This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the infamous blackout of 1977. The 25 hour outage began around 9:30 p.m. on July 13th, after a bolt of lightning struck an electrical substation in Westchester. Not long after, another lightning strike took out two more power lines, and when the Ravenswood 3 power plant in Queens went down, the city fell dark.
The darkness triggered a night of mayhem and looting in many parts of the city, from the Bronx to East Harlem to Bushwick to Coney Island, culminating in 3,700 arrests—the largest mass arrest in city history—and estimated damages exceeding $300 million.
The technical explanation given for the lightning strike/heat wave combination that overwhelmed Con Edison's generators, according to chairman Charles Luce, was "an act of God." What followed, as then-Mayor Beame famously said, was a "a night of terror."
"Thousands of looters, emboldened by darkness and confusion, ranged through the city last night and early today in a wave lawlessness," began the New York Times front page story, beside a photo of a pitch-black city, on the morning of July 14th, 1977. "Amid shattering glass, wailing sirens, and the clang of trashcans used to demolish metal storefront barricades, thieves and vandals ravaged store after store."
This was 1970s New York City, and the city was teetering on the edge of financial ruin. Unemployment and poverty were rising, social programs were wiped out, crime was rampant, the streets were filthy, and those in charge of protecting the city were actively publicizing its anarchic reputation. And then came the blackout, the only civil disturbance in the city's history to encompass all five boroughs at once, and the lowest point in an already grim summer in New York, according to Jonathan Mahler, the author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.
The racial and political tension of the moment was reflected in the immediate reaction to the blackout. In letters to newspapers, many demanded that the looters be shot, while others called for Puerto Ricans to be sent back to Puerto Rico and black families be moved South. For many throughout the country, the destruction would serve as evidence that the city's cosmopolitan liberalism had failed, that "the social order of New York had collapsed as thoroughly as its fiscal politics, and a strict new discipline seemed the only possible solution," as Kim Phillips-Fein writes in her new book Fear City
One Times editorial asked, "Is New York City, after all, a failed ultra-urban experiment in which people eventually crack, social order eventually collapses, and reason ultimately yields to despair?"
But just as interesting as the big picture analysis are the firsthand accounts and little vignettes that show how surreal it was to be in the city just after the power went out. Listen to the confused radio announcers after they lost the signal of the Mets-Cubs game in the 6th inning. Or the story of a tourist who was helped through an unfamiliar neighborhood by a group of strangers. Lincoln Center was evacuated in the middle of the ballet. Queens movie-goers screamed when the lights went out, believing that the Son of Sam was on the prowl. Other residents recall directing traffic in the streets, or walking off stalled trains into the tunnels. My dad, I just learned, was working at a gas station in Canarsie, and looked on confused as a band of teens stole a few dozen display cans of oil. Nearby, an emergency surgery was performed in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital.
In the four decades since, the blackout has been interrogated and memorialized in innumerable ways; some of them resonant (how reporters failed to grasp the role of public policy in segregating Bushwick); others mysterious (the blackout's only murder remains unsolved, for now); a few of them positive (the blackout may have caused a baby boom 9 months later, and probably accelerated the development of hip hop).
Other defining stories of this moment aren't strictly true, though they'd go on to mythologize the era and the city in the minds of so many—you'll want to revisit some of these films here.
Taken together, the stories offer a look at a 25-hour-period of time that we're still talking about forty years later.
Got your own '77 blackout story? Let us know in the comments.