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Contributed by: Edwin Bergmann
Contributed on: April 2, 2003

Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1965 (Great Northeast Blackout)

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?
On that great blackout evening, I was a 25-year old part-time evening school student studying for my Bachelors at Brooklyn College and a full-time business hours junior buyer trainee working in the Purchasing Department of Johns-Manville Corp. (of asbestos ill fame), as the 13th member of the department, in room 1313 on the 13th floor, in its then headquarters building at 22 East 40th Street at the corner of Madison Avenue. Since the day was a mild one, I had gone to work on my 55 cc Yamaha motorcycle (bought so I could work two full-time jobs in the summer and get between Johns-Manville at 5 pm quitting time and the 1964-65 World's Fair site in Flushing Meadow, Queens, for a Greyhound transportation driver job starting at 6 pm inside the fair grounds). Had I left work about a half-hour later, there probably would have been a good chance that I would have been stuck in one of the building’s elevators for a while. I walked to Park Avenue, where I had parked the bike, and headed it northerly and easterly, traveling most of the trip up Third Avenue, heading for the Queensborough Bridge, to go home, which was in Ridgewood just on the Queens side of the Queens-Brooklyn borderline, which runs through that community. My first awareness of the power outage was that the traffic lights were dark all of a sudden as I was heading up Third; then it hit me that building lights were also out. When I got up on the Queensborough Bridge, the sight was mind-boggling--the whole City blacked out, except for a swatch of light way out in a southeasterly direction from the Bridge. I think I recall that the news ultimately was that Coney Island, or maybe it was Rockaway--somewhere in or near a beach area, I recall--had kept power throughout. But I didn't know the precise location while cycling over that Bridge since I had no radio on the bike. In fact, I couldn't wait to get home--or actually to a location a few blocks from my home, where I garaged my 1965 VW Squareback--in order to get to a battery-powered radio (no such at home, plug-in current being so reliable--right!!!). In that garage I learned for the first time that this was a massive East Coast blackout, though at that point there was no news yet as to the cause. I remember that at least one and perhaps several of my fellow New Yorkers that I spoke to the following day or days said they were worried that the Soviets had done something to cause this. (This was, after all, the Cold War period—I myself was drafted into the Army 7 months after this blackout.) That thought was never my own, but then I'd always thought those civil defense duck-and-cover exercises we were put through in elementary and high school were a crock, anyway. I found nothing fearsome about the event, though to be sure awesome, that that much of the City and, upon hearing the news, that that much of the northeastern part of the Western Hemisphere could be without electrical power. But then the Titanic was unsinkable also, right? And, of course, as I write this on April Fool's Day 2003, United States armed forces were supposed to have already conquered all of Saddam Hussein's Iraq by now, too. It never ceases to amaze me, even being a Euro-American myself (born and bred in the Big Apple), how arrogantly confident technologically "sophisticated" Americans, especially of the Euro persuasion, can be about the inevitable conquering of everything—whether it’s uninterruptible power or another nation. (The Vietnam War fiasco was also ongoing at the very moment of that blackout.). In regard to our electrical grid, I am less worried these days that we might have another blackout then that we New Yorkers may all start glowing in the dark very soon, if the fools running our government and their counterparts running Indian Point don’t shut the latter down before it’s too late.

Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
From cascading overloads over a wide area of the power grid.

What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
One of those things that's bound to occur from time to time unless the system gets a lot of expensive redundancy.

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?
Because they interrupted a good deal of human activity, with concomitant economic consequences besides.

How did the blackout(s) affect you?
Ultimately not very much, though it was an awesome experience at the time to have that massive a blackout.

What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
New York City being quasi-totally blacked out was impressive enough; hearing that a good deal of the Northeast was out also was pretty mind-boggling.

How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
"Normal" power failures are a good deal less awesome.

What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
Not much

If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
The difference for me was that I was a resident in New York City in 1965 and directly experienced the blackout while in 1977 I was a resident of Westhampton Beach in Suffolk County on Long Island, something like 80 miles from the blackout, so it was much more indirect.

Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
No

Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
No

How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
Other (please specify)

If other, please specify:
I only became a bit more conscious of keeping fresh batteries handy for flashlights. I didn't even bother to purchase a portable radio after the 1965 blackout. By the time of the 1977 blackout, I already had portable radios because of overseas military and civilian employment

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:
Yes, but neither the good feeling of 1965 nor the arson and looting of 1977 were universal. It must be remembered that by 1977 the United States had lost the Vietnam War and returning veterans were treated shabbily, even as the returned Gulf War I veterans are now (their homeless rate is unconsionably high). I suspect that underlying the 1977 anger was the anger of returned veterans whose sacrifice was not recognized.

Cite as: Edwin Bergmann, Story #197, The Blackout History Project, 2 April 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/197/>.
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