Last week, NPR host Steve Inskeep interviewed sociologist Eric Klinenberg about how vibrant, tight-knit neighborhoods could fare better in a disaster. Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University and has been studying the fate of two neighborhoods in Chicago during the 1995 heat wave that took the lives of almost 700 people. His article on the subject, “Adaptation,” appears in the current issue of The New Yorker.
The two neighborhoods he studied, Auburn Gresham and Englewood, are adjacent. They have the same micr0-climate, both are very poor and both have a large population of older people living alone. Though the neighborhoods are nearly identical by most measures, the death rate during the heat wave was drastically different. In Englewood, about 33 per 100,000 people died. In Auburn Gresham the death rate was 3 per 100,000. That’s a drastic difference!
According to Klinenberg, what Auburn Gresham has that Englewood does not, and what caused the the drastically different death rates was the existence of a “viable social infrastructure.” Auburn Gresham “has small commercial establishments that draw older people who are vulnerable to heat waves out of their homes and into public life.” The physical environment of the neighborhood – it’s bricks and mortar shops and restaurants – facilitated the development of a community. The community aided those in need and therefore experienced far fewer losses.*
At this point, you might be asking yourself the same question Steve Inskeep asked, “So you’re telling me that if I were to live in an old-style urban neighborhood, where there’s a coffee shop down the street, where there’s a corner store, where there’s a corner dry cleaner, where people walk around and they may know the neighbors, and kids play on the street, that I am more likely to survive a disaster because of the kind of community that I’m in?”
And the answer is, in a lot of cases, yes!
Historic preservationists and people who live in neighborhoods that have retained their sidewalks and small commercial establishments have known for a long time that these simple “old-style” amenities make a huge difference in quality of life. They help people get to know their neighbors and build a sense of community. Take them away and you know longer have a “viable social infrastructure” to depend upon.
*A quick Google image search of “Englewood Chicago” and “Auburn Gresham Chicago” dramatically highlights the radically different atmospheres in the two neighborhoods. The majority of photos that result from the Englewood search show vacant lots, boarded up houses and crime scenes with a sprinkling of historical photos and photos of neighborhood people. The Auburn Gresham search, on the other hand, results in images of people enjoying community events (church activities, school activities, street fairs, etc), with only a sprinkling of derelict or abandoned property and crime scene photos.