The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Chicago Heat, Twenty Years Later

Chicago had so many dead bodies piling up during its 1995 heat wave that the city recruited refrigerated trucks to handle the overflow.  Source: npr.org

Twenty years ago today, I experienced the single hottest day I ever felt.  Chicago was in the midst of a week-long heat wave that topped out at a very humid 106 degrees, with a heat index that made it feel like 126.  I remember leaving Chicago’s City Hall to walk briefly outside, so I could feel what the terrible heat felt like.

Within a week’s time, more than 700 people died in Chicago from heat strokes, dehydration and other heat-related illnesses, almost all of them poor, without access to air conditioning in their homes or nearby, living in the most distressed neighborhoods in a city that was entirely unprepared to handle the onslaught.  The vast majority of the heat-related deaths came from residents of the city’s South and West sides.  The 1995 Chicago heat wave is now known as one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, surpassed in the years since then only by Hurricane Katrina, though few have ever heard of it.

It was around this time that the notion of a bifurcated Chicago, one of haves and have nots, began to solidify in my mind.

Chicago public radio station WBEZ is doing a rememberance of the heat wave, and is devoting much of its local programming today to the lessons learned in the heat wave’s aftermath.  For further understanding of the event, I’d recommend reading Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg.

What do I remember?  At the time I was 30 with a wife and five-year-old daughter living in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on the South Side.  Our apartment building, an 18-unit “garden-style” apartment building near 83rd and Ashland, was not equipped with central air.  However, we had two window a/c units, in the living room and in the master bedroom.  It was enough to cool the entire apartment (it was a 2-bedroom apartment that was maybe 700 square feet) and allow us to escape the intense heat gripping the city.

That wasn’t the case for much of the city surrounding us.  Hustle men street vendors were selling bottles of water on the street for $3 a pop.  People were draping towels over their heads to avoid the sun.  Street life disappeared.

Local television reporters commented on the intensity of the heat wave, but very little was said about the growing tragedy, at first.  I remember reporters stating that hospitals were closing up their emergency rooms because they were overrun, and then saying that bodies were piling up at the morgue, and then at hospitals.  At first no one wanted to attribute the deaths to the heat wave; city officials were saying that the deaths were “coincidental” and any connection to the heat wave was “inconclusive”.

After a few days, fire trucks were pouring water on downtown drawbridges to keep them from locking up.  Streets were buckling.  The city scrambled to open up public buildings, even overnight, to people who didn’t have air conditioning.

To people from warmer climates in the South and West, this may be difficult to understand.  How could such a tragedy happen?  But Klinenberg and others made astute points about the physical and sociological natures of the disaster.  Physically, Chicago is without question a northern city, and its building construction — overwhelmingly brick in the aftermath of the Chicago Fire in 1871 — is meant to retain heat, not release it.  This works well in the winter months and keeps everyone safe and comfortable in frozen January, but does not have the same impact in July.

Much of Chicago’s residential construction looks like this, in Washington Park:

Or like this, in Humboldt Park:
Neither type is conducive to ventilation.  Residents who had the ability to add an a/c unit or two, like I did, or upgrade to more contemporary units, were able to survive the event without blinking an eye.  And often the feeling is by those who are able to do this is that others can do it as well.

Sociologically speaking, many people living in the older brick buildings that were turning into ovens were elderly, living in high-crime communities (this was at the height of Chicago’s crack-era crime wave, when the city reported more than 900 murders annually).  At the time, an open window or two could be an invitation for a robbery.  Would you choose that, or try to wait out the heat wave?

That decision cost many people their lives.

Since then, the city has done a much better job of getting in front of heat waves.  It now has a system for opening up public spaces as cooling centers.  Many places that lacked air conditioning prior to the ’95 heat wave, like park fieldhouses, now have air.  The city is good about getting the message out through the local media about cooling centers, and asking people to check on vulnerable family members.

Unfortunately, the ’95 heat wave is hardly ever brought up as a seminal or watershed event in Chicago history, in the way that the Fire was, or even the ’68 Democratic Convention riots.  I think that a lot of policymakers who were around at the time experienced a sense of shame about the disaster; how was it, they might ask themselves, that people could live so differently from them that it cost them their lives?  Rather than answer that question, they chose to bury it and move on.  In this sense, it’s not unlike the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which was largely forgotten by many Tulsans but was kept in the public eye by elderly victims and witnesses decades later.

Doing better by the city’s residents is definitely a positive outcome.  However, by not articulating why the change is significant means that a similar event could take place again.

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