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Heat and the Occasion of Love

Credit: Matthew Wills, JSTOR
September 2, 2021

Tuviere is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow, working with Data Driven EnviroLab. She is a second-year graduate student at McGill University’s department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health and holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Environment and more specifically in the Ecological Determinants of Health. She was born in Calabar, Nigeria and spent the other half of her childhood in Edmonton, Alberta. She is passionate about the intersection of environment and human health especially as it pertains to the Black community specifically how social and political institutions contribute to increased exposure to dangerous environment agents and the negative effect on overall health in this community. Tuviere aspires to work at the intersection of research and policy as we transition to a more equitable and just society.

On Thursday, July 13, 1995, Chicago experienced a historic heat wave which would last for five days. Temperatures reached a historic 41 degrees celsius on July 23rd, the second warmest July temperature. The city was not well prepared and more than 700 people died as a result of their unpreparedness. 

The 1995 Chicago heat wave devastated the South and West sides of Chicago, the city’s historic Black Belt where Black Americans were segregated. Although the heat wave affected the whole of Chicago, those living in this part of the city saw the highest heat related death rates. More specifically, of the fifteen community areas with the highest death rates during the heatwave, ten contained populations that were 94 to 99 percent Black (Klinenberg, 2002). Those who were elderly and poor were also more susceptible to higher rates of mortality. Twenty-six years later, we must evaluate this climate disaster through a lens of a social perspective.  A social perspective attempts to dissect the underlying causes for a disaster by drawing upon individual factors within the larger context of a neighbourhood, social service systems, and government programs; our social institutions which are often shaped by the historical context of where we reside (Klinenberg , 2002).

The Chicago heat wave exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between our social institutions and physical environments. By framing the Chicago heat wave from an exclusively natural perspective, we can analyze this event as a physical occurrence within the environment without attributing any social forces to the cause of the event. From this perspective, the Chicago heat wave was caused by natural determinants in our physical environment; people died on account of the incredibly high temperatures provided by specific meteorological conditions, the human body was incapable of surviving such hot conditions. However, if we take into account the social perspective, we can dissect the underlying causes of this disaster by drawing upon individual factors within the larger context of a society (Klinenberg , 2002). This is to say without evaluating the event of the Chicago heat wave from a social perspective, we would miss the crucial social-cultural context that made this disproportionately devastating for Black- Americans. Unlike a natural perspective, a social perspective considers political, economic, and cultural factors, combining them with individual and community level conditions. As well as social institutions to which they belong are at the center of a social perspective. 

Centering on this social perspective, James Baldwin’s idea of ‘lovelessness’ can help to explain how so many people could have died in 1995, and continue to die during heat events and why our current system prioritizes individualism at the cost of the health of our community. Love is central to Baldwin’s thinking of social change.  Most importantly, Baldwin submits that the racial justice problem is a symptom of white lovelessness (Woubshet, 2019). This is to say that white people who have not been taught the importance of community often do not know how to love themselves and as a result will have trouble loving those around them (Woubshet, 2019). For Baldwin, love can be defined as hopeful and restorative. He presents the idea of love as compassion and camaraderie for one another and presents this idea as the only way in which to survive the long history of racial injustice.     

Though Baldwin talks about lovelessness from a racial justice perspective, I argue our lack of love for each other through our lack of compassion and camaraderie for each other is at the root of the issues of heat waves and also mortality from heat waves. 

The underlying factors within the construction of our individualism, as well as the lack of love that Baldwin discusses, can help to explain why specifically Black people were vulnerable during the heatwave. The 1995 heat wave’s high levels of mortality for Black people and Black older adults can be traced to the fact that Black people, and more especially Black elderly people in Chicago, often lived alone in isolation and largely confined themselves to their household (Klinenberg, 2002). Many seniors in Chicago lived in single residence dwellings far away from public spaces which would offer social ties. In a health emergency such as the heat wave, lack of social ties meant that these residents had no or few family or friends to ensure that an adequate amount of care was given to them to survive the heat wave. Social isolation was an important risk factor for mortality. This is further demonstrated by the fact that elderly Latino residents were less likely to die during the heat event because Latino seniors benefit from “strong multigenerational and extended social ties that facilitate close contact during normal times as well as crisis,” (Klinenberg, 2002). In other words, social ties saved the lives of elderly Latino residents. Using a social perspective and Balwin’s idea of love, love begins in our neighbourhoods and is compassion for our neighbours. It meant checking in on older residents and caring for them during this disaster. 

In communities where love, as defined by camaraderie for one another, was being practiced daily, there was lower mortality. On the other hand, it was hard to practice this concept of love in the Black community, which has been for decades left to deteriorate. During the end of the enslavement era in the United States, many previously enslaved people living in the southern states, more specifically five hundred thousand of them, came to the city of Chicago in hopes of escaping the legacies of slavery and in hopes of a better life (Grossman, 1989). Unfortunately, the city had not kept to its promise to Black Chicagoans from the end of slavery until today. In the South and West sides of the city, there are still ongoing reports on the demolition of public housing, the closing of public schools, a housing crisis, and lack of access to schools (Silets, 2020). The lack of prioritization of social services for Black residents of Chicago points to the city’s lack of love for its residents. The City of Chicago never provided a framework where Black people could practice love in their community as well as never provided a framework for the city itself to provide love to its Black residents.

In the context of the Chicago heat wave, Black Chicagoans were once again forgotten by city officials. First, the city’s hospitals and trauma center were concentrated on the North side. This created a segregation of medical resources wherein Black residents faced greater obstacles in receiving medical care even though residents on the South and West side were most likely to need urgent or sustained medical attention from the heat. According to an Illinois senate report, “with 23 hospitals on bypass status at various intervals during the period July 13-16, 1995, very few, if any, hospitals on the South and the Southeast Sides of Chicago were available to accept patients delivered by emergency ambulance,”(Klinenberg, 2002). What this shows was a lack of camaraderie for Black residents in Chicago, Baldwin’s definition of lovelessness.  

Additionally, the city for years had physically neglected Black neighbourhoods in Chicago. Issues pertaining to physical security were especially relevant for elderly Black-Americans who faced the greatest risk of mortality during the heatwave event. This statement is especially true when examining the predominantly Black neighbourhood North Lawndale. North Lawndale lacked social and commercial attractions to draw residents out. Additionally, the historical composition of predominantly Black neighbourhoods in Chicago such as North Lawndale included a growing informal economy with great amounts of illegal activity, such as gang violence and the drug trade (Klinenberg, 2002). People were afraid to leave their homes due to sentiments such as “they’ll come and rob you,” (Klinenberg, 2002).

Finally, the high turnover rate of residents meant that no one was staying long enough to build strong emotional or financial ties to the area. North Lawndale as a neighbourhood impeded collective social life.  The continuous abandonment of institutions and residents lead to the destruction of social ecology (Klinenberg, 2002). How then could Black people show love for their community when there were no tools to protect each other during this disaster?   

Lovelessness is the historical and systemic forgetfulness of the needs of the Black community in Chicago by the city and its officials. It is the lack of compassion for a group of people who needed its community most during this disaster.  All of this can be tied back to the social perspective which would take the historical context of racial injustice when analyzing the detrimental effects of the 1995 heat wave. This lovelessness I argue is what killed Black Americans during the heatwave and will continue to have detrimental effects on marginalized communities as we enter the era of increased heat, the era of the Anthropocene.    

To investigate the Chicago heat wave means a focus on contemporary urban environments that shape the way people live and how they view their environments and the people around them. It means an investigation focused on people, places, and institutions pointing to a city in crisis (Klinenberg, 2002). It means a city that needs to better understand the social needs of its residents. A city that needs to love its residents better. Only focusing on natural frameworks in understanding this heat wave ignores the cracks in Chicago’s social foundation, and does nothing to correct the social and historical reasons as to why mortality rates were higher in specific social groups.

Black people and most importantly marginalized people will not survive under the conditions of lovelessness. So what can love look like for Black residents in Chicago and for marginalized groups who will face the worst effects of heat? It looks like infrastructure which is heat resistant (cooling centers located in the South and West side of the city), as more and more heat events become the norm. It means a reinvestment into the Black community, like the Black church, which has long served not just as a religious site for many but also a chance for intergenerational exchange where people can build stronger social ties to their community. It means a community that says and acts like it loves Black people.   

“To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”

– James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew,” 1962