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October 30, 2002
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
In your own words, tell the story of your experience in the blackout(s). Try to recall specific events and the people, places, and things involved; also include more general reactions, images adn last impressions?
In the 1965 blackout, I recall that most places people were cheerful on the streets and buying some supplies in the stores - it was like an adventure. I was a little kid, and fortunately my mother was working shifts and we were home when the blackout started. We went to the market down the street, which was still open, to get some extra candles and ice. I think my mom also filled a bathtub with drinking water.
In 1977, the same sort of festival mood took over during the blackout in my neighborhood (West 70s), but after the power came back on there were reports that looting and rioting had occurred in Harlem. This may also have happened elsewhere, but anything that happened in Harlem at the time seemed to get more airplay. We heard that people 25 blocks north of us had barricaded themselves in their apartments.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
1965 - too much of the grid was "tied together," so a big enough instability in any one section would cause a cascade and take down the entire regional grid. The system seemed to be redesigned to some extent after that, so that in 1977 the blackout was contained ... local to NYC. That time, it was a series of lightning strikes combined with a usage spike due to the hot weather, or so I'd heard.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Usually they occur when 1) there is a catastrophic failure and a single-point vulnerability (that doesn't happen on a large scale much anymore), or when 2) demand exceeds transmission capabilities for some reason, or when 3) the power companies decide to demonstrate that they don't _have_ to supply all of the power your state is trying to consume at the price it would prefer to pay (as with the California rolling blackouts, which were manifestations of a supply-demand or perhaps consumer-supplier conflict). Another blackout situation seen in Bosnia although not in the US thus far is "act of war." US planes dropped little conducting coils into the power stations and shut down the grid regularly while trying to unseat Milosevic.
Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Both were significant
Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
1965 - Pointed up a failure mode which had apparently not been sufficiently accounted for in design of the power grid. Socially, pointed up that in a common challenge lies some opportunity for an expression of unity. 9-11 has done something similar for New Yorkers.
1977 - Made New Yorkers feel isolated to some extent (New Jersey had power), also emphasized that NYC might be a bad place to live if any major badness were to happen (natural disaster, etc.) which might cut off services. The rioting really upset people, because the poorest people were basically burning down their own neighborhoods instead of cooperating to get everyone through the blackout; the sense was that people were so despairing that they no longer cared about their own communities, or that they expected Big Brother to come fix everything they destroyed. People not only feel bad about a community coming apart like that, but they also don't want to be anywhere nearby themselves lest they become targets of the violence. In some ways it was a "death of liberalism" among the Upper West Siders (although a small one), in that as liberal and helpful as people might be, trying to fight the conditions causing the despair, they were still targets when the lights went out.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
Just a little friendly conversation and candle-sharing among the people who lived in our apartment building. People had to walk up the stairs, so that was not so good for older people on high floors, but neighbors basically checked on them, and in the West 70s 1977 was not as lengthy a blackout as in some parts of greater NY. In 1965 I remember my mom was a little worried about people who depended on electricity to heat their buildings, but our building was pre-war with a boiler room, and natural gas for cooking.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
1965 - nothing
1977 - made NY seem like a worse place to raise a family. I have not lived in NY since I went away to college.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
Much more widespread, muuch more interesting, longer duration, not as obviously linked to weather.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
I think those people are heroes.
If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
I already did that, see above.
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)
If yes, please explain:
Changing social values in postwar America - in 1965 people were more polite and helpful to each other and had a greater sense of community, even in Manhattan, than they seemed to in 1977.
Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
Other (please specify)
If other, please specify:
Same daily reliance (which is more or less dictated by living in an apartment building and taking the subway to work and school), BUT a slight survivalist streak - always have extra canned food, extra water, flashlights with charged batteries, candles, etc., wherever I live, and even a little in my car.
This is how the story goes: In November of 1965 the lights went out in New York and crime rates temporarily dropped; there were widespread reports of extraordinary cooperation and trust between strangers caught together in the power failure. In July of 1977, little more than a decade later, the lights went out again in New York. This time, a devastating wave of looting and arson broke out. Does this story ring true to you? Explain why or why not:
It's an oversimplification. The same helpful attitude was displayed by MOST of the city in the 1977 blackout, but in a few neighborhoods which for many years had been ready to explode pretty much anytime during summer anyway, the explosion occurred. Remember the phrase "Long Hot Summer?" It wasn't just about the weather.
Story #186, The Blackout History Project, 30 October 2002, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/186/>.
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