Dying Alone: The Social Production of Urban Isolation

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In July 1995 over 700 Chicago residents, most of them old and impoverished, died in a short but devastating heat wave. As part of a ‘social autopsy’ of this disaster that goes beyond natural factors to uncover the institutional forces that made the urban environment suddenly so lethal, this article examines the social production and lived experience of everyday urban isolation. Accounts from ethnographic investigations in the affected neighborhoods and of the city agencies entrusted with dealing with the issue are used to highlight four key conditions: (1) the increase in the number and proportion of people living alone, including seniors who outlive or become estranged from their social networks; (2) the fear of crime and the use of social withdrawal and reclusion as survival strategies; (3) the simultaneous degradation and fortification of urban public space, particularly in segregated neighborhoods that have lost major commercial establishments and other attractions that entice people out of their homes; (4) the political dysfunctions stemming from social service programs that treat citizens as consumers in a market for public goods despite a growing population of residents who lack access to the information and network ties necessary for such ‘smart shopping’ for city support. Together, these conditions create a formula for disaster that the 1995 heat wave actualized for the city of Chicago and might yet recur in other US metropolises.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)501-531
Number of pages31
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2001


  • aging
  • culture of fear
  • death
  • natural disasters
  • poverty
  • social isolation
  • social services
  • urban inequality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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