Breathing together

Community as a way of life

In July 1995 Chicago was wrapped in a deadly heat wave. For days the mercury hovered in the three-digit zone, with heat indices reaching 120 degrees. In that period 739 Chicagoans died of heat-related causes.

Emergency teams reported finding inadequate or nonexistent ventilation in the residences of the dead. Persons living with cardiac or pulmonary weaknesses were the most susceptible. Of course, the elderly were the most susceptible.

What major media accounts failed to report was another deadly killer: the absence of community. The majority of people who died in the heat wave died alone. They had no one checking in on their attic apartments or their windowless lives. No family, friend or neighbor showed up to discover the severity of their plight. Sixty-eight of these individuals died so anonymously that Cook County officials buried them in a mass grave.


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