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Wednesday, November 22

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"We have collectively created the conditions that made it possible for so many Chicago residents to die in the summer of 1995, as well as the conditions that make these deaths so easy to overlook and forget."
--Heat Wave, prologue

Why did so many Chicagoans die alone? That is one of the fundamental questions posed by sociologist Eric Klinenberg in the next selection of the Gapers Block Book Club, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.

If you've been paying attention to the local news at all recently, you already know this week marks the tenth anniversary of the deadly heat wave that claimed the lives of more than 700 Chicagoans between July 14-20, 1995. On July 15 alone, 365 people died from heat-related causes.

This week, many of the news stories focus on how Chicago's emergency heat response system, developed after the 1995 tragedy, is a "model for the nation." Today, when the thermostat rises, official warnings are issued, cooling centers are opened, and workers from the Department of Human Services go door-to-door checking on vulnerable residents. But 10 years ago, the only cooling center available to the victims of the heat wave was the Cook County Morgue. And as the death toll rose, many of the victims didn't even make it that far. Their bodies were stored in refrigerated trucks donated by a local meatpacker in the morgue's parking lot.

In Heat Wave, Klinenberg rejects the specious idea that the heat wave deaths could not have been prevented, that they were simply an "act of God," the result of a freakish meteorological event. Nor does he place the blame for the tragedy at any one door. Instead, Klinenberg analyzes a complex web of conditions in Chicago that together led to the disaster.

He examines why so many elderly Chicago residents live in social isolation. He compares the social environments of the North Lawndale and Little Village neighborhoods that led to so many deaths in the former, but dramatically fewer in the latter, despite the proximity of the communities. He reveals the failings in the way the city government reacted to the crisis, and criticizes the government's concerted effort to deflect responsibility for the failures that contributed to the tragedy. And, finally, Klinenberg analyzes local media reports of the heat wave, exploring how journalists turned a crisis into a spectacle.

By exposing what went wrong during that hot July, Klinenberg also exposes the underlying social ills that exist not just in Chicago, but throughout urban America. Heat Wave is a book one will not easily forget.

So, please join the Gapers Block Book Club on August 8, 2005, at 7:30pm to discuss Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg at The Book Cellar, located at 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. And join the book club email list for news, updates, discussion and more.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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