about life alone get things backward." And the Washington Post explained that "Going Solo is really about living better together--for all of us, single or not."

Klinenberg's first book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, won six scholarly and literary prizes (and was a Favorite Book selection by the Chicago Tribune), and was praised as "a dense and subtle portrait" (Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker); "a remarkable, riveting account" (American Prospect); "intellectually exciting" (Amartya Sen); and a "trenchant, persuasive tale of slow murder by public policy" (Salon). A theatrical adaptation of Heat Wave premiered in Chicago in 2008, and Judith Helfand is directing a feature documentary based on the book.

Professor Klinenberg's second book, Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media, was called "politically passionate and intellectually serious," (Columbia Journalism Review), "a must-read for those who wonder what happened to good radio, accurate reporting and autonomous public interest" (Time Out New York), and "eye-opening ...required reading for conscientious citizens" (Kirkus). Since its publication, he has testified before the Federal Communications Commission and briefed the U.S. Congress on his findings.

In addition to his books and scholarly articles, Klinenberg has contributed to popular publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Fortune, The London Review of Books, The Nation, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, Slate, and the radio program This American Life.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting book on an event too easily overlooked. August 15, 2002
Format:Hardcover
Do you remember the heat wave in Chicago in 1995? The rail lines folded, electricity went out with rolling blackouts, some streets even buckled. The heat was over 100 degrees, rarely dipping below the 80's at night, and the humidity near 100%. But what most people don't remember is the horrific human death toll during that time. Over 700 people were killed in that heat wave that lasted nearly a week. But while the author looks deeply into the horror of this natural disaster, he mainly concentrates with precision on a few separate areas:
First, that heat waves kill more people annualy than all other types of natural disasters combined. Yet they receive little public attention mostly because they fail to generate the massive property damage and fantastic images produced by other weather-related disasters.
Second, most of the people that died were the elderly and poor, who died at home, with their windows often sealed or even nailed shut to prevent rampant crime in their areas. They had no air conditioning because they could not afford it, and little or any access to any social help because of their economic situation.
The author also looks into how the city of Chicago didn't come to grips with what had happened until the heat wave was well over, and that because of the social structure where the affluent have ample protection from such massive natural disasters, the elderly, infirm and poor will likely remain having none. And while dealing with the aftermath is much more costly, governments choose not to prepare for them with social programs which are often viewed as liberal pork or government waste.
A fascinating, well written book. It also contains many images, some of which appear is if taken from somewhere like Somalia. Eric Klinenberg is an sociology professor at Northwestern University.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Killer Heat, Killer Neglect October 31, 2002
Format:Hardcover
What weather phenomenon kills the most people in America? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Floods? Add those up and they will still not total the deaths attributed to the real killer: heat waves. The other phenomena yield good pictures, and that is one reason you don't hear much about heat deaths. But according to Eric Klinenberg, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University, there is another, more subtle reason. Victims of a heat wave "are primarily social outcasts - the elderly, the poor, and the isolated - from whom we customarily turn away." In _Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago_ (University of Chicago Press), Klinenberg has looked at the week-long heat wave of July 1995, which killed over 700 people. (Another comparison: the famous Chicago fire of 1871 killed about three hundred.) In Chicago, the heat hit up to 106 degrees, with a heat index over 120. Cars broke down in the streets, and bridges, rails, and roads buckled. Even with the windows open, brick homes could heat up to 120 degrees. The heat killed, but it did not just kill randomly. In clear, objective, but often biting pages, Klinenberg shows the patterns of urban life that brought death to certain regions and certain social groups.
One group was the elderly, clearly disproportionately killed by the heat. This might be attributed simply to their bodies having fewer physiological resources to protect them. Indeed, the government of Chicago tried to explain the deaths of elders this way; the heat only culled those who were going to be dying soon anyway. There is no medical evidence that this was the case; they simply were unconnected with society, and when they died alone in their rooms, it was long before absences were noticed.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars makes you think about things that you never think about December 17, 2004
By Wendy
Format:Paperback
Countless movies and books have been based on natural disasters. After all, what is more powerful or awe-inspiring than an F5 tornado, blowing away heavy machinery as if it were nothing? Who isn't slightly alarmed at the possibility of a dormant volcano suddenly erupting and blanketing a sleep mountain town in lava? But sociologist Eric Klinenberg's Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago examines a quieter, less thought about natural disaster: heat waves. More specifically he examines the famous heat wave that hit Chicago in 1995, ultimately causing over 700 deaths. Furthermore, he examines how, in this day and age, so many people could be so profoundly affected by something that we would appear to have a handle on. The main aspect Klinenberg brings up is that of social isolation and how this pervasive trend could end up ultimately costing us our lives. But how does something like this happen, he wonders; how, with all of our modern technology and community outreach programs are people still "left behind." Furthermore, who are these people and how is it that our society puts certain people in these positions. With a comprehensive account of the event and the culmination of his own data, Klinenberg presents are very interesting view on social constructs in the context of natural, momentous events that are out of human control.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brillant December 23, 2002
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Dr. Klinenberg helps us as readers, citizens, and media-watchers reconceptualize heat waves as meterological disasters to social ones. He argues that such a reconceptualization allows us to understand that society is responsible and SHOULD be responsible for deaths. The brillant part of his book is that he does not pin the blame on any one person, one entity, or one organization. He shows how residents of neighborhoods, the spatial organizations of neighborhoods, politicians, local and national governments, the media, and even history play a role in why these deaths occurred and why the numbers were as significant as they are. Thus, we are all responsible!
The book looks at the phenomenon through more than just through the lens of statistics. His ethnographic work helps to look at the lives and qualitative nuances of the numbers. We hear the explanations and the critiques of the residents in the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest by the heat wave deaths. In addition, KLinenberg places their voices in conversation with reporters at the time, insiders of the Daly regime, public health officials, and even police officers. Therefore, we see the phenomenon from both the "official" and "unofficial" sources.
Anyone who is an activist, an academic, or a citizen of any American city should read this book. It will change your perspective on how urban areas really operate and SHOULD operate.
This book will make Dr. Klinenberg one of the foremost scholars of our time.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
I had to buy this for school but i really enjoyed reading the book. Well written and being non-fiction I was compelled to do more reading about the heatwave after i finished... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Scott Richmond
2.0 out of 5 stars boring book
needed it for a class, I thought the book was boring and a waste of time to read but the book was in good condition and fast shipping
Published 14 days ago by Brian
5.0 out of 5 stars Klinenberg identifies the real culprit to the 1995 Heat Wave in...
Klinenberg does a thorough job of explaining the social causes of heat related deaths in Chicago in the 1995 disaster. Read more
Published 17 days ago by Stella
1.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly dull
In the prolog the author states that he couldn't find any other person in the world between where he was studying abroad in Europe, at his University in in California, or even in... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Michael Lamascola
3.0 out of 5 stars A decent read
A good book about the 1995 heat wave of Chicago. Mr. Klinenberg did his research, however, I do feel as if much of the information was repeated. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Melissa B
4.0 out of 5 stars Great
It's interesting and very informative.still reading though . In the beginning a bit slow but then it picks up especially in the detail about public administrators records etc great... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Lynda korsah
5.0 out of 5 stars A Hot Mess
It is almost impossible to believe that one heat wave could kill over 700 people in the city of Chicago. But that is exactly what happened in the heat wave of July 1995. Read more
Published 9 months ago by RCM
1.0 out of 5 stars Lies in the promo
The editor's description begins with this:

"Heat waves in the United States kill more people during a typical year than all other natural disasters combined. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Donna
4.0 out of 5 stars I do not remember this happening in 1995
It was amazing that a city the size of Chicago was not better prepared to activate a disaster plan as this event unfolded. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Neva Foster
5.0 out of 5 stars crazy.. fascinating.. appalling
this is non-fiction that reads like some crazy story someone made up. it's one of those "can't look away" moments in US history. Read more
Published 15 months ago by GenuineImitation
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