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events / 1977
(New York Blackout)

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On a hot July night in 1977, the lights went out in New York City. The purr of air conditioners, cooling millions of New Yorkers, was replaced by stultifying silence-and then the sound of breaking glass. Faced with the second blackout in twelve years, New Yorkers responded with resilience as well as violence. Many stories emerged from the night of July 13th that revealed New Yorkers' divergent feelings about the city in which they lived. In some places, neighbors helped neighbors, and strangers helped strangers. Yet, at the same time, neighborhoods throughout New York exploded into violence. Stores were ransacked, looted and destroyed. Buildings were set ablaze. And the police, for the most part, stood helpless. In these stark contradictions, an unusual yet definitive moment left its mark on New York history-the night the lights went out.

Well-seasoned after the 1965 blackout, many New Yorkers took to the streets in search of friends, neighbors, candles, and most importantly, an explanation. In some communities, people found solace in the streets, where they swapped stories, chatted with strangers, and enjoyed an unelectrified nightlife. In Greenwich Village, for example, the streets became an improvised festival as people strolled out to witness the city without power. Some listened to news reports on battery-powered transistor radios, and all wondered when the lights would return.

In other parts of the city the experience was starkly different. News broadcasts reported outbreaks of violence, looting, and fires. Areas of Harlem, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx experienced the most damage, where thousands of people took to the streets and smashed store windows looking for TVs, furniture, or clothing. In one report, 50 cars were stolen from a car dealership in the Bronx. The police made 3,776 arrests, although from all accounts, many thousands escaped before being caught. 1,037 fires burned throughout the City, six times the average rate, while the fire department also responded to 1,700 false alarms. Regardless of where you where when the lights went out, New York's streets teemed-and sometimes burned-with life.

In stark contrast to the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, when a massive, cascading power failure darkened the entire Northeast and parts of Canada, New Yorkers faced this latest power outage alone. By 9:41 p.m., New Jersey's lighted shoreline stood in stark contrast to the darkened skyline of Manhattan. All five New York City boroughs, as well as areas north in Westchester County, were plunged into darkness. Successive lightning strikes just to the north of the City knocked out vital power lines feeding its massive power grid. With each lightning strike (there were four in total, the first one at 8:37 p.m.), neighboring electric utility companies in New Jersey, New England and Long Island were faced with a difficult choice-whether to remain interconnected with the city's power company, Con Edison, thereby providing it with the electricity it so badly needed while risking possible damage to their own systems, or to protect their systems and maintain power for their customers by "opening" (disconnecting) the transmission lines that connected them to the massive power loss in the City. Before most system operators had time to choose, automated equipment reacted to the sudden change in system conditions and "tripped out" all ties to Con Edison except those from Long Island. By 9:21 p.m., Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), overloaded by power demands of the City, opened its ties to Con Ed as well. The city's power grid had become and "island" of electricity, separated from all outside sources of generation. Within minutes New York descended into darkness.

As minutes passes into hours, New Yorkers looked to Con Edison for an explanation and a quick resolution to the blackout. Con Edison claimed the blackout was caused by a natural phenomenon over which they had no control. It was an "act of God," stated Con Edison chairman Charles Luce. Despite Con Edison's efforts to deflect blame from itself, the City, led by Mayor Abraham Beame, launched an all-out attack on the power company, claiming it was guilty of " [at] the very least gross negligence-and at the worst something far more serious." Beame, along with other local and state officials, could not fathom how four lightning bolts could effectively cripple the nation's largest city. They were not alone. New Yorkers, too, questioned Con Edison's explanation. As looters, vandals, and arsonists endangered neighborhoods, pressure mounted on Con Edison to re-light the City. While the lights would not be turned on in some neighborhoods for another twenty-five hours, the blackout led many to question the reliability of New York's power system. Ironically, this attitude was partly the result of unusually high expectations for power reliability on the part of metro area consumers; Con Edison had (and still has) the least interrupted electrical service of all utilities in the nation.

The 1977 Blackout came during a troubled time in New York City. The City was under tremendous financial stress, forcing government officials to cut back city services. These cutbacks fell most heavily on New York's working poor communities, since many relied on public services to ease financial hardships in a time of deep economic recession. Increased crime, which had risen dramatically in the previous decade, also added to the crisis. The summer of 1977 was known as the "Summer of Sam," named after David Berkowitz's nationally publicized murder rampage which sent the City into a state of constant fear verging on panic. When the lights went out on July 13th, unleashing what Time magazine called a "night of terror," New Yorkers wondered if their worst fears had finally come true. In a mixed metaphor that expressed his mixed feelings, one New Yorker asked, "if New York is the Big Apple, then why am living in the pits?"

In retrospect, the social and economic conditions of 1977 provide many clues to the conflicting blackout experiences. The fiscal crisis and the ensuing cutbacks had been precipitated by a crippling economic recession which intensified growing public expressions of mistrust and consternation, leading some communities to lash out in the darkened night. Growing crime rates, coinciding with a City government unable to grapple with escalating social and economic problems, also provided the backdrop for the explosion of violence. Contrasting with the good memories most New Yorkers had of a peaceful blackout only twelve years prior, the garish images of the 1977 blackout confirmed just how much the City had changed in a decade. The "urban crisis" had become a permanent national emergency, claiming New York as its latest victim.

Because many of the problems behind the urban crisis remain unsolved despite the prosperity of recent years, the memories of the 1977 blackout have taken on the quality of morality play or myth, with widely diverging views of what the myth means. New York had always "contained multitudes," to borrow Walt Whitman's aptly democratic phrase, but now those multitudes were visibly antagonistic to each other and willing to brawl at the slightest provocation. The City had splintered into many cities, a painful fact which the blackout unveiled and subsequent good times have not obscured. Some of the splinters, such as Greenwich Village, could revel in festival, while others burned in desperation.

The summer of 1977 permanently altered New York's self-image, and, perhaps as important, its self-confidence. Not only did crime and economic strain transform the City, but the blackout fused the significance of the two in a perception that New York, the largest city in the United States, was on the road to ruin. It had become the standard-bearer for the urban crisis. In future years, when New York would make dramatic strides to address the problems that surfaced in the seventies and forge a new image of national and world leadership, the memories of these times would linger as a reminder of how hard it could be to fall from skyscraper heights.

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jts{27 June 2000}