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May 5, 2000
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?
During the 1965 blackout, I was ten years old and living in the New Jersey suburbs about ten miles from New York City. I spent the afternoon of the blackout playing in the woods near my home with a friend.
When I got home my mother explained to me that a blackout had occurred in New York City while I was out. My entire family was from New York and our lives were still very much oriented toward the City, and I remember being fascinated with the idea that something so big had happened in such a big place without any sign of this event reaching the woods. I recall pictures on the TV or in the newspaper of long lines of people. The grown-ups explained to me that everyone conducted themselves well and the whole thing seemed rather benign.
When the 1977 blackout happened I was away from the City, a recent college graduate traveling on the West Coast. I returned to my parents' home in New Jersey at the end of the summer of 1977 to look for work as a journalist in New York City.
Soon after getting back, I went to the Bronx with a friend of mine to visit a bar in a neighborhood where he had a few friends and family. The bar was nominally Irish in that it had an Irish name and an Irish bartender, but from the appearance of the neighborhood and the patrons, it seemed that most Irish people had already left the neighborhood.
The bartender showed us photographs that he took during the looting. Although he clearly disapproved of the looting, he showed us these pictures not with anger, but with a kind of grim humor and something of a relish for the bizarre qualities of the whole episode. He seemed disturbed by the looting, but proud to have come through it all in one piece.
Some time after, I spoke with my cousin, an elementary school teacher in the Bronx. She told me with regret that the looting had destroyed the shopping district on Shakespeare Avenue, where she used to walk on her lunch hour. To her, the looting was the final blow against the neighborhood, which in her eyes had declined over the years and become poorer and more crime-ridden.
Stories like these did not alienate me from the city. I worked in New York that fall, then left for a job at a small town newspaper in Westchester. I moved to an apartment in New York in the winter of 1980, when I was beginning graduate school. I have lived in New York City since then, with the exception o f18 months in Washington, DC in the middle 1980s.
I have written about New York as a journalist and historian for twenty years with a combination of fascination, affection and anger. My fascination stems from the city's endless human variety, its street life and its architecture. My affection is gounded in the city's status as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy with remnants of a strongly social democratic political culture. My anger comes from the continued poverty, inequality and meanness that have characterized too much of life in the city since the 1970s.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
My sense, and I could be wrong, was that the 1965 blackout was regional in its origins--something to do with power plants in upstat NY or Canada that had repercussions across the northeast.
The causes of the 1977 blackout seemed to lie closer to home, in the actions of people who were responsible for supplying power to NYC.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Improper actions by the power authorties, primarily Con. Ed.
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 was significant as an event of massive proportions in which the ordinary people of the city saved the day by acting with good will and good sense.1977 confirmed a sense, common among the New Yorkers I knew, that the fabric of the city was tearing in dangerous ways. The good will and good sense of ordinary people no longer seemed decisive in guaranteeing order and civility in the city.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
1965 left me with a sense of awe, 1977 left me with a sense of dread.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
In both cases, my initial contact with the blackout was through the media. My sense is that my memories are strongly shaped by the kind of coverage that surrounded each event--optimistic in 1965, pessimistic and even outraged in 1977.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
Most blackouts I have been in--a dozen in my 44 years?--have seemed like brief inconveniences that do not register heavily on my consciousness. 1965 and 1977 were different in that they both remain vivid in my memory.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
I always thought they were chiselers and only marginally competent.
If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
My experience with both was second hand, but 1965 left me with a sense of awe, 1977 left me with a sense of dread.
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
If yes, please explain:
1977 convinced me that a combination of social and economic changes were making life in the city harder and meaner for ordinary people, leaving them in a stated of anger that erupted in looting.
Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
Yes (please explain)
If yes, please explain:
The 1977 blackout seemed to many people around me to be a crisis of order. To me, the problem was a lack of order that was rooted not in the fundamental nature of the people who looted, but in the growing meanness and inequality of the city that left people angry and ready to lash out.
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:
Rings true to me. It is the conventional wisdom on both episodes that circulates through the media, and the media were my primary exposure to the blackouts.
Story #64, The Blackout History Project, 5 May 2000, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/64/>.
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