How Healthy Is Your Town - Best and Worst

Diagnosing the well-being of 191 Chicago suburbs—and the city itself.

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Photo: Leonard Gertz
Photo Styling: Sheila Styling
House Model: Rich Schiller

Chicago is the dirtiest city in America-or at least Reader’s Digest thinks so. We’re fat, says Men’s Fitness. And apparently we booze at a rate higher than the national average, or so thinks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the news isn’t all bad. A new PBS prime-time series airing nationally early next year touts the city’s “newfound commitment to nature and civic life” and credits Mayor Richard M. Daley for a healthy, green renaissance. And after years of suffering an infant mortality rate that would shame a less developed country, the area has seen that figure brought to an all-time low.

These mixed messages inspired Chicago to take its own look at the health of the six-county metropolitan region. We grouped 191 towns by population and studied how they performed in three major categories: public health, the environment, and safety. We examined key public health yardsticks, such as the percentage of babies with low birth weight and how many people in a particular place die prematurely (that is, before age 65). Realizing, too, that no place is “healthy” if its residents risk getting shot on the street or if a factory spews chemicals near a residential neighborhood, we looked at which communities had the safest streets, the cleanest water, the lowest pollution levels, and the fewest fast-food restaurants. To see how your town fared-and how it compares with its neighbors-view our charts for Chicago and Illinois cities and towns.

Overall, the quality of a town’s health was closely related to its level of affluence. Wealthy communities such as Glencoe and Winnetka, which boast households with median incomes over $150,000, had the highest scores on our charts. In contrast, the towns of Harvey and Broadview, where the median household income hovers around $40,000, scored the lowest.

It’s no secret that the pattern of affluence often suggests a racial imbalance that puts African Americans and other minorities at risk. In the Chicago region, says Richard Warnecke, director of the Center for Population Health and Health Disparities at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Cancer Center, much of the disparity is rooted in the segregated housing patterns established during the administration of the first Mayor Richard Daley (1955-76). The disparity is further aggravated by the ongoing demolition of Chicago Housing Authority high-rises. “People who moved out of public housing units moved to suburbs where they could find affordable housing, so there are clusters of poverty,” says Warnecke.

No local community can entirely escape the region’s pervasive smog and air pollution. Though the sources of air pollution can vary widely from town to town, experts say the issue is a dire regional one. In its State of the Air 2004 report, the American Lung Association gave seven Illinois counties, including Cook, Lake, and Will, an “F"-the worst score possible-for high rates of pollution and chronic respiratory disease. Chicago residents are hospitalized for asthma, a disease exacerbated by poor air quality, at a rate nearly twice the national average. “We are strongly encouraging the state and federal governments to increase their [air quality] standards,” says Sadhu Johnston, commissioner of the Chicago Department of the Environment. “But we have our hands tied. Cities don’t have the authority to regulate those issues.”

The profiles that follow-of the five communities that rose to the top of our survey, and the five that ranked lowest-suggest reasons why certain towns did better than others, while also suggesting remedies for some of the gravest problems at hand. Other stories diagnose the city of Chicago, and weigh the effects of smoking bans, medical waste incinerators, and Superfund sites. “Only when people see that their children are absent from school with asthma, or that their people are dying at an early age, are they interested in the process,” says Dr. John Wilhelm, an obstetrician who recently left the Chicago Department of Public Health to head the Infant Welfare Society, based in Logan Square. “Only then do they tackle the problem.”

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