I am writing this review in the midst of a Chicago heat wave, almost exactly seven years after the heat disaster that killed nearly 800 people in the city. The Chicago Tribune‘s multicolored weather page adorns the forecast with a special “excessive heat watch” symbol–an exclamation point lodged in a red circle–newscasters earnestly tell us to stay inside and take it easy, and veteran black radio deejay Herb Kent, the Kool Gent, chats on-air about liquor and caffeinated drinks being dehydrating and the need to drink lots of “good old H2O.”

I remember the 1995 disaster well, but for me personally it was a period of intensive work on my last book, cooped up indoors 24/7, with roaring air-conditioning, punctuated by horrified reading of the Tribune‘s coverage of rolling city power outages and the growing spectacle of hundreds of heat-related deaths, with the bodies piling up and overwhelming the city morgue’s capacity. Suspicious of the Tribune because of its long history of rightist and racist slants, I scrutinized the stories to see if the city was, as usual, shortchanging its black South and West sides on services, but couldn’t figure anything out. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a young Chicago native, was out of the country during the disaster, but has since then more than made up for lost time. His Heat Wave is a trenchant, multilayered and well-written social autopsy of the disaster.

Since finishing Heat Wave, I’ve been obsessively asking friends, neighbors, students and colleagues if they were in town in July 1995, and if so, what they remember. Most of my middle-class interlocutors were as insulated as I was, in cooled rooms, and only vaguely remember the period because of media coverage. But many younger people, who were then living on student or first-job budgets, told tales of extreme misery and multiple palliative strategies–double bills at air-conditioned theaters, plunging into Lake Michigan every possible nonworking hour, bunking with better-off friends and relatives, long drives in cars with AC and, of course, all the old tricks with cold water, towels and fans. One conservative young woman described her sudden comprehension, lying sweaty and wretched in her sweltering apartment, listening to neighbors’ AC compressors turning on, of the ressentiment and violence of some inner-city dwellers.

In fact, Klinenberg explains, aside from some vigilante actions against city workers sent to reseal the 3,000 open fire hydrants liberated by kids, poor Chicagoans were far too enervated by the hot, wet blanket enveloping the city to commit mayhem. The real criminals of the heat crisis, Klinenberg makes clear, were the federal, state and local officials who, in the words of Robert Scates, the bitter black thirty-year veteran emergency medical services director, committed “murder by public policy.”

But first we need to come to terms with the epidemiological realities of heat crises. Extreme heat, Klinenberg explains, tends not to be taken as seriously as other weather and human disasters–hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, blizzards, plane crashes. But “more people die in heat waves than in all other extreme events combined,” and the ’95 crisis has “no equal in the record of US heat disasters.” Because the body’s defenses “can take only about forty-eight hours of uninterrupted exposure to such heat before they break down,” Klinenberg observes, area ambulance services and emergency rooms were soon overwhelmed, and at the height of the catastrophe, half of Chicago’s hospitals went on bypass status–turned all new patients away. Most Chicagoans saw the grisly televised scenes of emergency workers falling prostrate with heatstroke, of police cars backed up clear around the block, waiting to deliver cadavers to nine forty-eight-foot refrigerated trucks donated by a local meatpacking firm when the morgue ran entirely out of body-storage space, and heard and read about the record-breaking murderousness of the disaster. But Klinenberg notes that only months after the catastrophe, Chicagoans reacted to his queries with “detachment and disavowal.” Not only did they, and the press whose interpretations they were reflecting, wish to relegate the disaster to a nonhappening but many, following Mayor Richard Daley’s lead, asserted that the death figures weren’t “really real,” that “the massive mortality figures…had somehow been fabricated, or that the deaths were simply not related to the heat.”

Klinenberg took on the task of explicating what’s “really real” with extraordinary energy. He burrowed into public health and press documents, did street-level fieldwork and police ride-alongs in poor neighborhoods, interviewed every possible city, state and private agency official, and many low-level service workers, and thoroughly engaged local journalists on their hour-by-hour decision-making on the framing and coverage of the breaking story. In domain after domain, across institutions, he smashes home his key finding: “The geography of vulnerability during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the everyday ecology of inequality.” Heat disasters in general resonate less with the general public because, unlike other sorts of disasters, they leave property untouched and mostly affect the poor, the frail, the nonwhite–whoever can’t afford air-conditioning! The Chicago dead were indeed largely the isolated, elderly and disproportionately black poor, and the city rapidly turned its back on them.

But the everyday ecology of inequality is not a timeless phenomenon, and Chicago is not Everycity. By the mid-1990s, the US economy had recovered from the Reagan-Bush recession, the market was booming, urban street crime was dropping and American media were hyping an urban renaissance. Mayor Daley capitalized on these national trends with an ambitious program of urban beautification and a massive public relations campaign, suburbanites moved back downtown and tourism revived dramatically. (Klinenberg doesn’t mention the role of the 1990s spike in international migration to Chicago, which brought much-needed quality and variety to local restaurant fare, added exotic cuteness to tourist attractions and provided a vast underpaid labor force for booming restaurants, hotels and offices.) During the heat wave, the Daley administration was particularly engaged in “gloss[ing] its image in preparation for the Democratic National Convention of 1996″–felt as a crucial task, given the debacle of the 1968 DNC event, when Daley’s father was mayor, with its globally reproduced images of Chicago’s finest beating the shit out of middle-class white kids and not a few journalists and Democratic politicians. So it comes as little surprise that Daley viewed the heat wave deaths primarily as “a potential public relations disaster,” and Chicago-watchers will not be too surprised to read that the city administration both actively hindered appropriate relief efforts and put most of its energy into an attempt to “spin its way out of the crisis.”

God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995. Most crucial is the rise of neoliberalism, which Klinenberg rather oddly denominates “reinvented government” and “the entrepreneurial state,” in a narrow sociological tradition, rather than connecting to abundant available radical analyses of the phenomenon worldwide. No matter, he names the key shifts: the state’s growing divestment of social service responsibilities; the outsourcing and simultaneous downsizing of the remaining functions; the overarching capitalist managerial model of lean, mean efficiency; and the new model of citizens as “active consumers” of public goods, and too damned bad if they lack the knowledge, capacity or energy to do so.

In the case of the heat wave, the crucial noxious brew involved neoliberal policies with regard to low-cost housing, consumer energy use and social service personnel. Since Reagan, the federal government has been cutting back support for low-cost housing, and the public housing crisis in Chicago was so acute that local activists were unwilling to draw attention to the many code violations in single room occupancy (SRO) hotel units–more than 18,000 rooms had been lost already–for fear that they would “only embolden the political officials and real estate developers who would prefer to convert the units into market-rate family housing.” As a result, many frail elderly people literally cooked to death in illegal multiply subdivided “cattle sheds for human beings.”

As well, the traditional down-on-its-luck SRO population had been swollen since the 1970s with the mentally ill dumped onto urban housing markets with the closure of government-operated asylums. Fragile community connections were severed as SRO residents, afraid of the “crazy folk,” retreated from common spaces into their tiny rooms, making it ever more likely that those sinking with heatstroke would fail to be discovered until it was too late. In public housing, the Chicago Housing Authority provided no air-conditioning even in common rooms, and in a perverse interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the CHA dumped youthful drug addicts, without rehab services, into well-established senior housing all over the city. Crime in the projects predictably skyrocketed, the collective caretaking bonds the residents had built atrophied as the elderly retreated in terror into their individual units; many lives were lost as a result.

Air-conditioning may be part of the overarching environmental crisis, but it is a godsend in extreme heat, and for better or worse, working-class and better-off Americans have organized their lives around it in all parts of the country affected by high summer temperatures. Inability to afford winter heating, much less summer air-conditioning, is part of what Klinenberg labels the “everyday energy crisis” of the poor. A 50 percent cutback in the federal low-income energy-assistance program, combined with soaring utility rates, pinched the city of Chicago so badly that it still closes down aid each year at the beginning of the cold season, and provides no AC subsidies at all. The poor elderly with whom Klinenberg visited were so fearful of excessive energy bills that they even avoided using electric lights during the day. In an extraordinary illustration of neoliberal cruelty, as the heat wave deaths were still being counted, the US Senate initiated a vote to end the energy program but settled on skimming off a mere hundred million dollars. In the same session, Congress vastly expanded federal support to insurance companies and homeowners who suffer property damage due to disasters. The final fillip is the new “market model” utility policy that punishes delinquent customers, even the desperately ill, by cutting off not only electricity but water. Klinenberg notes sardonically that this policy is simply not parallel to the money-making efficiency of the car boot: “Water, unlike a car, is a resource that people need to survive.”

Chicago’s specific demographic and spatial history greatly magnified the final domain–social services–of murder by public policy. Klinenberg demonstrates that the city, much to my surprise, has significantly higher percentages than the American average both of single residents in general and of elderly living alone. Of course, as he notes, living alone and being without resources are two distinct states. But Chicago lost 1 million people between 1950 and 1990, and for the elderly poor, “aging in place” in neighborhoods devastated first by capital and then by massive population flight–and then colonized by kids working in the only industry left, drugs–is a recipe for dangerous isolation. Add state cutbacks and outsourcing, and you have private agencies on insanely low budgets sending outrageously overworked service providers out to elderly poor clients no more than once a year–and even then, in fear of the druggies, confining their visits to the early mornings.

North Lawndale is one such “bombed out” neighborhood, and Klinenberg’s star turn is a rigorous ethnographic and historical comparison of that Southwest Side area with the contiguous Little Village. Both neighborhoods were founded by Southeastern European immigrants and then tipped minority in the postwar years, and both have similar poverty levels and percentages of poor elderly–but North Lawndale had ten times more heat wave deaths, proportionately, than its southern neighbor. Scholars, politicians, social service people and even residents themselves offered up “racial” explanations, as North Lawndale is black while Little Village is Mexican: Latinos are used to hot weather, they have close intergenerational families, they form tight communities, etc. Klinenberg demolishes all these folk theories with hard facts and careful logic (and not a little sarcasm–black Chicagoans with roots in the Delta don’t have close families and aren’t used to hot weather?) and forces us to consider variations in urban spatial ecology and their consequences for city-dwellers’ daily lives. After all, three Chicago neighborhoods with the lowest per capita heat-wave death rates were majority-black–but not “bombed out.”

The key difference is human density. Little Village is both an entrepôt for the vast Latino migration to Chicago and a safe haven for Latinos gentrified out of other neighborhoods. As one resident said of the neighborhood, “there is no such thing as an empty lot.” High populations maintain abundant local business, which in turn guarantees lively street life and thus a safe and interesting public environment in which the elderly can shop, exercise–and cool down in air-conditioned stores during a heat wave. Even the “aging in place” whites left over from Little Village’s earlier incarnation fared well in the crisis. Certainly Little Villagers have strong community bonds, especially through the Catholic Church, but North Lawndale residents are organized to a fare-thee-well too. Their church groups and block clubs, though, simply cannot make up for abandoned buildings, empty lots and few stores.

Klinenberg deals diligently but less successfully with three other domains key to his story. He nails the Daley administration’s culpability in an hour-by-hour account of the unfolding disaster and discusses the highly publicized failed snow removal that doomed the 1970s Bilandic administration, but he neglects to mention African-American Harold Washington’s brief but significant interim mayoralty of the 1980s. Washington, after all, gained both national fame and notoriety for trying to equalize city resources across rich and poor neighborhoods, and that profoundly race-inflected inequality is the fulcrum of Heat Wave‘s criticism of current city government. Some of Klinenberg’s heroes of the crisis, public health activist Quentin Young and Sid Bild of Metro Seniors in Action, are actually white veterans of the old Washington coalition. And we never really hear about the Daley/developer deals that have stripped the city of affordable housing, which are well documented in radical scholarship and journalism. Similarly, Klinenberg does wonders with the sordid story of the firefighter/paramedic feud–one reason for the city’s belated response to the crisis–but doesn’t really clue us in that racism is at the root of that one too. Finally, he gives us terrific reporter’s-eye insight into the bureaucratic realities that determined the false coverage of the breaking crisis at the Chicago Tribune, but never informs us of the Trib‘s history of rightist ownership, the structures above the heads of the city editors.

Klinenberg documents the local media’s chastened post-’95 hyperresponsibility to advise the public on individual tactics to mitigate heat danger, and lists the specific ongoing political structures that will inevitably lead to more murder by public policy. But he never quite adds these elements up to their sum total–the heat disaster as an altogether predictable product of neoliberal capitalist shift. Heat Wave connects the dots to tell us an important new muckraking story but doesn’t fully recognize the radical urban and national political economy narrative already on the page.