News and Features
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
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
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.
Close to 3,000 progressive activists from all walks of life joined Jim Hightower for his third "Rolling Thunder/Down-Home Democracy Tour" in Tucson on July 26.
Children in New York City's public schools are being shortchanged--again.
A camera system in the nation's capital is making civil libertarians
One of the things we do not do well in this country is learn from our mistakes. This is particularly true in the strengthening and rejuvenating of cities.
Having a hard time finding a new apartment to fit your budget? Consider a move to the blocks around Ground Zero. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the body set up by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki to oversee the rebuilding of downtown post-September 11, will pay you up to $12,000 to relocate south of Chambers and west of Broadway for two years, or stay there should you live there already. I know--I couldn't believe it either. This bounty to adventurous tenants is federal money and comes even as area rents are already down by as much as 30 percent since 9/11. Think of it as a mini-version of the millions ladled out to keep corporations from abandoning lower Manhattan for New Jersey. I figured out that I could sublet my apartment on the Upper West Side, move downtown and actually be able to live on my Nation salary (well, almost).
It's true downtown is a mess right now--depending on whom you talk to, the air quality's somewhere between itchy and lethal, a lot of little shops and restaurants have folded, and Ground Zero is not everyone's idea of a view. Still, whatever happened to the survival of the fittest? To the market and its omnipotent invisible hand? Why shouldn't downtown apartments fall to their "natural" price--the rent at which sufficient numbers of people will want to take out a lease despite the angst and aggravation? And if that figure turns out to be so low that the current landlords can't make a go of it, isn't it the capitalist theory that other, cleverer landlords will step into the breach, with the consumer the winner? Why should the federal government pay middle-class professionals to live in one neighborhood rather than another? The answer is, to keep downtown a great place for those same middle-class professionals to live and for real estate interests to invest in.
Public subsidy is certainly not the principle animating housing policy for low-income people and homeless families like the ones whose tribulations were superbly, unforgettably chronicled by Jennifer Egan in The New York Times Magazine ("The Hidden Lives of Homeless Children," March 24). Five hundred dollars a month to brighten a scruffy and underpopulated district with their presence? The housing allowance for a family of three on welfare is $286. It's one thing to herd women and kids into filthy motels at the city's edge, miles from grocery stores and hours away from schools and jobs--at daily rates for which they could be happily ensconced in their own apartments. It would be quite another matter to treat low-income New Yorkers as members of society with contributions to make that are equal to (or greater than) those of bond traders or publicity agents, and to see their children as no less deserving of a safe and stable place to live than any other kids.
As Egan points out, homeless families--now 75 percent of the city's shelter population, including 13,000 children this past winter--are caught between falling or stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing costs. The housing market is just too tight, no public housing is being built and the waiting list for section 8 vouchers, which poor families can use toward private-market rents, has more than 200,000 names. Homelessness is a civic emergency, an affront to human dignity and a threat to the city's future, affecting everything from public health to public schools to public safety. But can you imagine Mayor Bloomberg, inspired by Egan's crusading journalism, proposing that we move homeless families--virtuous, sober, quiet homeless families, to be sure--into those hard-to-rent vacancies downtown? Middle-class New Yorkers would lie down in traffic to prevent it.
As society polarizes between rich and poor, differential treatment becomes ever more blatant and punitive. Thus, George W. Bush, seconded by Congressional Republicans and the Democratic Leadership Council, proposes forcing welfare mothers to work forty hours a week--nearly double the national norm for working moms. Thus, the Supreme Court, in a staggering 8-to-0 verdict (Justice Breyer recused himself), decides that public housing authorities can evict tenants if someone in the household uses drugs--including pot, which Mayor Bloomberg himself has acknowledged enjoying in his flaming youth. The rule applies even if they don't know about the drug use or do all in their power to prevent it, and even if it takes place outside the apartment. The plaintiffs? Two grandmothers whose grandsons smoked pot, one mother whose mentally disabled daughter was found thirty blocks away using cocaine, and one elderly disabled man whose health attendant had a crack pipe. Patricia Williams and others have wondered out loud why Jeb and Columba Bush didn't have to vacate the Florida governor's mansion because of their daughter's drug problems. Is it only poor grandmothers who are expected to have perfect control of the young?
The same law of punishing all for the crimes of one, which HUD has titled "One Strike and You're Out," is being used against battered women who seek help from the police, only to find themselves threatened with eviction from public housing because the household was the site of "criminal activity"--the assault. Can you imagine the headlines if the management at Battery Park City tried to evict a woman because her husband beat her up?
In the words of that noted social theorist Jesus Christ: "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." He was speaking of spiritual riches, but these days his words seem to apply to material ones as well.
* * *
My apologies to Tricycle, which did indeed cover strife in Sri Lanka, contrary to my reckless assertion ("God Changes Everything," April 1). No apologies, however, for failing to include Billy Graham's thirty-year-old anti-Semitic remarks in my catalogue of sins of the cloth. Why do I suspect that had I given to that ancient evangelist the space I allotted to West Bank settlers, priestly molesters, Islamic fanatics, Hindu arsonists and murderers or other contemporary religious rampagers, Christopher Hitchens would have suggested I was ignoring current crises in favor of musty Nixoniana?
Two years after a tragic accident, activists are celebrating a major victory.
Those who place the blame on executive greed may be missing the larger point.
He's created new projects, made new friends--and some bitter enemies.
Ever since the 1954 Brown decision outlawing "separate but equal" schools, various popular movements have upheld a vision of public schools as essential to democracy and have demanded legal protections for those previously marginalized--from Title IX prohibitions against gender-based discrimination, to the right to a bilingual education, to the inclusion of students with disabilities in public school classrooms, to the demand that public schools respect the rights of gay and lesbian students. On February 20 the Supreme Court took up a case that could lead to an about-face on this half-century of struggle.
The Justices heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland in which tax dollars pay for tuition at private schools. Roughly 4,300 Cleveland students currently receive vouchers, and 99.4 percent of them attend religious schools. The case's significance goes beyond vouchers to whether public education will be replaced by a marketplace system in which the role of the public is limited to making an individual "choice" to attend a particular school. The case also holds enormous potential to further George W. Bush's "faith based" initiatives promoting religious groups in the redefinition and privatization of the public sector.
The legal heart of the Cleveland case is whether the voucher program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of religion. The Justices are sharply divided, and many observers expect the Court to issue a narrow ruling on the specifics of the Cleveland case. But even a narrow holding would have broad ramifications.
Vouchers have been a bedrock of the conservative agenda to privatize education and provide public dollars for private religious education. The ability to move that agenda forward, however, has been hampered by the legal cloud over vouchers. To gain support, voucher supporters have fostered the image that vouchers are merely a way to provide options to low-income minority parents whose children are trapped in failing urban schools. But if the Court accepts the pro-voucher argument that there is no government endorsement of religion because the voucher goes to parents, that reasoning can extend to all parents regardless of income. It can also extend to social services other than education.
Should the Cleveland case pass constitutional muster, one of the immediate issues facing the voucher movement is how to make the move to universal vouchers without jeopardizing the political capital it's gained by seeming to befriend low-income minorities. The perception is that the Cleveland voucher program is aimed at African-Americans, but that's wrong. African-Americans constitute 71 percent of the students in the Cleveland public schools, yet they account for only 53 percent of voucher students. Whites, meanwhile, make up 19 percent of Cleveland's public school students but 29 percent of voucher students.
For voucher opponents, a Supreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland program will move the battle from the courts to the policy arena. Two issues will immediately come to the fore--money and accountability. The money issue is simple. Taxpayer support for education is limited, particularly during recessionary times, and the money that goes to private schools will reduce taxpayer willingness to fund public schools. This will undercut the movement for funding equity for urban public schools and diminish funds for such important reforms as smaller classes, improved teacher quality and reducing the achievement gap between whites and African-Americans and Latinos. Vouchers also undermine the calls for greater accountability. If the government tries to impose the same accountability on voucher schools as on public schools, it runs the risk of excessive "entanglement" in religion, violating church/state separation.
As voucher attorney Clint Bolick has argued, regulation of voucher schools "should be limited. It should not include any state oversight of curriculum, personnel or administration. Any program that creates extensive involvement by the state in the schools' internal affairs is likely to be found an unconstitutional excessive entanglement." In Milwaukee, home to the country's oldest and largest voucher program, accountability is so lax that no academic data have been collected from voucher schools for more than six years. As a result, no one knows how students in voucher schools are performing academically. Furthermore, the voucher schools don't have to provide the same level of services for special education students or students who don't speak English. Because constitutional rights like due process are not applicable in private schools, voucher schools can suspend or expel students at will.
Many people don't appreciate the threat vouchers pose. Who can disagree that public schools, particularly in urban areas, fail too many students? But it would be shortsighted to abandon public education and accept the myth that vouchers and privatization are the answer. Public education tries to fulfill our vision of a more democratic America, with public institutions responsible to, and controlled by, the public. The voucher movement betrays that vision. It treats education as a mere consumer item and asks us to settle for the "choice" to apply to a private school that itself does the choosing.
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