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The Mechanics
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Chicago Mon Aug 02 2010

Not Your Typical Summer Read: Klinenberg's Heat Wave

Every summer, as the thermometer pushes 90 and the humidity makes a walk around the block sure to drench you in sweat, I have friends and family who complain about the heat. Usually I tell them two things: first, quit whining--you'll be trudging through sub-zero windchill in, like, two months, and longing for these days. Second, have you ever read that book about the Chicago heat wave that killed over 700 people?

Maybe I should recognize that people shooting the breeze about the weather don't want to get into a conversation about a massive natural and human-made disaster and the governance model that helped spawn it. But Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago is a damn good book--GB's own Book Club read it on the disaster's tenth anniversary--and I think people who want to understand how this city operates should read it.

On July 14, 1995, Chicago saw the beginning of a record-breaking heat wave where temperatures reached well above 100 degrees. The heat was brutal, and at the spell's end, over 700 Chicagoans lay dead. But Eric Klinenberg, a former Northwestern professor of sociology, writes in Heat Wave that "[t]he weather...accounts for only part of the human devastation that arose." The extreme temperatures laid bare the effects of the city's notoriously segregated populace, he argues, as well as a governing model that led to a city unprepared for the heat's devastation--unwilling or unable even to follow their own emergency plan.

Klinenberg is a good social scientist, of course, and states from the outset that his intention is not to place blame on any one public figure or institution for the devastation wrought by the extreme weather. But the "market model" Mayor Daley has pushed for city services such as water and parking does not come out of the book looking too desirable. Klinenberg also has an entire chapter, entitled "Governing By Public Relations," devoted to the mayor's office's astute defense of their handling of the crisis. The author writes, "While the city neglected to follow its own guidelines for coordinating an emergency public health reaction to the dangerous heat, the administration accomplished a tetbook public relations campaign to deny the severity fo the crisis, deflect responsibility for the public health breakdown, and defend the city's response to the disaster."

The book is full of rich analysis, from a comparison of the heat wave's effects in North Lawndale versus Little Village and the racial and gender dynamics of social isolation, to social service provision that "reflects a systemic prioritization of cost containment over life preservation"--there's even a table of denial (p. 181) that goes through all the different variations utilized by city officials to deny responsibility for the crisis. As you bake in the still-somewhat-sweltering sun this summer, consider picking up Heat Wave. It's not exactly the perfect beach read, but your comprehension of the state of the city in the second Daley era is guaranteed to improve.

 
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