Heat Wave A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago
by Eric Klinenberg
University of Chicago Press, 2002
Cloth: 978-0-226-44321-8 | Paper: 978-0-226-44322-5 | Electronic: 978-0-226-02671-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226026718.001.0001


This title is no longer available from this publisher at this time. To let the publisher know you are interested in the title, please email bv-help@uchicago.edu.


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.


Eric Klinenberg is professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. The recipient of an Individual Projects Fellowship from the Open Society Institute in 2000, he is the coeditor of The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness and a regular contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique.


“By the end of Heat Wave, Klinenberg has traced the lines of culpability in dozens of directions, drawing a dense and subtle portrait of exactly what happened during that week in July.”
— Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker

“A trenchant, multilayered and well-written social autopsy of disaster. . . . God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995.”
— Micaela di Leonardo, Nation

“Remarkable . . . Klinenberg’s immediate aim is to explain the heat wave’s unprecedented death toll, and he does so with chilling precision. But his ultimate achievement is far more significant. In exploring what made Chicago so vulnerable to disaster in 1995, Klinenberg provides a riveting account of the changes that reshaped urban America during the 1990s and, indeed, throughout the postwar era.”
— Jim McNeill, American Prospect

“A damning indictment of the ‘malign neglect’ with which the old, frail and poor and isolated are treated in Chicago.”
— John Adams, Times Higher Education

“In a typical year more Americans die in heat waves than in all other natural calamities combined. Yet they hardly generate the kind of buzz that hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, or wildfires do. In the compelling, sobering, and exhaustively researched Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg suggests a plausible reason.”
— Diego Ribadeneira, Boston Globe

Heat Wave is not so much a book about weather, as it is about the calamitous consequences of forgetting our fellow citizens. . . . A provocative, fascinating book, one that applies to much more than weather disasters.”
— Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times

“Revealing and provocative.”
— Tom Vanderbilt, London Review of Books

“Trenchant and persuasive. . . . What makes Heat Wave such an essential book at this moment in American politics is that, using the 1995 heat wave as his paradigm, Klinenberg has written a forceful account of what it means to be poor, old, sick and alone in the era of American entrepreneurial government. . . . It’s hard to put down Heat Wave without believing you’ve just read a tale of slow murder by public policy.”
— Charles Taylor, Salon.com

“Klinenberg creates a compelling sociological history that is in critical and productive conversation with current cultural analyses of catastrophe and contemporary urban sociologies of race, class, and marginality.”
— John L. Jackson, American Journal of Sociology

“Once in a while it is said, ‘Someone will have to write a book about this.’ Heat Wave . . . is that book on urban catastrophes. Klinenberg has meticulously documented a great tragedy in recent Chicago History. He has written it in a manner which allows scholars, activists, community planners and policy-makers to draw lessons, so that it may never happen again.”
— Douglas C. Gills, Urban Studies

“This masterful study of the intersection of the political and the ecological reveals just how important it is that sociologists look not just a t trends or patterns over time, but at specific events. . . . . . . . Heat Wave is a great book because it focuses its attention on a tear in the social fabric in order to explore more deeply  the normal-time weave, and to raise these critical questions about what might be the institutional forms and the cultural contents of a society that would rescue its citizens who live ‘normally’ in extremis.”
— Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Social Forces

“A riveting account . . . that delves into the processes leading to social isolation, the social and built ecology of urban neighborhoods, and the failure of city, state, and federal governments to prevent or respond to a public health crisis. . . . Heat Wave is well worth a read regardless of one’s interest in heat waves or public health. . . . It is well-suited for required reading in public health and social science courses and for fascinating armchair reading.”
— Karen E. Smoyer Tomic, JAMA

“Relying on ethnographic fieldwork, spatial and statistical analysis, in-depth interviewing, and archival research, Klinenberg’s book is a very accomplished sociological case study, imaginatively conceived, tenaciously researched, and . . . strikingly innovative. The work illuminates the contemporary problems of aging, popery, and community neglect with great skill and sensitivity. In the process, Heat Wave offers an exemplary demonstration of how an intensive, multilayered analytical focus on an extreme case or event can yield fresh insight into the social structures, ecologies, and policies that produce everyday inequity and hardship.”
— William Sites, Social Service Review

“It is riveting. It is intellectually exciting. If it is not pathbreaking for the study of political communication, it is nonetheless destined to be a recurrent point of reference and an excellent choice for classroom use. . . . This is a stunningly good book, a rare work with broad vision, theoretical savvy, and prodigious leg work in government bureaus, city news rooms, and tough neighborhoods. . . . Klinenberg touched every base, took no shortcuts, and has produced a sociological masterpiece.”
— Michael Schudson, Political Communication

Heat Wave is an exquisitely written, impeccably researched work, and one could hardly imagine how anyone could do more in a single effort to reveal the deadly social fractures of the cities we live in. In this brilliant book, Klinenberg makes visible the ongoing disaster of poverty and isolation that is silently unraveling in some of the most affluent cities in North America.”
— Joe Hermer, Canadian Journal of Urban Research

“The book should be required reading for all public officials.”
— Choice

Best Book in Sociology and Anthropology
— Association of American Publishers’ Professional/Scholarly Division

Mirra Komarovsky Book Award
— Eastern Sociological Society





Prologue: The Urban Inferno

2. Thousands swarm to North Avenue Beach

3. Makeshift public health

5. ComEd crew sprays a power generator

6. ‘‘Water Wars’’

8. Newspaper headlines track the death toll

9. Refrigerated trucks at Cook County Medical Examiners Office

Introduction: The City of Extremes

10. United States Disaster Mortality, 1960–95

2. Age-Specific and Age-Adjusted Heat-Related Death Rates per 100,000 Population, by Race/Ethnicity: Chicago Residents, July 1995

11. Age-Adjusted Heat-Related Death Rates per 100,000 Residents, by Sex

13. Chief Medical Examiner Ed Donoghue

14. Who’s to Blame?

1. Dying Alone: The Social Production of Isolation

15. A police report for a decedent

17. Proportion of U.S. and Chicago Elderly (65 ) Living Alone

18. A senior citizen walking in the heat

19. An elderly man at home

20. Sleeping outdoors during the 1964 heat wave

21. Police remove a victim

22. Part I Crimes in Senior Housing, 1988–94

2. Race, Place, and Vulnerability: Urban Neighborhoods and the Ecology of Support

23. Chicago Community Areas with the Highest Heat-Related Mortality Rates and Highest Proportion of Elderly Persons Living Alone

24. Chicago Community Areas with the Highest Heat-Related Mortality Rates and Highest Violent Crime Rates

25. Chicago Community Areas with the Highest Heat-Related Mortality Rates and Highest Proportion of Persons Below Poverty Level

3. Chicago Community Areas with the Highest Heat-Related Death Rates

4. Characteristics of North Lawndale and South Lawndale

5. Reported Overall Violent Crimes: Districts 10 and 11, 1994–95

6. Population in North Lawndale, 1950–90

26. The original Sears Tower in North Lawndale

27, 28. ‘‘Bombed Out’’: Vacant lots in North Lawndale

29. Ogden Avenue, North Lawndale

30. Reported Crimes per 100,000 Residents: Police Districts 10 and 11, 12–19 July 1995

31. Twenty-sixth Street, Little Village

32. ‘‘The streets here are always busy’’

34. A family relaxes outdoors in Little Village

7. Population in South Lawndale (Little Village), 1950–90

8. Chicago Community Areas with Lowest Heat Wave Death Rates

3. The State of Disaster: City Services in the Empowerment Era

35. Paramedics assist a colleague

36. Storing bodies in refrigerated trucks

37. Carting a victim into the Medical Examiners Office

9. Full-Time Personnel for Chicago City Agencies, 1990s

38. Woman in front of sink with no water pressure

4. Governing by Public Relations

39. Spoiled food at a grocery store

40. Mayor Daley and commissioners at a press conference

41. Commission on Extreme Weather report cover

10. Official Responses to the Heat Wave

5. The Spectacular City: News Organizations and the Representation of Catastrophe

42. Reporter John Garcia on a hot night

43. Young people playing near an open fire hydrant

44. The spectacular city

12. Content Analysis of Heat Wave Stories: Chicago Sun-Times

45. A news image of police removing bodies

46. News camera operators at Cook County Morgue

47., 48. Newspaper front pages targeted to different audiences

Conclusion: Emerging Dangers in the Urban Environment

Epilogue: Together in the End

49. Together in the end