This week, Gothamist is running excerpts from The Brooklyn Wars, a new book from journalist Neil deMause about the social, economic, and political forces that have radically reshaped Brooklyn over the past four decades. This five-part series, the Bushwick Wars, traces the story of Bushwick from the 1970s to the present day.
On July 13th, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a bolt of lightning struck an electrical substation in Buchanan, New York, that was responsible for taking the high-voltage power produced at the Indian Point nuclear plant and converting it to the 110 volts supplied to customers across New York City. Eighteen minutes later, another lightning strike knocked out two additional power lines, leaving the system dangerously overloaded. At 9:27 p.m., the hulking Ravenswood 3 power plant on Queens’ East River waterfront went down, plunging the city into darkness.
It instantly became part of the legend of 1970s New York: the night that the final indignity was visited upon the dead-broke, arson-wracked city. And no part of the five boroughs was to become more associated with the blackout than the old north Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. When the lights went out, hundreds of people began breaking into stores along Broadway, the southern boundary separating Bushwick from Bedford-Stuyvesant, pulling down security gates, smashing windows, hauling off furniture, TVs, whatever they could carry. On the commercial strip beneath the elevated J train tracks, 45 stores were set ablaze; a few days later, what became known as the "All Hands Fire" started in an abandoned factory, taking out 23 more buildings in the heart of the neighborhood.
The tale of the blackout that had killed Bushwick spread rapidly in the city’s tabloids, as journalists flooded into a neighborhood where few had set foot before to take stock of the damage. But the troubles that were consuming Bushwick had roots in an earlier era.
The neighborhood had originally been settled by German and Italian immigrants in the 19th century, and remained so well into the 20th; a handful of mansions along Bushwick Avenue were home to the owners of Bushwick’s many breweries, while to the east stretched block after block of small apartment buildings and two-family houses.
When the Depression hit in the 1930s and banks began failing left and right, the federal government stepped in with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which offered cheap loans for properties that it deemed unlikely to fall into foreclosure. The way HOLC officials chose to distinguish worthy vs. unworthy projects, however, had little to do with financial stability. As MIT historian Craig Steven Wilder recounts in his book, A Covenant With Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn, HOLC agents drew up maps that ranked entire neighborhoods by whether or not they were desirable: Zones graded A were ripe for further development, B were stable but had little room for new construction, C had poor housing stock or insufficient transit or utilities, while D communities suffered from poverty and "undesirable" residents. The maps were color-coded: A was green, B was blue, C was yellow, and D was red—giving the policy the term it would ultimately become known by, "redlining."
As Wilder later explained in Kelly Anderson and Allison Lirish Dean’s 2012 documentary My Brooklyn, "One of the most consistent ways of figuring out what [grade] a neighborhood was going to get was simply recent ethnicity. The reality is that any neighborhood that had five percent or more black population immediately got a D."
The effect was to magnify both racial and economic segregation: Over the next two or three decades, anyone in a redlined neighborhood who could afford to flee did, fearing that they’d never be able to get a reasonable bank loan to make improvements on their property. The resulting flight of homeowners was later accelerated in the 1960s and ’70s by "blockbusting," a tactic where real-estate speculators would buy a house, sell or rent it to a black family, then wait for panic to set in among the white neighbors that the area was about to "flip" racially—at times helping matters along by posting business cards reading ‘’Houses wanted, cash waiting’’ and ‘’Don’t wait until it’s too late!’’
The 1970s were not a good time to be a working-class neighborhood in New York City. Textile mills that had provided jobs along the Bushwick/East Williamsburg border were starting to close. The last of Bushwick’s once-famous local breweries, the massive Rheingold plant near the intersection of Flushing and Bushwick Avenues, shut down in 1976.
Under the elevated train in Bushwick, 1974. This area would be hit hard when the blackout came in 1977. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Local bankers and realtors concocted a mortgage scam in which they filed fraudulent paperwork on behalf of low-income buyers (or people who didn’t exist) to obtain federally backed Federal Housing Administration loans for mortgage insurance. The buyers, if they were real people, had no chance of paying off their mortgages and defaulted. The bankers and realtors pocketed the money and the buildings were abandoned. An estimated 500 Bushwick buildings ended up vacant in this way.
Around the same time, feeling they had no stake in the neighborhood’s future at the time, landlords began to put less money into maintaining their largely wood-frame buildings, and politicians put less effort into gaining city resources for improvements to what they viewed as a dead-end neighborhood. The result was fire, and lots of it. Photos of Bushwick in the mid-’70s show an incredible sight: block upon block of abandoned apartment buildings, many of them bearing facades marked by ashy smudges rising up window frames. Some buildings were burned by their owners for insurance money, some so that the arsonists could scavenge the ruins for copper wire, some by drug users clumsy with open flames, some by bored locals looking for kicks. "Not every fire that occurred in Bushwick was arson," said John Dereszewski, then the Community Board 4 district manager and later a neighborhood historian. "But when you don’t maintain, electrical fires can occur. Particularly in the central core of Bushwick, where you had so much wood-framed housing—and housing where you had those common cocklofts on the roof, where if you had a fire start in one house, if there’s any wind it could spread literally down the whole block."
And then the blackout hit.
It was, in retrospect, a worst-case scenario. The power went out late enough for the city to be pitch black, yet early enough for everyone to still be awake. It was a broiling summer night in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in the city’s history, when city youth programs had been shuttered and New York was jammed with young people with few prospects and at loose ends. City cutbacks, meanwhile, meant some residents saw little to fear from taking what they could from local stores—by one account, all of Bushwick had only 14 police officers on duty the night of the blackout. (It didn’t help that once the lights went out, Mayor Abe Beame’s administration ordered police to report to their nearest precinct—which, given where most officers then lived, largely meant reporting for duty in middle-class white areas far from where they were most needed.) In all, 1,000 fires were reported across the city the night of the blackout, and 3,700 people arrested, mostly for looting. And the worst was along Broadway in Bushwick, where thefts went on well into the next day, leaving a wreck of tangled security gates and merchandise scattered across the street.
Nadine Whitted, like Dereszewski, wasn’t quite a Bushwick native—she grew up just across Broadway in Bedford-Stuyvesant—but she’d since made up for lost time, first working for Dereszewski at the community board and later taking over his role as district manager. The looting and arson of the blackout night, she recalled from the perspective of three decades further on, was merely the final nail in the coffin of a commercial strip already on the edge: "It was an opportunity for a lot of people who didn’t want to be here anymore to use that as an excuse to leave—through insurance, through burning their own buildings," she said. Dereszewski agreed: "While the commercial area on Broadway was devastated on the night of the blackout, it had been in serious decline for many years prior," with many storefronts left vacant long before the lights went out. The remaining shop owners were mostly absentees who lived in other parts of the city, and couldn’t get to their businesses to protect them. Nearby Knickerbocker Avenue, observers noted at the time, survived with less damage thanks to having more resident shopkeepers who were close enough when the lights went out to sit in their stores—armed with baseball bats and shotguns—until the power returned the next day.
The following afternoon, with power now restored to much of the city, Dereszewski headed over from his home in Greenpoint to take a stroll down Broadway. "They were still looting stores," he recalled. "Even the next day, I was there a couple of hours, and I don’t think I saw one policeman." Photos taken the day after the blackout show huge crowds of people of all ages carrying off furniture and appliances in broad daylight. (Rap pioneer Grandmaster Caz later credited the night’s looting of electronics stores with helping spark the spread of hip-hop music: "The next day there were a thousand new DJs.") "It’s funny, I might have felt myself threatened—I was probably the only white person in the area," said Dereszewski. "But I just didn’t, because the people who were out there were more interested in getting something."
Five days after the blackout, someone lit a match in an abandoned knitting mill on the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleecker Street near Myrtle Avenue. The ensuing All Hands Fire devoured 30 buildings and left 250 families homeless.
It was a grim moment for Bushwick. The rest of the neighborhood remained largely intact, with most of the row houses and four-story apartment buildings surviving—though many were left abandoned after residents fled the neighborhood. By 1980, Bushwick’s population had fallen to 92,497, a 30 percent drop from just ten years before.
Neil deMause has covered New York City development issues for the Village Voice, City Limits, and Metro New York. He is the co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit. The Brooklyn Wars is now available.