Books in Review:

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago

By Eric Klinenberg. The University of Chicago Press, 305 pages, $27.50


Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago
By David Naguib Pellow. The MIT Press, 234 pages, $24.95

By many measures, Chicago, the "City That Works," has been working just fine in recent years. The Loop is bustling, the housing market is booming and -- after decades of decline -- Chicago's population is growing once again. Perhaps more than any other U.S. city, Chicago was transformed by the urban renaissance of the 1990s, that heady time when America's ungovernable cities awoke from their Great Society slumber and entered the modern age.

Under centrist Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago has been the exemplar of the fiscally responsible, business-friendly new metropolis. Long before Bill Clinton declared big government dead, Daley was reinventing city government and outsourcing thousands of municipal jobs. Throughout the 1990s, Daley worked tirelessly to promote private investment, using an array of tax breaks and subsidies to help build dozens of new hotels, apartment buildings and office towers.

As in other cities, Chicago progressives criticized this business-driven development, questioning how broadly its benefits would be shared. But their criticism was badly out of step with the times. If on the federal level government was stepping aside to let companies such as Enron and WorldCom work their magic, the popular thinking ran, then clearly municipal governments, too, should be doing everything possible to unleash the energies of the private sector.

Of course, in the post-Enron era, this laissez-faire argument carries a little less weight. Seeing what the business revolution of the 1990s has wrought, one can't help but wonder whether the 1990s urban renaissance was also less robust than advertised. Those serious about gauging the current health of America's cities should look at two new books about Chicago, Heat Wave and Garbage Wars. They offer unique and powerful evidence that America's brave new cities may turn out to be just as fragile as our once-vaunted new economy.

For one terrible week in July 1995, daytime temperatures in Chicago soared above 100 degrees; even at night the mercury barely dipped below that. Public-health officials knew the prolonged heat would be deadly, especially for frail seniors, but they were stunned by the final death toll. Altogether, the heat wave killed more than 700 Chicagoans, more than double the number who died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. As New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in Heat Wave, his remarkable book about the tragedy, "The proportional death toll ... in Chicago has no equal in the record of U.S. heat disasters."

Ever since the heat wave, epidemiologists have struggled -- and failed -- to explain why so many people died. Epidemiological models derived from previous heat waves show that the conditions in Chicago, though severe, should never have killed so many. Because medical and meteorological factors alone haven't been able to explain the scope of the disaster, Klinenberg has conducted a "social autopsy" to see whether problems in the city's "social, political and institutional organs" can.

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.

The autopsy begins, appropriately enough, with a close look at the heat wave's victims. Three-quarters were over 65 years old, and they were disproportionately poor and black. Hundreds of them died alone in shabby apartments and rented rooms, without comfort from family, friends or social workers. And though their fate was extreme, it is also the case that more and more Americans find themselves alone at the end of their lives. The number of all Americans living alone more than doubled between 1970 and 1996, and 40 percent of the total are 65 or older. Given these trends, the need for social services, especially for the elderly, seems greater than ever. And yet in the years before the 1995 heat wave, social services for Chicago seniors were under assault.

From 1991 to 1995, the Daley administration cut back or outsourced nearly 30 percent of the permanent positions in the city's health, human-services and housing agencies. The Department on Aging was particularly aggressive in contracting out work to private agencies. Free-market theorists might see this as an unalloyed good, but Klinenberg points out the downside: "The competitive market for gaining city contracts provides perverse incentives for agencies to underestimate the costs of services and overestimate their capacity to provide them."

The market certainly worked its magic in Chicago. As part of his fieldwork for Heat Wave, Klinenberg shadowed caseworkers for the elderly who were supposed to visit their clients at least twice a year. Most admitted that they were getting to clients "once annually at best." Research like this makes Klinenberg's book a powerful corrective to David Osborne and Ted Gaebler's Reinventing Government, that urtext of 1990s public policy that urged state-sector bureaucrats to embrace the "entrepreneurial spirit." It may be all right to insist on ruthless efficiency from the Department of Motor Vehicles, but demanding it from social-service agencies poses grave risks.

Those risks would become particularly evident when the heat wave hit Chicago on Thursday, July 13, 1995. By Saturday, hundreds of corpses had piled up at the county morgue and the chief medical examiner warned that hundreds more people could die. But the fire department didn't put extra paramedics into the field until late Sunday, long after crews had been overwhelmed by the crush of heat-related calls. Klinenberg, who conducted extensive interviews with emergency workers, quotes a mid-level fire department official who pleaded with his superiors early in the crisis to put more ambulances on the street. He was told to "stop being so paranoid" and to manage with the people he had.

The city's health department never implemented the heat-emergency plan it had created several years before. Then-Health Department Commissioner Sheila Lyne told Klinenberg that she went into the office that Saturday but didn't consider the situation serious because "nobody called or said anything." Lyne said she didn't begin to understand the full magnitude of the disaster until Monday morning, when "there was a note on my desk from our public relations person. ... And I have to tell you that I really still wasn't getting it at all." As Lyne's quote suggests, and Klinenberg confirms, Daley's public-relations team responded more aggressively to the crisis than his public-health officials.

Given the evidence Klinenberg has amassed of the Daley team's negligence, one might expect him to blame Daley for the elevated death toll. Instead, Klinenberg argues that the real roots of the disaster go much deeper than the failings of any one administration. To really understand what happened, one has to look at decades of deindustrialization, years of neighborhood decline, growing inequalities in wealth and the lingering effects of racism. Citing this litany of urban ills may seem like a disappointing cop-out -- after all, how can anyone dissect such amorphous forces? But Klinenberg does so in a brilliant comparison of two neighborhoods that suffered dramatically different fates during the heat wave.

The comparison is between North Lawndale and Little Village, adjoining neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side. In 1995, both neighborhoods had poverty rates above the city norm and almost exactly the same number of seniors living alone. But North Lawndale, an overwhelmingly African-American community, had one of the highest heat-related mortality rates in the city, while Little Village, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, had one of the lowest.

This disparity between African-American and Latino death rates was reflected throughout the city. In fact, judging solely from the citywide statistics, one might conclude that race was the overriding risk factor for heat-related deaths that summer. Some observers, in an eerie twist on the Bell Curve debate, went so far as to argue that physiological differences between races could explain the statistical differences. But Klinenberg's meticulous parsing of the statistical data leads to saner conclusions.

It's actually somewhat misleading to classify Little Village simply as a Latino neighborhood, Klinenberg demonstrates. Though the overall population of Little Village was 85 percent Latino in 1995, 46 percent of the seniors in Little Village were non-Latino whites; and Chicago whites had a much higher heat-related death rate than Latinos. Consequently, if racial factors had been decisive in the disaster, Little Village should have had a much higher death rate. So why did Little Village's mortality rate remain so much lower than North Lawndale's? A quick history of the neighborhoods suggests an answer.

Between 1960 and 1990, North Lawndale lost almost two-thirds of its population as major employers such as International Harvester and Western Electric left the area. Though Little Village was also buffeted by deindustrialization, an influx of Mexican immigrants allowed its population to grow by roughly 30 percent during the same period. Drawing heavily on the work of urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Klinenberg notes that Little Village's expanding population allowed it to maintain healthy retail activity and thus a healthy street life. Because there are so many "eyes on the street" in Little Village, crime is low and people feel safe going out. By contrast, the commercial strips of depopulated North Lawndale are nearly dead and the violent-crime rate is double that of Little Village. During the heat wave, Little Village's vibrant streets drew seniors (both Latino and white) out of their homes and gave them safe places, such as air-conditioned stores and restaurants, to escape the heat. By contrast, the abandoned streets of North Lawndale were so menacing and there were so few places to go that seniors chose to stay in the suffocating confines of their apartments.

During the 1995 disaster, Klinenberg argues -- and this is something virtually no one saw before him -- these "place-based" differences were crucial factors in the survival or death of vulnerable residents. He notes, for instance, that the poor and overwhelmingly African-American neighborhood of Riverdale suffered no heat-wave deaths. Why? Unlike North Lawndale, Riverdale's post-1960 population remained stable, and as a result there were still places for people to go during the heat wave.

This place-based theory allows us to get beyond strictly racial explanations of the disaster -- and suggests alternatives to strictly racial explanations of other urban ills as well. This doesn't mean that Klinenberg ignores the lingering and still powerful effects of racism, however. He notes that blacks are still more likely than any other ethnic group to live in neighborhoods with extreme poverty, failing schools and degraded housing. Citing the work of sociologist Loïc Wacquant, Klinenberg argues that this is a legacy of the severe ghettoization that blacks have faced in Chicago and elsewhere. (Compare the substantial number of white seniors in Little Village with the almost total white flight from North Lawndale, where only 2 percent of seniors are white.)

Racial attitudes in the United States may be evolving, but neighborhoods such as North Lawndale do not reflect that evolution, stricken as they are by segregation's debilitating legacy. These are the neighborhoods that were left behind during the 1990s urban renaissance. Faith-based initiatives and underfunded welfare-to-work programs are no substitute for the jobs that once enriched these communities. Until both private and public institutions renew their commitment to these neighborhoods, urban fissures like the ones exposed during Chicago's 1995 heat wave will only widen.

David Naguib Pellow's Garbage Wars is not the revelatory work that Heat Wave is. But like Heat Wave, it opens a new window on Chicago and on the structures that undergird urban inequality. Pellow, a University of California, San Diego sociologist, views Chicago history through the lens of environmental justice theory. Most environmental policies, the theory argues, have reproduced social injustice by saddling poor and minority communities with a disproportionate share of landfills, incinerators and polluting industries.

At times Pellow's book reads like a hidden history of Chicago. We learn that Hull House founder Jane Addams was also the 19th Ward garbage inspector and called trash "the greatest menace in a ward such as ours." But such fascinating anecdotes never quite add up to a comprehensive history. Too often, Garbage Wars reads like the transcript from a Ph.D. defense, with too much rambling theory and too little supporting evidence.

The book's strongest section recounts the current Mayor Daley's ill-fated recycling privatization scheme. In the mid-1990s, when government mandates forced Daley to enact a citywide recycling program, many environmentalists hoped he would build on the city's successful 1980s pilot program, which involved a nonprofit recycler. Instead, Daley opted for a more "efficient" plan promoted by WMX, the world's largest waste hauler. (At the time, Daley's brother Bill was on the board of a WMX subsidiary.) To dilute opposition to the WMX plan, Daley told environmental groups in poor neighborhoods that the plan's new "high-tech" sorting facilities would create good jobs for workers in their communities. Daley won the groups' support and signed a multimillion dollar contract with WMX.

Of course, the "efficient" system has been a bust, and those good jobs never quite materialized. Following standard 1990s practice, the workers at the sorting facilities are neither city workers nor WMX employees. Rather, they're temps forced to toil under third-world conditions. As with so many schemes from the 1990s, the benefits to CEOs are obvious, but the ones for workers remain elusive.

Ultimately, both Heat Wave and Garbage Wars are cautionary tales about what happens when government gets too lean and the private sector too mean. As such, they could not be more timely. After a decade in which many blithely accepted the end of equality, these books show us the terrible damage that deepening inequality has caused. And today, when almost everyone is calling for stepped-up state action to protect vulnerable investors, Klinenberg and Pellow remind us that our government can do more than safeguard portfolios. Sometimes it can even save lives.

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