With `social autopsy’ of Chicago heat wave, sociologist Klinenberg dissects why blacks died when Hispanics didn’t
By JONATHAN TILOVE
August 12, 1999
c.1999 Newhouse News Service
CHICAGO _ The heat went on another killing spree here this summer. One by one its victims were autopsied by the Cook County medical examiner, who, at last count, had certified 110 heat-related deaths, mostly in the few sweltering days as July melted into August.
Each victim was identified by name, cause of death (heat or heat plus other medical conditions), age, residence and place of death (almost always, in these cases, one and the same), and race.
And herein lies a mystery. Of the 110 deaths so far this summer, 45 percent were blacks _ well more than their quarter share of the population here. In stunning contrast, only three of the dead were Hispanic, representing a tiny fraction of their 14 percent share of the population. This even though blacks and Hispanics are similarly concentrated among the urban, un-air-conditioned poor.
It is a mystery ultimately beyond the reach of a medical autopsy. To search for the answer on a recent August afternoon, one had to leave the Medical Examiner’s office on the city’s west side, zip east across town on Harrison, hang a left on State and head into the Hilton Palmer House, where the American Sociological Association was holding its annual meeting.
There, in a narrow nook known as Private Dining Room 17, a 28-year-old Chicagoan by the name of Eric Klinenberg was conducting a compelling “social autopsy” of the far more brutal Chicago heat wave of 1995, dissecting why it was that, then as now, so many of the 600 or more lives lost in the heat were blacks, and so few were Hispanic.
To Klinenberg, who is just completing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, the natural disaster was also a man-made one. Those most likely to die were the old black folks living alone in Chicago’s poorest, most segregated, commercially barren, physically dilapidated, governmentally neglected and depopulated neighborhoods. Long gone were industry, jobs and economic opportunity, and with them so many family and friends, the corner store, a sense of security and community.
Just as their neighborhoods were socially isolated and dying _ the places everyone else in the city avoids but those left behind cannot escape _ the weakest also found themselves socially isolated and dying, too poor for air-conditioning, too enfeebled or fearful to venture out or crack a window or ask for help.
“It’s the story behind the story,” says Klinenberg, who warns that if the globe warms as the population ages and government retrenches, even worse days are ahead. And, Klinenberg says the pattern of peril no doubt exists in other Rust Belt cities where old people are left behind in declining neighborhoods. “For me, the heat wave is a lot like a particle accelerator is for a physicist,” he says. “It speeds up processes that are always happening but are difficult to perceive, and makes them visible.”
Track the trail of this summer’s other heat deaths in black Chicago and one surveys an enervated landscape pockmarked with boarded-up buildings, empty lots of overgrown grass, and poignant preserves of middle- and working-class tidiness struggling to survive. It is troubled terrain, a condition simultaneously redeemed and reinforced by the prodigality of churches both grand and shabby that are everywhere in sight.
Roughly comparable numbers of whites and blacks died in 1995, and again this summer, with poor elderly whites in deteriorating neighborhoods likewise most vulnerable. But as a proportion of their population, Klinenberg calculates that blacks in the city of Chicago were almost twice as likely to die of the heat. (Blacks represent about 40 percent and Hispanics about a quarter of the city population, where they are better represented than in the portions of Cook County outside the city limits.)
Why were Chicago’s Hispanics only 2 percent of the heat deaths? They are a younger population, but that cannot nearly explain it all. Dr. Edmund Donoghue, the chief medical examiner, suggests that because so many formerly lived in Mexico they may be more accustomed to the heat. (Though many of the aged blacks formerly lived in the heat of the Deep South.)
Klinenberg points out that while they too are often poor, Hispanics tend to live in the thick of tight, multi-generational family networks and vital neighborhoods, less segregated than the overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods, and chockablock with stores, restaurants and businesses, bursting with the new life of burgeoning populations.
“I grew up with five generations under one roof,” says Carlos Hernandez, a reporter with Extra, a bilingual weekly in Chicago. “Look at Humboldt Park, it’s still a very poor community but it’s definitely a community united. You walk down Division Street and you know people. You know who owns the bakery, who owns the barber shop, you know who the prostitute is who is looking for crack.”
Twenty-sixth Street, the main thoroughfare through the Latino neighborhood of Little Village, is brightly festive with block after block of commerce and activity. But Roosevelt Road, the parallel boulevard through the adjoining black neighborhood of North Lawndale, is a trail of eerie menace and emptiness lit only by the gaudy neon of check-cashing storefronts, fortress-like liquor stores and fried chicken franchises.
In a telling reminder of the defining role of race in the geography of the Chicago area, Roosevelt Road runs into neighboring Cicero, the “Selma of the North” in the coinage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was pelted with rocks and bottles when he attempted to march there. Cicero remains a tough town with few blacks, but it is now half Hispanic.
It was the riots after King’s assassination in 1968 that sealed North Lawndale’s fate. In time the large Western Electric and International Harvester factories, and the Sears Roebuck international headquarters, left. In the 1980s, as Little Village grew, North Lawndale lost a fifth of its population.
When Klinenberg mapped the heat deaths of 1995 he found that North Lawndale was among the neighborhoods hardest hit, while nearby Little Village was virtually unscathed.
Klinenberg’s argument rings true to old-timers in black Chicago, like Timuel B. Black, a longtime activist and retired professor of history, anthropology and sociology in the City Colleges of Chicago.
To Black, 80, who came to Chicago as an infant in 1919 from Birmingham, Ala., now-Hispanic neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village are reminiscent of what black neighborhoods felt like when they were being replenished daily by new arrivals from the South.
“It was a thriving, prosperous, almost independent community,” recalls Black. Of course, it was a community contained by segregation. “It was ghettoized, but except for the overcrowding and concentration of people in one area, there was not a feeling of frustration and anger, there were no narcotics to speak of, there was no fear of violence.”
In the heat wave of 1995, Leak and Sons, one of the South Side’s premier funeral homes, was inundated. “Every phone call was a death call,” Spencer Leak Sr. recalls. “These areas are crime-ridden. They seal their windows, they don’t want to have air conditioners because they think it will lead the thieves to come after the air conditioner and then after them.”
Leak, whose father moved to Chicago from Arkansas in the 1920s and founded the funeral home, says that when he was growing up in a house filled with extended family, “We’d sleep in shifts. I’d go to bed on the couch and wake up on the floor. There is no way we could have had a (heat) catastrophe like this. Everybody cared about everybody.”
Leak marvels that Hispanics have managed, through ethnic, cultural and linguistic affinity, to support a self-contained economy in the way segregation once forced blacks to do. “In Little Village there is not one store boarded up or closed down,” Leak says. That is what black State Street used to look like, he says.
But in 1959, the Leak funeral home and others had to leave State Street to make way for the Robert Taylor Homes, the nation’s largest housing project, which was built to contain Chicago’s exploding black population and went on to become, along with other notorious Chicago housing projects like Cabrini Green, the prototypical slum.
“That was supposed to be progress,” says Leak, noting ruefully that some 40 years later those homes are in the process of being demolished.
Klinenberg grew up in Old Town, a gentrifying neighborhood juxtaposed between the affluence of Lincoln Park and the textbook ghetto of Cabrini Green only six blocks away.
“I lived very close to what people would call these `no-go’ zones,” says Klinenberg. “Sociology helped me work out some of the tensions I felt growing up in Chicago.”
In 1995, says Klinenberg, the press, the public and the powers that be mostly viewed the heat wave and its casualties as a natural disaster beyond their control. Mayor Richard Daley paid no discernible political price while presiding over the sudden heat deaths of many hundreds of Chicagoans, even though a previous mayor’s bad handling of a snowstorm cost him re-election. The inconveniencing of the elites, Klinenberg concludes, was more politically costly than the death of the socially marginal and anonymous.
By all accounts, the Daley administration did a far superior job this summer in handling the heat wave and saving lives. But Klinenberg says the real purpose of his social autopsy is to draw attention to the conditions of vulnerability that become so apparent when it’s hot, but exist even when it’s not.
He says his conception of a social autopsy could be broadly applied to the analysis of other natural disasters. “Vulnerability to extreme events such as weather disasters is the kind of issue that would easily fit into the new politics of environmental justice,” he says.