When the Northeast U.S. experienced a massive power outage on Aug. 14, 2003, at 4:10 p.m.—affecting 45 million people in eight states and 14.3 New Yorkers—I recall that a sense of calm pervaded the city. For one, we had endured 9/11 nearly two years before; there was a sweeping camaraderie that we made it through the worst together… so what’s a little loss of electricity.
But perhaps more so, there remained the dark shadow of the July 13-14, 1977, New York blackout—35 years ago last week—where the city was decimated by looting, arson, violence, ransacking & overt disorder.
In 2003, I was working on deadline at Billboard and after 90 minutes or so, when it was clear we were “out” for the long haul, I walked home amid 88-degree temps, from Broadway & 8th Street, across the Brooklyn Bridge, alongside thousands of other hoofers. All were peaceful, if not jovial. In this crisis, the people of New York bonded.
On July 13, 1977, I was a high school teen in Virginia, at a church youth group all-night “lock-in.” We had a TV in the room and watched in horror as the nation’s largest city self-destructed.
It was 9:27 p.m. when the mayhem began after the entire NYC Con Edison power grid collapsed, following a series of four lightning strikes. The blackout was truly the perfect storm: The city was facing bankruptcy, strikes abounded, crime rates & unemployment were escalating, it was hot as hell and the Son of Sam murders that began a year earlier were still spooking the city (David Berkowitz would be captured less than a month later, on Aug. 11).
Jonathan Mahler, author of the book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, told the New York Post on the 30th anniversary of the event in 2007, “The era was a long low point in the city’s life, and this was the absolute nadir.”
That night, Puerto Ricans & blacks began tearing apart their own neighborhoods: In Crown Heights, 75 stores along five blocks were looted; in Bushwick, 25 fires were set throughout the nabe; 35 blocks in Harlem were destroyed, with 134 stores looted and 45 set on fire; and a Bronx Pontiac dealership had 50 new cars swiped. In all, 3,700 looters were arrested. Damages were estimated at $300 million. It was perverse anarchy at its most primordial. Of course, there was more to the story. About 4,000 were trapped in subways, while worse, as many were holed up in elevators. LGA & JFK airports were shuttered for eight hours and tunnels were closed because they had no ventilation. On the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, 35 tourists were stranded for the night. And the positive: Restaurants moved tables outside and set up impromptu block parties.
Essential services like telephone operators and reporters at The New York Times worked by candlelight. Hospitals maintained facilities with back-up generators. And across the city, folks turned to battery-powered transistor radios to find out what the hell was happening…. Ironically, the Statue of Liberty’s lights continued to shine.
It would be 25 hours before service was fully restored to the city, returning neighborhood by borough the morning of July 14, until the blackout was officially declared over at 10:39 p.m. But its impact obviously endured for the long term.
Time magazine termed the event “a night of terror.” Ernest Dichter, a behavioral psychologist, told the mag, “It was like Lord of the Flies. People resort to savage behavior when the brakes of civilization fail. According to the Blackout History Project, “The summer of 1977 permanently altered New York’s self-image and its self-confidence. The largest city in the United States was on the road to ruin. It had become the standard-bearer for the urban crisis.”
The BBC suggested in a story following New York’s 2003 outage, “Blackouts have a particular place in the history of New York City. They are seen as defining moments, and for those old enough to remember, Thursday’s power cut will bring back memories of the ‘good blackout’ of 1965, which became an emblem of the civic responsibility and resilience. Twelve years later, in 1977, there was what The New York Times describes as the ‘bad blackout,’ which, until September 11, was literally and metaphorically, one of the city’s darkest hours.”