I saw a program the other day about an event I previously had known little about: the great New York blackout of 1977. Something about the story left me with a distinct feeling of unease. I don’t imagine many readers here are familiar with it, either. Let me describe some of the details.
New York City in the mid-1970s was not what it is today. At that time, it almost seemed like a cautionary tale for urban failure. The prosperity of the 1960s had given way to the grim economic times of the 1970s; social services, jobs, and opportunities evaporated, leaving everyone scrambling for survival. Corruption was widespread in politics and the police force. Graffiti was everywhere. Many landlords burned down tenement buildings to collect insurance as property values fell. There was a sense that something was deeply wrong with the system itself. Look at some of the movies filmed in the city during that era: look at Serpico and Taxi Driver. And then look at them more closely. There is just something about them that exudes decay and corruption. Maybe this means nothing; but maybe it does not.
The crack epidemic was still a decade away, but drugs were still there, of course. On top of all the social problems, the city was suffering financially. When the city applied for a loan from President Ford, the answer was no. Eventually the federal government would relent and provide some loans; but the conditions attached to such loans were draconian. Austerity measures were demanded. This contributed to the general mood in the city that every man was for himself. As usual, the poorer communities were hit hardest. In many cases there were no jobs to be found at all. The summer of 1977 was a hot one in the city. On top of everything else, in July 1977 a serial killer–the so-called “Son of Sam”–was receiving a lot of media attention. Such things have little real effect on most people’s lives, but the constant media reportage of the killings contributed to the general feeling of tension.
The chain of events that led up to the blackout began on July 13. It was one of those situations where a “perfect storm” of conditions combined to create a unique event. If any one of these conditions had been absent, nothing would have happened. There happened to be a series of intense lightning storms along the Hudson River. Then there was a lightning strike that hit a power station in Buchanan. When this happened, it tripped a circuit breaker and local power was lost. But the way electrical grids worked–then and now–was that when one line went down, the power requirements were increased on all the surrounding lines. Then there was another lightning strike, and another line was disabled; this set in motion a “chain of overload” whereby lines would get overloaded, shut down, and trigger further outages.
The power grid was controlled by the electrical company Con Edison. What should have happened is that grid controllers should have shut down several grids to localize the problem and prevent a chain reaction from triggering a city-wide failure. But this did not happen. Frantic attempts to tell the operators to shut down the grid came to nothing. In the end, the entire system collapsed. The entire city was blanketed in darkness. Even now, to see images of the city in complete darkness has an unnerving quality. Everything was affected: traffic lights, hospitals, buildings, everything.
At first residents seemed to take the problem in stride. There had been a major blackout in 1965 and people still told genial stories about it. It almost seemed like a carnival event. Many residents thought the same thing would happen again. The city’s leadership element seemed clueless, however; mayor Abe Beame seemed not to understand what had caused the problem. Police were given instructions to report to duty at the locations where they lived, rather than where they worked. Since most police did not live in the poorer, crime-ridden areas, this misguided order ensured that there would be no one present to keep order when the looting and arson began.
Since the night was a hot one, people left their apartments and took to the street. It was only a matter of time before bad things would start to happen. The first looting was done by the criminal elements: opportunistic thieves who loved excuses to give vent to their proclivities. Then, like a virus, the looting began to spread to people who would never think of doing such a thing. The poorer sections of the city were hit hardest. People smashed store windows and gutted buildings of all their inventory; some car dealers stored their cars with keys in the ignition, and of course all of these vehicles were lost. Witnesses saw normal, decent people pushing caravans of shopping carts in the streets filled with stolen merchandise. It was as if the bottled-up, collective rage of years suddenly was let loose all at once in an orgy of theft and arson.
For some people, it was not enough to loot stores and buildings; they had to burn them down as well. Motivated by repressed anger and the sheer joy of destruction, looters gutted whole blocks of the city. In 1977, most businesses in the city were still of the “Mom and Pop” variety; they could ill-afford to suffer a catastrophic blow to their businesses. Many store owners were dismayed and horrified to see customers they thought they knew well who were participating in the looting. In the end, the efforts of the police–such as they were–were ineffective and feeble. When the power finally returned on July 14, the toll was sobering: over 1600 stores had been damaged, and over 1037 fires had been reported. About 3700 people had been arrested; the city had not seen anything like it since the Draft Riots during the Civil War.
Order in modern cities is fragile. Just below the surface simmer unresolved grievances, boiling anguish, and repressed rage. When problems are ignored and neglected, they make themselves known in other ways. This kind of civil disorder is unfamiliar to most Americans; and I hope it remains so. But I never want to forget the images of July 1977. The blackout showed what could happen when unresolved social decay and opportunism combine under just the right circumstances. We must never allow smugness or complacency to blind us to an appreciation of these fundamental truths, or to the obligation of our political leaders to address them.