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Jewish World Review August 2, 2002 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

It's not the humidity, it's the (media) heat wave; the death of American cities | You say this heat is killing you?

Crank up the AC and count your blessings. At least you're still alive and don't live in Chicago, the heat-wave capital of America.

Any day now, we'll be hearing new scare stories about how global warming is coming to get us in 2050. But the real killer to watch out for - the natural-made one that could come this summer - is a heat wave.

Heat waves are silent, not telegenic and therefore largely unhystericized by news media. But as Eric Klinenberg nicely points out at Slate the Internet magazine, heat waves kill more Americans every year than hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods combined.

These charismatic (i.e., camera-pleasing) natural disasters kill fewer than 200 people a year. Meanwhile, deaths by heat wave - which are hard to tabulate with absolute certainty and usually strike poor, older, sickly people who live alone - average 400 a year.

Since 1972, massive heat waves have hit cities like New York, St. Louis and Philadelphia. But the deadliest - the one you probably never heard about - hit Chicago in July 1995 and killed 739 people. In one week.

It was "one of the greatest and least-known American disasters in modern history," Klinenberg says. But at the time, local politicians, officials and media charged that the death toll was a media-made event and not "really real."

Some of it no doubt was media madness. But later, a definitive study by the American Journal of Public Health, which about two people in America read, added 250 Chi-towners to the initial body count.

As Klinenberg points out, deadly heat waves are easy to predict and the people most at risk can be helped by more attention from social agencies.

Dubiously, he touts a new federal program to provide the poor with energy subsidies for summer cooling, but he's right that we all should be paying more attention to heat waves.

Dying from the heat isn't what Fred Siegel is talking about in "The Death and Life of American Cities," which appears in the summer issue of The Public Interest.

Big cities were generally declared economically and socially dead 15 years ago. But, as Siegel recounts in his savvy, informative survey, many cities were resurrected in the 1990s by a wave of reformist mayors.

New York's Rudy Giuliani, now St. Rudy, is the most famous for cutting crime and making his city a civilized and economically vibrant city again.

But a dozen mayors in places such as Cleveland (Michael White), Milwaukee (John Norquist) and Philadelphia (Ed Rendell) but not Pittsburgh also turned their cities around by cutting taxes, reigning in unions and improving and/or privatizing government services.

Whether these cities can stay on track is the big question. Indianapolis and Cleveland continue to do well, Siegel says.

But Philly and Detroit - where it still takes 350 separate permits to build something on one of the city's 44,000 vacant lots - are hard to be optimistic about.

Both cities' mayors, he says, continue to be held down by "the gravitational pull of a patronage-driven parochialism" that's "more intent on preserving old jobs than creating new ones."

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald