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

Eric Klinenberg presents a very detailed account of the week-long deadly heat wave that took its toll on the City of Chicago in mid July 1995, leaving 485 (739 as calculated by the excess death rate) residents dead as a direct result of heat related illnesses. Many were isolated, elderly, living alone and not discovered for days. When all was said and done, many mechanisms of social support failed and procedures and protocols that many have stated retrospectively would have saved many lives, were not implemented. Klinenberg’s intentions for this book were to present an examination of the social conditions that allowed citizens to die, as well as an analysis of the way in which politicians, journalists, and scientists framed the disaster for the public. More broadly, his goal was to present an account of what life in the city is actually like for residents in hopes a disaster such as this may be prevented in the future.

Klinenberg began his ethnographic study by selecting two similar areas in Chicago, North Lawndale and South Lawndale, also known as Little Village, where very disparate death rates were reported during the heat wave. Although North Lawndale was inhabited primarily by African Americans and Little Village Latinos, these two neighborhoods were very similar in demographic and geographic makeup but fewer residents died due to heat related illnesses in Little Village than in North Lawndale, 3 and 19 respectively. These neighborhoods were merely separated by a road, but the way the author describes them, I feel as though a continent could have separated them. North Lawndale was described as a desolate, crime-ridden area in which the elderly lived in isolation, alienated from the community. In contrast, Little Village was found to be a vibrant neighborhood with safe, active streets and variety of local shops and stores in which the poor, young and elderly are integrated throughout in the community. Although the idea that Latinos were genetically suited for the heat, Klinenberg attributes the disparity in death rates to the social environments in which they lived.

Klinenberg identified four conditions that contributed to the vulnerability of the elderly and poor:

  1. a demographic shift to more elderly people living alone who experience lack of mobility due to age and/or illness.
  2. a cultural conditioning in response to high levels of criminal activity which can lead to a culture of fear in a community.
  3. a spatial transformation, especially in areas of poverty, where the community structure deteriorates, such as increase in public housing, abandoned buildings and empty lots.
  4. a gendered condition in which men lose access to networks and experience a loss of social ties.


All four were ever present in North Lawndale where residents were literally isolated from family, friends and neighbors, and stayed barricaded in their living quarters. The criminal activity was so high in their neighborhood they simply did not feel safe, or incentivized to go outside. Nor did the fell safe leaving their personal belongings alone in their rooms for fear there were criminals waiting nearby to break in and steal them. Many elderly were fearful of being taken advantage of, or robbed, or injured that they simply did not open the door, crack a window, or even leave their apartment to seek relief from the sweltering heat. Instead they remained in their rooms and died sealed off from the outside.

Little Village residents, on the other hand, fared the heat wave relatively well. Klinenberg cites a vibrant, inclusive community with lively, safe streets and public places that are inviting to residents. Here, the elderly had reasons to get out of their hot homes; the surroundings were well maintained and they did not have the same fear of crime that North Lawndale residents had. The many local shops were air-conditioned and provided a safe haven for the weak and overheated.


In failing to provide even a minimal amount of resources during this time of disaster, residents in areas like North Lawndale suffered. It was clear that the city was not prepared to deal with the subsequent influx of illnesses. There was a system wide failure throughout the emergency services department including an insufficient number of ambulances and paramedics to respond to emergency calls within a reasonable timeframe. There were also very limited resources at local area hospitals, many of which were on bypass mode and could not accept even the most ill patients. The morgue could no longer hold all of the bodies so a local meat packing facility loaned their refrigerated trucks to the Medical Examiner’s Office in which to store them.



During the investigations that followed, many city officials reported that did not take this heat wave seriously; they failed to recognize the potential for it to turn deadly. In fact, the Health Commissioner, the very person that should understand the impact of prolonged high temperatures on health, claims she just “didn’t get it” (pg. 137) referring to not realizing the gravity of the situation, even after she was told that a large number of people had died. I imagine that there was bit of egocentrism at play in that city officials, I think it is safe to assume, spent the majority of their time during the heat wave in spaces that were air conditioned (or at least properly ventilated) and they gave no consideration to the fact that there were poor and elderly constituents without that benefit.

In the aftermath, there was a lot of finger pointing and playing the blame game between city officials including the mayor, emergency response services, as well the health department. The victims themselves were blamed for neglecting their own health and welfare. This of course infuriated community leaders and residents, some even using the terms “murder by public policy” (pg. 136) and “criminal neglect” (pg. 154). A public relations marathon ensued with no one accepting accountability for the failures of the government. Politicians were downplaying the deaths saying the deaths were not “really real”, in an unsettling attempt to frame this for the public in such a way that the reputation of the city, which had recently been on the upswing, would not be tarnished, and instead blaming this on an unforeseen, unavoidable natural disaster. Klinenberg described this approach as governing by public relations. Klinenberg writes: “Examining the ways in which features of the catastrophe were brought to light or concealed helps to make visible the systems of symbolic production that structured the public understandings of the disaster” (pg. 23).

The media coverage and investigations made visible the longstanding failure of the city to provide services to its residents. This failure has been attributed to the entrepreneurial state that Chicago had become; the concern was on the bottom line not on the wellbeing of their citizens. A recent restructuring of the Chicago government lead to a decentralized government where many services were outsourced to independent contractors that were under qualified and lacked the necessary resources to perform the job effectively.

Reading this has made me once again consider the reactive, rather than proactive, nature of government. Klinenberg makes clear the various social and political ecologies that produce vulnerabilities in disenfranchised groups, leading to negative outcomes, but I do not believe that lawmakers and politicians are concerned with informaiotn such as this. I firmly believe many of these vulnerabilities can be mitigated by consulting experts in relevant fields when developing anything from public policy to urban environments.