How should the 1995 Chicago heat wave deaths be commemorated?

An arts critics think about how Chicago might remember the deaths of hundreds in the 1995 heat wave:

After all, events that caused far fewer deaths have been the subject of remembrances, designed to honor those who died. July 1995 has yet to make into that civic category, but it deserves a spot. Perchance someone may convene a discussion between those who were involved in that crisis and ponder what was learned (I should note that Klinenberg also charges the media, including the management of this newspaper, with some culpability in the tardiness of the connecting of the dots, while acknowledging some formidable reportage).

More useful, though, might be an artistic response.

A commissioned symphonic piece, perhaps played outdoors. A concert honoring those who died. A dance work. Some stirring poetic words. Some deep collective thoughts from city leaders as to if, or how, the city has changed since then and where there still is work to be done. Some consideration of whether we now do a better job of taking care of each other, whatever the weather outside. It is worth the attention of the city’s artists. And politicians.

“Marking it as a historic event is important,” Egdorf said. “If only to remind people to look after their neighbors.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. Given the demographics of those who died, such a commemoration could also go a long ways toward addressing social divisions such as those involving age, class, and race. Important figures are often commemorated but what about a mass number of average residents?

2. For the social forces that contributed to who died in this particular heat wave, I recommend Heat Wave by sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

3. The idea of having an artistic response to this disaster is an interesting one. We often have solemn commemorations but this presents an opportunity to create something new of tragedy.

Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg collaborate on modern romance

Comedian Aziz Ansari is familiar with the work of Sherry Turkle and has done research with sociologist Eric Klinenberg:

While every other comedian — from Tina Fey to Amy Poehler — is writing a memoir, Ansari decided he’d team up with a sociologist to conduct studies on love in the age of technology for his first title. The comedian revealed his book cover exclusively to TIME and chatted about his research, his stand-up and the end of Parks and Rec

I had been starting to do this stand-up about dating and realized that the current romantic landscape is way different. All these very modern problems — like, sitting and deciding what to write in a text — that’s a very new conundrum.

Then I randomly met a couple people who were in academic fields that did work that vaguely applied to this stuff. Like, this woman Sherry Turkle who had done all this research about texting and found that you say things over text you would never say to someone’s face. So the medium of communication we’re using is kind of making us sh—ttier people. And then I thought if you take that and put it toward romantic interactions, that’s why people are so f—ing rude…

It ended up being a sociology book that has my sense of humor, but it also has some academic heft to it. I wrote it with this sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, and he helped me design this huge research project that we did. We interviewed hundreds of people all across the world — we went to Tokyo and Paris and Wichita to really get a wide scope. We also interviewed all sorts of academics. The resulting book is really unique. I can’t think of any book I would really compare it to.

I wonder how the two worlds involved here – those who read books by comedians and sociologists – will react to this book:

1. Will the general public be interested in a comedian utilizing more academic data to tackle a a popular topic? Could a comedian reach people in a way that a book written by a sociologist alone could not? Or, will the public still not really trust the data and continue to rely on their own anecdotes of online love?

2. How will sociologists view Klinenberg’s contribution? Is this data really any good or it is too impressionistic? While sociologists talk about public sociology, popular pieces of writing are often derided for not being serious enough. Was Klinenberg secretly conducting an ethnographic project on the lives of modern comedians?

No matter the critical reception from either camp, I imagine this book will sot a lot more copies than the typical sociology monograph…

Living in a more isolated neighborhood of McMansions could limit how long you live?

In discussing a recent piece  from sociologist Eric Klinenberg about how cities can better prepare for climate change and natural disasters, MarketWatch jumps to an odd conclusion about McMansions and longevity:

As politicians and civil servants study how to prepare communities for the possible effects of future disasters or climate change, Klinenberg writes, they’re taking social infrastructure into account. And while it’s tricky to extrapolate broader lessons from these very specific situations, Klinenberg’s work does seem to reinforce the broader point that, for older people, social isolation can become a health threat in its own right. For the baby boomer trying to decide between a “Main Street” condo and a McMansion, or a retirement community and a farmhouse, it’s food for thought.

I don’t understand why a McMansion is mentioned here. The suggestion does fit with general stereotypes that neighborhoods of McMansions tend to be antisocial places where wealthy suburbanites only want to retreat to their electronics and nuclear families rather than engage the broader world. Critics suggest McMansions are all about privatization and not engaging with others. Hence, solutions to McMansions and sprawl such as New Urbanism tend to design things in such a way to encourage more interaction.

But, this connection doesn’t necessarily fit with Klinenberg’s analysis of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. McMansions tend to be located in wealthier areas where people have the resources to access other forms of social support. In other words, would you be better off in a dense urban neighborhood with a strong social infrastructure or a looser suburban neighborhood with more money? Also, do a McMansion and a farmhouse really fit in the same category for isolation?

In the end, I would like to see data that people living in McMansions suffer in terms of longevity because of their houses and neighborhoods as compared to other settings.

Summer heat and society

The heat of the summer is often equated with positive things: sun, outdoor activities, the beach, and driving with the windows open or convertible top down.

But the heat can also cause and expose issues in a society. In Russia, there has been record heat and a staggering number of deaths:

On Monday, Moscow health authorities announced that the number of deaths each day in the capital had nearly doubled to 700 as most of central Russia entered the seventh week of a heat wave. The high temperatures, hovering around 100 degrees, have destroyed 30% of the nation’s grain crops and triggered massive peat bog and forest fires that alone have killed more than 50 people and devastated dozens of villages.

Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of Moscow’s health department, said the city’s morgues were filled almost to capacity, with 1,300 of the 1,500 slots taken. He suggested that residents, instead of following Russian Orthodox tradition of holding burials on the third day after death, bury loved ones sooner.

This sort of event is not isolated to Moscow. Something similar happened in Chicago in 1995. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote about the summer in the book Heat Wave: Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago. In an interview, Klinenberg discussed the book. There were some controversy over the “official death count.” Cook County’s chief medical examiner reported 465 deaths related to the heat for the hottest week but the numbers were disputed by Mayor Daley.

Additionally, the death rates differed by race:

The actual death tolls for African Americans and whites were almost identical, but those numbers are misleading. There are far more elderly whites than elderly African Americans in Chicago, and when the Chicago Public Health Department considered the age differences, they found that the black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1. Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths.

So heat can help expose the disadvantaged in society, those who have no or little access to air conditioning, are often alone, and have no one to check in on them. Since that summer in Chicago, the city has opened “cooling centers” (which are available now all over the state of Illinois) to provide a place for those who don’t have other options. Measures like these have cut down on heat-related deaths in Chicago – it remains to be seen what Moscow will do to help with this current and future heat waves.