City Lit: Summer in the City

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Among the sizable portion of media observers and academics who viewed the 1990s as a time of renewal for major U.S. cities, it’s a matter of gospel that greater emphasis on downtown development, fighting crime and “reinventing” government service provision all contributed decisively to the urban comeback. Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and New York zealously pursued these strategies, and enjoyed benefits ranging from lower crime rates to disappearing deficits to corporate reinvestment. Mayors like Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell, New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Chicago’s Richard M. Daley were quickly lionized as can-do technocrats who had risen above the traditional, dysfunctional paradigms of urban governance.

But the broad consensus that the gains of 1990s urban America came without a high price is sharply challenged by Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave, a sociological examination of how one week of extremely hot weather in Chicago in July 1995 left over 700 dead. While middle- and upper-class Chicagoans turned up the air conditioner or headed for the pool, low-income city-dwellers died, alone and helpless, in staggering numbers. Klinenberg’s hypothesis, developed with painstaking care over the course of the book, is that the week of 100-plus degree temperatures only served to push the city’s most marginalized and solitary residents through the bottom of a safety net that city officials, with the connivance of Chicago voters, had knowingly left threadbare.

Offering his research as a “social autopsy” of the disaster, Klinenberg examines the heat wave through the prisms of race and location, social capital, government services, public relations and media coverage. Too often, Heat Wave reads like the doctoral dissertation it initially was: While Klinenberg’s methodology is quite admirable, his description of it is belabored and frequently blunts the power of his findings. Worse, several of his sections, most notably the discussion of how the media framed the story of the heat wave, offer plenty of academic citations but little insight. Still, these flaws stand out only because the case he builds in the rest of the book–a case that soon begins to look like an indictment of Chicago’s government in general, and spin-obsessed Mayor Daley in particular–is so devastating.

Klinenberg compares North Lawndale and Little Village. Two adjacent Chicago neighborhoods of roughly equal size, they have similar numbers and proportions of senior citizens living alone and in poverty–the strongest indicators of mortality. Yet the two communities experienced very different outcomes during the heat wave: While North Lawndale endured 19 fatalities, Little Village suffered only three deaths.

Klinenberg illustrates how the vibrant street life and plentiful commercial activity of Little Village contributed to the safety of the elderly residents who matched the general profile of heat wave victims. Not only were low-income senior citizens in Little Village more likely to receive visits from concerned friends and neighbors than their counterparts in North Lawndale; even those seniors without social networks were more likely to venture out to air-conditioned stores or other public places, thanks to the busy streets and a greater sense of safety. In North Lawndale, by contrast, the rampant crime, proliferation of vacant lots and abandoned buildings–and general absence of any activities indicating a functional, safe community–imposed upon area seniors the brutal choice between staying inside to face the heat alone or going out to risk intimidation, robbery or worse.

“During the heat wave, as in their everyday lives, older North Lawndale residents had few incentives to leave their homes and seek relief or social contact in public places,” writes Klinenberg. “The area lacked the social and commercial attractions that draw people–especially the elderly–outdoors.”

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The absence of “social capital” in dysfunctional neighborhoods like North Lawndale makes it all the more important for government to step in when needed. Unfortunately, systematic cuts in budget and personnel for social service-providing city agencies like Health, Human Services and Housing increasingly left service and crisis response to one of the few city services that saw its budget grow: the Chicago Police Department.

With a substantial police presence in North Lawndale, the city should have known in advance that the crime-ridden neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents–including thousands of isolated seniors–would need more help, not less, in the event of a crisis. Under Chicago’s extensive community policing program, officers were supposed to act as liaisons to other city agencies and services.

But the “organizational mismatch,” as Klinenberg calls it, between the police and the social service tasks they are now asked to perform, has resulted in dramatically worse service provision in communities that were already underserved. Referring to the widespread resistance among cops on the street to the responsibilities of community policing, Klinenberg quotes a police official who explains: “Officers [don’t] want to be ‘pooper scooper police.'”

The reappropriation of city funds from social services to more police was only part of a larger, more pervasive trend. The failure of city government to devise and implement an effective response during the heat wave had causes stretching back years before the mercury rose. The cultural and political climate of the heat wave, writes Klinenberg, was created by “the collective refusal to address poverty and isolation in Chicago during the prosperous 1990s.”

Implicit in that refusal was the conscious decision of the prosperous to tolerate poverty and isolation in their midst. This played out in Chicagoans’ daily interactions with their government: Klinenberg shows how the much-celebrated “reinvention” of city governments has left distressed communities–lacking strong ties between residents, organic institutions for mutual aid and, usually, strong and effective political leadership–worse off than ever.

Those who most need assistance from local government–the poorest, the oldest, the most helpless–are exactly the people least likely to assert themselves in the new model of government services, where “empowered consumers” engage the bureaucracy to get the help they need. Elite constituents are far more likely to find government, and the organizations it hires to provide services, responsive to their demands. “Underservice of Chicago’s poor elderly is a structural certainty and an everyday norm,” Klinenberg writes. “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 author demonstrates this with brutal dispatch in discussing cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Combined with a market-based managerial model that shut off utilities, imposing revenue-generating fines on people who couldn’t pay their bills, the cuts made it all but impossible for poor seniors to enjoy climate controls that their wealthier neighbors took for granted.

Centers for Disease Control researchers estimated that more than half the deaths during the heat wave could have been prevented if the deceased had working air conditioners. Yet poor seniors, reports Klinenberg, “understood that their utility costs in the summer would be unaffordable if they had air conditioners.” Even poor people who get free air conditioners through pilot programs often sell them, he notes, because they would not be able to afford the electricity. While deeper-pocketed and better-organized groups doubtless would have politicized the issue, Chicago’s poor seniors had scant political resources–and could offer little resistance to the political choices implicit in their deprivation. “Fear of losing their energy altogether if they failed to pay the bills,” writes Klinenberg, “has relegated these seniors to regular forms of insecurity and duress so fundamental, and yet so difficult for policy makers and the public to see, that their daily crisis goes unnoticed.”

Heat Wave offers not only a sober postmortem on how a city failed its most vulnerable citizens, but an urgent warning as well. The convergence of two powerful trends–the aging of America’s population and the steady rise in temperatures–strongly suggests the likelihood that America’s cities will face this challenge again. Unfortunately, Klinenberg’s demonstration that this tragedy was a result of structural forces, and political choices, leaves the reader without much hope that we will fare better next time.

David Jason Fischer is a policy analyst with the Center for an Urban Future.