I heard about Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago last month when fellow Cannonballer Lollygagger gave it a favorable review. I’ve been reading up on various memoirs and nonfiction accounts of disasters and other dystopian elements in our world, and this book seemed to fit the bill. Also, as someone who has lived outside Chicago for the last four years, I was interested in the contemporary history aspect of the book. My sister is currently in paramedic school in the suburbs, so I was also interested to see the medical/social aspect of the heat wave crisis (which I honestly did not remember from 1995, although my family was living in Milwaukee at that time).
Klinenberg takes us into a detailed, nuanced glimpse of a heat wave that didn’t seem too important, but when it was over, 733 people were dead. How did this happen? Klinenberg explains the many, many factors at play, and in so doing, he unpacks the complexities of Chicago as a metropolitan area, particularly when it comes to the city’s African-American and Hispanic citizens. Something that really struck me was the way neighborhood makeup affected those who lived and died. Klinenberg also explained the political infrastructure’s inability to cope responsibly with the situation and use rhetoric to deny its participation in the deaths that occurred (and that is probably the most infuriating part of the disaster, if you ask me).
I was really informed and felt immersed in the world that Klinenberg unfolded for me. While I am not a big reader of social issues, I really liked his writing style and his careful explanation of the many factors at play. I certainly hope that things have changed in Chicago (but unfortunately, for African-Americans, I fear that they have not, in so many ways).