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Contributed by: Luc Sante
Contributed on: April 24, 2003

Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1977 (New York City 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?
At the time I lived on the corner of 101st Street and Broadway in Manhattan. On the night itself I had been having dinner with friends a few blocks north on West End Avenue. During dessert, the lights went out. We thought we'd blown a fuse, but quickly realized the power failure covered at least the immediate neighborhood. A few minutes later, mildly alarmed, I headed home, but when I tried to cross Broadway I found myself facing a wedge of highly excited men heading up the street. The men were all black and Hispanic; as a 23-year-old white man with considerable inner-city experience, I decided to play it cool and cross the avenue in the wake of the crowd movement, so I went down a few blocks. Broadway was then lined with SROs--single-room-occupancy hotels, the housing of those who, beginning four or five years later, would find themselves suddenly homeless. I knew that I stood out and tried to make myself inconspicuous. When I got to my building I found the lobby lit with candles, and the doorman and elevator operator had armed themselves with baseball bats. I walked the eleven flights up to my apartment, where I found my roommates sitting looking out the windows and listening to the news on a battery-powered radio. I took up my position alongside them; we were at our posts late into the night. The radio informed us of the blackout's scope (meanwhile, we could see New Jersey across the Hudson, lighted as usual), also that the shoot of the movie Superman at the Daily News building was proceeding normally thanks to generators brought in earlier. Out the window, we watched milling crowds, running looters, and then cars backing up to storefronts with chains attached, the other ends of which were fastened to storefront gates--the cars started up and the gates peeled off. A small appliance store was located directly below us and was so hit, as were other stores we could see, although some were spared, either because they contained nothing of value or because they were owned by people respected by the crowd. Clothing, furniture and appliances were the most evident booty, although we could see that the supermarket a block down and across Broadway was also broken into. It should be emphasized that the stores looted were almost all owned by people who lived outside the neighborhood, often in the suburbs. By contrast, most of the area's bodegas, whose owners lived nearby, remained open throughout and operated by candlelight. They were unmolested. At some point during the night we began to notice unmarked helicopters, flying low, raking high-intensity lights across rooftops--we wondered if they were looking for snipers. Late in the evening we saw a large car, probably a Lincoln Continental, perhaps a limousine, come down Broadway with men standing up in it, their upper torsos protruding through the moonroof, also shining some sort of high-intensity beams upwards. There were fires, too--I dimly recall sirens (dimly because fires and sirens were such a common feature of the nocturnal landscape they scarcely merited notice). In any case, the next morning, the building on Amsterdam Avenue that had been built as a residence for Civil War widows and was then abandoned (it is now, I think, the New York youth hostel) was still smoking. By daylight I no longer felt the fear I had initially experienced the previous evening. The lights were still out and I frankly hoped they would remain that way. I had been looking forward to a transformative upheaval in New York City and thought that it had come at last. There was a bit of a carnival atmosphere abroad in the streets. Taking in the sights, I meandered up to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam and 111th and had breakfast. In the afternoon I walked downtown--I may even have reported to my bookstore job--but the lights were slowly returning. The fun was over. A footnote came a few weeks later. In the early evening, around nine, say, as the sun was going down, the streetlights dipped for a minute. Instantly a cheer arose from all the park benches in the traffic islands up and down Broadway. But the lights did not actually go out, and normal noise resumed.

Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
I once knew exactly but don't recall--I suppose the grid was overtaxed. It was a very hot summer.

What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
I have no general opinion.

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?
I'm far less interested in the technological significance of power failures than in their social consequences. In 1965 New York was still quite middle-class, and fellow-feeling by all accounts prevailed, in ways that reminded observers of such crises as the London Blitz, when adversity emphasized the common bonds between strangers. In 1977 the city was in an ongoing crisis, with minimal social services, and with a vast gulf between a small upper class and an enormous lumpenproletariat, the middle class having mostly taken off to the suburbs. This state of affairs, the proverbial powder keg waiting to go off, was volatilized by the blackout, emphasizing not the common bonds but their opposite, the frictions and gaps. Had the blackout persisted, the possibilities for large-scale looting and mayhem, in neighborhoods where would-be looters did not live, such as Midtown, were considerable.

How did the blackout(s) affect you?
It gave me some vivid images and memories. I was briefly, crossing Broadway at the start, afraid for my hide, but I soon realized nobody was being beaten up. And I had zero assets, just a few books and a record player, so I had nothing to lose.

What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
It was not significantly altered.

How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
It was on an entirely different scale. The only other power failures have been localized ones, in the rural area I now inhabit, which are inconvenient, sometimes very much so, but have no social dimension.

What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
I had a very low opinion of Con Ed before the blackout, so the event did not change things much.

Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)

If yes, please explain:
See my answer to I.5a.

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

How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
No effect / same reliance

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. See above.

Cite as: Luc Sante, Story #200, The Blackout History Project, 24 April 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/200/>.
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