Joshua B. Freeman

Working-class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II

New York: New Press, 2000.

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Excerpt from page 276:

The plague of abandonment and arson consumed large chunks of the city before it received national acknowledgment in 1977. In March of that year, CBS televised a documentary by Bill Moyers entitled "The Fire Next Door" about arson in the South Bronx. Then, on the evening of July 13, lightning knocked out a major electrical transmission line near the Indian Point nuclear plant, north of New York City. Cascading equipment failures plunged the city into darkness. Twelve years earlier New York had experienced a similar blackout. That time, when the electricity went back on after thirteen hours, New Yorkers patted themselves on the back for the orderly, even jolly, way they coped with the crisis. Folklore had it that nine months later the birth rate spiked. The second time around, however, events unfolded very differently. Within minutes of the electrical shutdown, looting broke out in widespread parts of the city, including the Upper West Side, East Harlem, and downtown Brooklyn. Police cars careened through dark streets, scattering crowds helping themselves to clothing, groceries, and furniture. In the South Bronx and Bushwick, fires burned out of control. By the time Consolidated Edison restored power the following evening, looters, rioters, and arsonists had caused an estimated three hundred million dollars in damages and the police had arrested more than three thousand people.

The carnival of theft and disorder during the blackout brought national attention to New York, sparking President Jimmy Carter into action, or at least to gesture. Worried that his administration would be deemed inattentive to urban problems (as it largely was), in October, Carter, in New York for a UN appearance, made a surprise visit to a rubble-strewn block on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx. Pictures of the president standing amid devastation of the sort most Americans associated with bombed European cities during World War II shocked people throughout the country and made the South Bronx the national emblem of urban collapse. The ABC network drove home the message the following week, when during its telecast of World Series games at Yankee Stadium it repeatedly cut to aerial shots of flames arising from the nearby South Bronx. Sportscaster Howard Cosell, whose nasal voice, racial liberalism, and in-your-face demeanor personified New York to many outlanders, kept intoning “the Bronx is burning.”” 

In the wake of his visit to the South Bronx, President Carter pledged federal assistance to rebuild the area, and the city hastily produced a plan for its revitalization, but federal and city promises proved to be largely posturing.

© 2000 by Joshua B. Freeman All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher. Published in the United States by the New Press, New York, 2000 Distributed by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York

Excerpt from pages 281-282:

By the end of the 1970s, New York had become quite a different city than when the decade began. It had been a hard ten years, for New York and the country. President Carter catalogued some of the disillusioning events of the recent past in July 1979, when the energy crisis became an occasion for him to inquire into what he dubbed a "crisis of the American spirit":

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the Presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Watergate. We remember when the phrase 'sound as a dollar' was an expression of absolute dependability, until ten years of inflation began to shrink our dollar and our savings. We believed that our Nation's resources were limitless until 1973, when we had to face a growing dependence.

In New York, a round of reappraisals had come in the wake of the 1977 blackout looting. In an op-ed article in the New York Times, historian Herbert Gutman decried the use of animal terms -"vultures," "a jackal pack" - to describe the looters and compared it with the way newspapers had described Jewish women taking part in a 1902 kosher meat riot as "animals" and "beasts." The flood of letters protesting Gutman's article revealed how hardhearted many New Yorkers had become in the harsh climate of prolonged recession and austerity politics. Over and over, the letter writers proclaimed how different their impoverished forbearers had been from the current poor, how the 1902 rioters were engaged in legitimate protest, while the blackout looters "sought only selfish gain." A Times editorial characterized the letters as raising "the 'my grandfather' question: 'My grandfather pushed a pushcart all over the Lower East Side to earn enough to feed and raise his family. He worked to make it. Why can't they?"' It left unaddressed the utter lack of empathy among the letter writers for New York's poor, the meanness and self-satisfaction that pervaded their outrage at Gutman's linkage of their ancestors with contemporary rioters in his effort to show that the animal metaphor always "separates the behavior of the discontented poor from the conditions that shape their discontent."

Midge Decter tried to give intellectual substance to the niggardly spirit of the New York Times letters in an article in Commentary. Taking on liberal punditry about the blackout looting, including Gutman's "truly disgraceful" article, Decter argued, "It is cant to call the looters victims of racial oppression and it is still worse cant to say that their condition is the result of our apathy." The real culprits of the looting, Decter proclaimed, were "liberal racists," who in their hearts believed blacks inherently inferior, and therefore did not hold them to the same moral standards or social expectations to which they held others.

Directing her greatest fury not at the looters but at liberals, Decter at times seemed to have a certain amount of sympathy for poor, young blacks. Still, she treated the blackout thieves with precisely the dehumanization Gutman protested. The looters, she wrote, suggested not animals but "urban insect life." The looting left the feeling "in the city . . . of having been given a sudden glimpse into the foundations of one's house and seen, with horror, that it was utterly infested and rotting away. No one will be at ease in the edifice again for a long time, if ever."

The implication that before the blackout New Yorkers were at ease in their urban edifice reflected the parochialism of Decter and her like, who had come to equate their view and their experience, the view and experience of the white middle-class, risen from the working class and dining off of it forever, with the view and experience of the city as a whole. An ideological structure of "them and us" emerged from the economic strictures and social disorder of the 1960s and 1970s. Thus Decter could write an article seeking to explain looters, who she herself noted came from quite varied backgrounds, that rested on a long discussion of liberal attitudes toward African Americans, as if that would do to explain all of them. They had no particularity. At one point, Decter even lumped Puerto Ricans among "immigrants" who "go to any lengths not to be sent home.”

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© 2000 by Joshua B. Freeman All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher. Published in the United States by the New Press, New York, 2000 Distributed by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York