Week 4

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago [Eric Klinenberg]

In Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago the ideas and theories of city living are explored using the unprecedented deaths that occurred during a 1995 Chicago heat wave. In fact, Klinenberg actually lays out his thesis as the following: “This study establishes that the heat wave deaths represent what Paul Farmer calls “biological reflections of social fault lines” for which we, and not nature, are responsible (11).” While Paul Farmer is not an urban theorist whose ideas we have discussed, theorists like Simmel, Fischer, Wirth, Jacobs, and Wellman and Leighton lend themselves well to this study. It could be argued that the ‘cracks’ in the social structure of Chicago which caused so many of its citizens to die unnecessarily during such a benign natural disaster was exemplary of the ideas put forth in Jacobs’s essay on city planning and structure(“The Uses of City Neighborhoods”). It could also be proposed that the ideas presented in Wellman and Leighton’s essay on “Networks, Neighborhoods and Communities”, along with Wirth’s “Urbanism as a Way of Life” could help pin down the causes of unnecessary death as a result of social isolation or alienation (or, similarly, the lack of death in comparison groups).

Klinenberg himself focuses on the response of the city to the abnormally large amount of inner city deaths that occurred during the heat wave, more specifically, he contends that this was a conscious ignorance of the phenomenon that did not bode well for future city planning against such a tragedy being relived: “Although the death toll from the one-week heat wave is unprecedented in U.S. history, the collective response to the trauma has been marked by a will not to know the reasons that so many people died (17).” Meaning, while simply pursuing the causes of these deaths to prevent such a happening in the future may have been the best response to this occurrence–and seemed like the most practical response– a process of covering up and denial was instated instead, almost as if this amount of death in response to a natural disaster in a city was to be expected, and any form of explanation or response would only highlight the failure of other inhabitants of lesser effected communities to accept this ‘reality’.

Wirth’s Take on Heat Wave… and Why Wellman and Leighton are Right

Louis Wirth’s theory of urbanism could be applied to the events laid out in Heat Wave in several ways: urban autonomy lead to this social tragedy, urbanity ultimately undermines the social networks that would have prevented many of the deaths that occurred, and the lack of an actual plan to prevent the tragedy that occurred was just another side effect of modern urbanity. Wirth himself states the following about urban life: “Whereas the individual gains, on the one hand, a certain degree of emancipation or freedom from the personal and emotional controls of intimate groups, he loses, on the other hand, the spontaneous self-expression, the morale, and the sense of participation that comes with living in an integrated society (35).” Meaning, urban living is a two-edged sword: urbanites have their privacy and independence at the cost of the social ties that could potentially save their lives. These social ties, or networks, were highlighted in Klinenberg’s study as the more successful urban neighborhoods that managed to weather the Heat Wave with far less fatalities. An explanation for the success of some urban groups, or neighborhoods, over others is the phenomenon that Wirth describes: “In view of the ineffectiveness of actual kinship ties, we create fictional kinship groups. In the face of the disappearance of the territorial unit as a basis of social solidarity, we create interest units (42).” In Chicago’s case these interests units were predominately based upon race and economic status.

While economic status being a strong predictor of successfully surviving a heat wave seems like a given, race being a determining factor does not. In fact, the idea of the “Latino Health paradox (19)” came into play when describing the ‘success’, or the survivability, of the individual races during Chicago’s heat wave of ’95: “In contrast, Latino Chicagoans, whose overall level of poverty place them at a heightened risk of mortality, experienced a surprisingly low death rate (19).” The Latino health paradox is basically the idea that even in impoverished conditions, strong ethnic ties established in a neighborhood, or community, that could also be seen as the ‘interest unit’ that Wirth references, can (and has) ensured better health outcomes than groups in similar living conditions.

Fischer’s Application

Fischer may not agree with Klinenberg’s analysis: “For when hundreds of people die slowly, alone and at home, unprotected by friends and family and unassisted by the state, it is a sign of social breakdown in which communities, neighborhoods, networks, governmental agencies, and the media charged with signaling warnings are all implicated (32).” Fischer would argue that the previous statement, though warranted, was misplaced in terms of the urbanite and her/his environment. According to subcultural theory the fatalities that occurred could quite possibly have been a direct result of urban living. The anomie and estrangement hinted at in this study may not actually be the cause, according to Fischer. What may have been broken down was not necessarily the social network of the urban neighborhood itself but the social networks of the urban individual left to die alone.

Jacob’s Call to Action

A good deal of Klinenberg’s efforts to resurrect the events of Chicago’s heat wave were focused on the prevention of such disorganization and tragedy. Specifically, his focus on the prevention of the large scale loss of life of normally forgotten is exemplary: “In the city famous for the extent to which its spatial order reflects the social division of its residents, the geography of vulnerability during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the everyday ecology of inequality (20).” While putting a spotlight on the social inequality evident was Klinenberg’s method of analysis of the Chicago heat wave fatalities, Jacobs would target the structure of the city—Chicago. Her analysis, while the conclusion may be similar to Klinenberg’s, would look more like a ‘failure to establish’ rather than Klinenberg’s a ‘failure to plan’ scenario. More specifically, the failure of Chicago to fully integrate the more successful pockets of its city with the less successful was a flag.

Klinenberg acknowledges Chicago’s fragmented state in terms of neighborhoods, and actually recognizes this as a trait of Chicago—a recognition of a rich diversity. But Jacobs would propose further using this diversity and segmentation to strengthen Chicago, rather than allowing it to undermine its stability. It could be argued that her idea of having a strong district to protect urbanites from natural disasters and other threats has been applied to the more successful neighborhoods in Heat Wave; a Jacobite could argue that the structure of districts, and the actual communication between districts, along with the successful aggregation of these districts into the overall smooth functioning of the city is what determines a strong response to natural disasters, and/or threats to the urbanite. Both Jacobs and Klinenberg would agree however, that a definite breakdown in Chicago’s city’s functioning did occur and that the price paid was astounding.

Source: Klinenberg, Eric (2002). Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

One thought on “Week 4”

  1. Katrina,
    I enjoyed reading your blog and like how you were able to look at some other urban scholars and incorporate their theories/ideologies into your review of “Heat Wave.”

    The highest death toll came from those living in unsubsidized housing in Single Room Occupancy (SRO), which could be a direct effect of gentrification and the loss of many housing options in certain neighborhoods when suburbanites returned to the city as well as past Urban Renewal money that displaced many from single family dwellings to SROs. Deindustrialization also played a role in the environment shift as jobs relocated and the areas changed. The elderly tend to age in place while the environment around them changes and many of their social network move on/out of the community. Also, the reference to Marx and Engles description of living conditions in England during the beginning of industrialization is comparable to how the building/SRO were once larger homes but now are divided by ply wood in an effort to gain the largest amount of capital from a smaller space.
    Klineberg utilizes some of the Chicago School Sociological methods such as seeing the city as a total social system-physical and social space but does deviant some by recognizing the significance of socially engineered inequality and difference (p. 22).

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