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How Chicago’s deadly 1995 heatwave proves that segregation is a public health crisis

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Socioeconomic inequality played a role in the death of 739 Chicagoans

People walk along the lake near Chicago on a hot summer day under a bright sun. Getty Images/iStockphoto

In July 1995, a heatwave struck Chicago and left 739 people dead. The crisis overwhelmed the city’s morgues, and health officials were forced to stash the bodies in refrigerated food trucks for weeks.

The extreme heat affected every neighborhood in the city, but there was a disproportionate number of deaths within low-income and African-American neighborhoods. Why did a person’s place of residence play such an important role in their survival? And would the results be any different if disaster were to strike again today, 25 years later?

Filmmaker Judith Helfand explores these questions in a documentary that recounts the ‘95 heatwave and seeks to identify the underlying structural issues that made the disaster so deadly to specific communities and populations. Titled Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, the hour-long film premieres on the PBS series Independent Lens on February 3.

Helfand found that the heat merely highlighted an existing man-made catastrophe that few disaster preparedness experts cared to acknowledge: it was Chicago’s deep divisions along social, racial, and economic lines that caused the disproportionately high number of fatalities on the city’s South and West sides.

Hardly a new concept, Chicago’s “tale of two cities” situation is the byproduct of generations of rampant segregation, the loss of manufacturing jobs, systemic disinvestment, and redlining—a practice of denying loans to homeowners in non-white communities.

The disparity between Chicago’s richest and poorest neighborhoods is seen in a lack of investment, educational opportunities, and even access to grocery stores. The city is, as urbanist Pete Saunders put it bluntly to Curbed, “a third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.”

It is these same factors that fuel a larger public health crisis—one that the filmmaker behind Cooked says is independent of extreme weather. The documentary notes that the average life expectancy in Chicago’s Loop is 16 years longer than in the city’s African-American communities. The number of Chicagoans that die early from preventable causes far exceeds any natural disaster.

Chicago continues to be a city of extreme weather as a changing climate brings more flooding, surging waves, and dangerous heat and cold. Meanwhile, the same social, racial, and class divisions that played such a decisive role in determining who lived and who died in 1995 haven’t gone away—despite recent efforts by Mayor Lightfoot to prioritize equitable neighborhood investment, housing, and urban planning.

Cooked doesn’t pretend to have the answers to such a complex issue. Still, it provides a sobering look back at one of the worst natural disasters in Chicago’s recent history while shedding much-needed light on the slow-moving, man-made crisis of socioeconomic inequality that threatens not only the most vulnerable zip codes in Chicago, but cities and towns across the country.