Forty years ago today, New York City was plunged into darkness. The city has certainly seen longer blackouts in its history but none as violent or as deadly in its effects than the Blackout of 1977. The deteriorating city, in the midst of a withering heat wave, was ill-equipped for such emergencies. Hundreds of stores were looted and fires ravaged many neighborhoods.
For more details on the blackout, we have a couple podcasts which explore certain aspects of the event. The third part of our Bronx Trilogy — TheBronx Was Burning — focuses on that particular borough during the Blackout of 1977. And believe it or not, ourfifth-ever Bowery Boys podcast was also about the Blackout, recorded on the 30th anniversary:
Here’s how the blackout and subsequent riots were reported in newspapers across the country in the days that followed.
While the first day’s reports focused on the basic facts, most naturally chose to zero in on the looting by the second and third days. These images of the blackout would linger in the minds of Americans far longer than images of the darkened skyline.
REVIEWThe evening of July 13, 1977, will be remembered as one of the worst in New York City history, a catastrophic electrical blackout that plunged an already-weakened city into terrifying anarchy.
Meanwhile, up on the top floors of the World Trade Center, they were having a party.
The thrilling new documentary Blackout — making its debut tonight on PBS’s American Experience — reveals a city in paralysis and the differing ways people soldiered the evening of darkness.
The blackout was caused by a series of lightening strikes which took out electrical substations along the Hudson River. The timing was especially unfortunate, blanketing the region in darkness just as the sun had set.
Up at the World Trade Center restaurant Windows On The World, patrons were initially stunned, seeing whole areas of the city disappear into blackness. Fear turned into merriment; soon came the candles, the bottles of champagne and the drunken songs. The extraordinary video footage in Blackoutcaptures a lively moment, one which would fade into the late night. “‘We were on an island in the sky, isolated from what was happening in all of New York City.”
The blackout exposed the worst areas of the city to unpoliced chaos. The Bronx was already a disaster zone, even with electricity. Arson was a regular occurrence, emptying out whole blocks and endangering those too poor to leave. The blackout created a sort of delirium; trapped in hot apartments, people wandered outside and heard the sound of smashed windows, neighborhood stores under the threat of looting.
In some neighborhoods, it was a free-for-all. Normally law-abiding citizens when wild. “Not a package of Pampers survived the looting,” says one commentator in the film.
This single night of madness destroyed life on some streets for well over a decade as business owners fled certain blocks, now afraid of their own former clientele.
Blackout is an intense experience, throwing you immediately into the dark evening with a sense of dizziness that many New Yorkers must have felt that evening. New York City has suffered through other electrical blackouts — and for longer periods of time — but none were as damaging to the soul of the city as the one on July 13.
Blackout: American Experience
July 14, 9 pm EST (check local listings for further viewing dates)
Today is the tenth-year anniversary of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 which shut down power for most of New York City (and much of the Northeast) for almost 24 hours, with some areas experiencing outages well into the second day.
I was on the 35th floor of the Bertelsmann Building in the middle of Times Square. My co-workers and I traipsed down 35 floors under the glow of emergency lighting.
As ATM machines were offline, I had a grand total of $5 in my pocket, so I was unable to enjoy any of the cheap-beer and bbq fests that were underway in the East Village, as bars and restaurants rid themselves of items before they spoiled. Down in the Lower East Side, it was a lonely night under candlelight, trying to tune in updates on my old battery-operated portable television.
We still didn’t have electricity the next day, so I walked the Manhattan Bridge over to Cobble Hill, where power had been restored, and there I hung out at my friend’s shop Halcyon the entire day, a place filled with Manhattan refugees that day. I returned over the bridge in the evening, but the Lower East Side still did not have power.
The heat was slowly driving people insane; I remember seeing a woman carrying groceries for some place a few miles away and almost collapsing on the street. Had the power not returned then that evening at 10 pm, it probably would have gotten a bit messy in the LES. (It all seems so relatively manageable, of course, in light of the Sandy blackout.
Here’s a few more recollections from Twitter. If you lived in the northeast United States then, where were you ten years ago during the blackout? Leave your recollections in the notes here, or on Twitter of Facebook:
Where were you during the 2003 blackout, ten years ago today? I was on 35th floor, Times Square, $5 in pocket (no ATMs working). #blackout — The Bowery Boys NYC (@BoweryBoys) August 14, 2013
Here’s a few images — many of them quite well-known — of the New York City blackout, which occurred 35 years ago. By 9:36 pm on July 13, 1977, the entire Con Edison power system for the city shut down, the devastating endpoint of a chain reaction which began with a lightening strike at an electrical substation 40 minutes before.
A blackout in the middle of summer — in the 1970s, in the midst of a bankrupt, blighted city — is a recipe for chaos. Unlike the relatively peaceful blackouts of 1965 and 2003, this disturbance caused widespread looting, arson and rioting. The city’s power was fully restored by very late the following day.
One raging fire destroyed several blocks in Bushwick, Brooklyn, including this block on Greene Avenue.
A screen capture from the film Koyaanisqatsi. Director Godfrey Reggio was in the city at the time and included some of his images in the atmospheric Philip Glass film.
Le Burger Bistro on Madison Avenue follows the inspiration of many by turning the blackout into a business opportunity. It also helped get rid of refrigerated beers.
The New York Mets were in the middle of a game at Shea Stadium against the Chicago Cubs. With emergency lights, they finished the game. The Cubs won.
A sense of free-for-all reigned in many areas of the city, inspiring looting sprees in areas where law enforcement was stretched thin and electrical security systems failed.
Mayor Abraham D Beame at a press conference. Not exactly popular to begin with, Beame was swept out of office in the next election, with the events of this day weighing heavily on voters’ minds.
Fighting fires through the darkness, haze and heat.
The International Herald-Tribune shares details of the blackout with its international audience two days later.
And finally, a couple pieces of video footage from the blackout, the first some raw video (with intermittent sound) with the fire department battling blazes, the second a newscast from WABC
For more information on the 1977 blackout, you can listen to one of our very first podcast — believe it or no, Episode 5! — on the history of this event. Of course, we were very green then, and it’s quite short. But I think it still gives you a good overview of the catastrophe. You can download it here or find it on iTunes on our Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed.
By the way, July 13th is not a very good day in New York City history. One hundred and forty-nine years ago today, the Civil War Draft Riots began, an even greater city-wide trauma that lasted almost a full week. For more information on that, you can listen to our show about this event, Episode 127, on our regular iTunes feed or download that from here. Recorded just last year at this time, I think we did a pretty great job on it if I do say so myself!
In looking around for information on the blackout yesterday, I stumbled into one of my favorite sites Snopes, the debunking place for urban legend and Internet rumors. They have quite a selection of articles relating to New York City history, dispelling local myths and pointing out some of the city’s crazier moments.
I put some of my favorites below, with the answer ‘true/false’ in white type which you can highlight. Can you tell the truth from the lies? And of course, the link directly to the article it to the side:
1. Nine months after the Blackout of 1965, the birth rate in New York rose suddenly and drastically (apparently thanks to all those dark bedrooms) with hospitals filled with expectant mothers. FALSE [article]
2. In 1823, did “a pair of hoaxsters once lead hundreds of gullible New Yorkers into participating in a scheme to saw Manhattan in half” (as vividly described in Joel Rose’s book ‘New York Sawed In Half’)? FALSE [article]
3. The New York Yankees began wearing their now-signature pinstripe outfits because of the great Babe Ruth. Being a heavy man, the stripes were used to make Mr. Ruth appear thinner. FALSE [article]
4. Alligators once thrived in the New York City sewer system. MOSTLY FALSE [article]
5. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, upon hearing that an old woman was charged with shoplifting a loaf of bread, demanded everybody in the room pay 50 cents to pay her fine. MAYBE! [article]
6. Did Harlem resident Colin Powell learn to speak Yiddish from working at a South Bronx baby supply shop? TRUE [article]
7. Was early sponsorship of Major League baseball’s annual finale by Joseph Pulitzer’sNew York World newspaper the reason the yearly event is now called the World Series? OF COURSE NOT. [article]
8. Was that marvelous synthetic fabric — nylon — named after the two cities in which it was jointly created, New York (ny) and London (lon)? NOT TRUE [article]
9. Those crazy Astors! Did William Waldorf Astor once promote a lowly hotel clerk to head manager of Waldorf=Astoria on the strength of a single kind deed? SORTA [article]
10. Was a 1960s WNBC radio reporter in the middle of broadcasting a live traffic report when her helicopter crashed into the Hudson River, killing her? TRUE, JANE DORNACKER [article]
Forty-five years ago, during the 5pm rush hour, the entire American Northeast and parts of Canada were attacked by Unidentified Flying Objects from outer space who used their intergalactic powers to cause an electrical blackout that kept New York in the dark for ten hours.
Facts, of course, reveal that the blackout was actually caused by an electrical surge from the Robert Moses (!) Niagara Power Station that overloaded neighboring power lines and automatically caused electrical power interruptions throughout the region. The outage rolled through northern states and eastern Canada, arriving in New York just in time for rush hour sometime before 5:30 pm.
According to Life Magazine, “The abrupt reversal took place just as 600 New York City subway cars were rolling with their rush hour passengers, when elevators in skyscrapers were hustling tens of thousands to the streets, when housewives were lighting up homes and preparing dinner on electric stoves and warming up TV sets for the evening news.”
Over three quarters of a million people were stranded on mass transit, most underground. Grand Central was even more chaotic than normal and some commuters were forced to camp out there and in the lobbies of nearby hotels overnight. Park Avenue skyscrapers kept workers imprisoned in elevators.
Believe it or not, almost all those trapped in trains and elevator shafts had been freed by midnight, and the city met the darkness with little looting or violence, especially notable considering the mayhem stirred by the disaster known as the blackout of 1977. The 1965 event was perhaps more in line with the blackout of 2003, which lasted well over 24 hours in many parts of the city, but resulted in no significant spike in crime.
Below: It’s business as usual — with a little romantic candlelight — at a local New York barbershop. Many store owners stayed open later to accomodate stranded commuters and even kept people overnight until the power was fully restored by morning.
One component that the ’65 fiasco had over the other blackouts was a rise in UFO spottings throughout the Northeast, including many in the city. Some naturally theorized that the bright orbs seen in the sky might have caused the event; major newspapers speculated on it, and advisers to even hinted at it in updates to the White House.
People in the Time-Life Building on Sixth Avenue reported seeing a glowing ‘spindle shape’ in the sky, and a Life Magazine photographer even snapped it and ran a shot in their next issue. A woman just north of Manhattan reported seeing “a disk hovering and going up and down. And then shooting away from New York just after the power failure.”
Nothing ever really came of these purported sightings outside of providing a proper crescendo to the UFO craze of the early 1960s. Although reports of silvery globes floating over Chelsea alarmed pedestrians just a few weeks ago. (They were probably balloons.) The closest I’ve ever seen to an unidentified object floating overhead in New York was probably this.
Its gonna get hot this summer in New York City. Pretty obviously July is the worst month for those in business suits, but as bad as it gonna get, consider this:
The hottest day in New York City history was on July 9, 1936, where it reached a staggering 106 degrees. Pair that with the accepted fashion of the time — i.e. shorts and tanktops were barely in vogue on Coney Island, much less casual dress wear through the streets — and you’ve officially got one of the most unpleasant days in the city’s history of recorded temperatures.
At 104 scorching degrees, runner up goes to July 21, 1977 — which actually occurred eight days AFTER the legendary blackout — and August 17, 1918, seeing the end of World War I and the beginning of a devastating influenza epidemic.
And the coolest NY July day? July 1, 1943 experienced a record low of 52 degrees. Jacket weather!