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The New York City Blackout Of '77: Darkest Day Of A Dark Time

Culture | July 13, 2020

Aerial view of a building burning in the wake of the New York City blackout, Brooklyn, New York, New York, July 14, 1977. (Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1977, New York City was on edge when a blackout brought the city to its knees. The city had been in financial and social decline for years; its lack of money had caused it to cut some essential services, and many impoverished neighborhoods were suffering from neglect. The serial killer David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam," had killed numerous New Yorkers and was still at large, terrifying the public with ominous letters sent to the police and journalist Jimmy Breslin. On top of it all, a record heat wave was in full swing. The '77 blackout was a tipping point; the panic saw looting and a surge in arson. New York City seemed to be imploding.

Lightning Shut The City Down

The darkened skyline. Source: (asgmag.com)

Although the Mid-Atlantic has suffered blackouts, the blackout of 1977 was the only one that was confined to New York City. A few parts of the city were not in the dark, namely some areas of Queens and anything that operated on its own generator. On Wednesday, July 13, at 8:37 p.m., lightning struck Buchanan South. This tripped two circuit breakers in Buchanan, New York. Then, lightning struck again, which led two other transmission lines to become overloaded. To bring the power back on, ConEd tried to bring a fast-start generation station online, but this was unsuccessful as no one was manning the station. Then, a third lightning strike. This strike occurred at the Sprain Brook substation in Yonkers.

New York Tries To Cope

Source: (Dennis Elsas).

As ConEd tried to fix the situation by shedding load, and things went from bad to worse and one hour after the first lightning strike, most of New York City was in the dark. as they tried to remedy the situation, the looting began. Of course, the outage affected commuters who relied on the trains, stranding them. Those who were already on the subways had to exit the stopped cars and walk through the tunnels to get out. People who were out for the evening had to walk home. And the loss of power shut down a game between the Mets and the Cubs, which was then postponed for a month. Once the game resumed, the Mets lost. There were, of course, some positive stories, such as the strangers who helped a lost tourist navigate a neighborhood, or the citizens who helped direct traffic in the dark. Some bars stayed open and some restaurants continued their dinner service.

The City Continues To Try To Survive Without Power

The aftermath in Bushwick. Source: (Brooklyn Visual Heritage)

However, there were those who took advantage of the darkness of a powerless city, starting hundreds of fires and looting stores. Police arrested 4,000 looters who struck 1,600 stores across the city. Interestingly, there was only one homicide during the blackout, a crime that they were unable to solve. A year later, a congressional study of the financial impact of the blackout estimated the damages at $300 million. New Yorkers were still without power the next morning and the rush hour was quiet as people didn’t come into the city through the tunnels, which were closed because the ventilation fans did not work without electricity. Wall Street also had to close down. Twenty-five hours later, power was finally restored, and the events of the previous day shed light on underlying problems in the city.

A City In Turmoil

Source: (National Archives and Records Administration).

The city was close to financial ruin, poverty and unemployment were increasing, and the streets were filthy.  This was the time that the Son of Sam was active as well, causing fear throughout the city. In fact, the serial killer was so close to the forefront of people’s minds, that moviegoers in Queens screamed when the lights went out because they were afraid that the Son of Sam was behind it. The rampant racial tensions became overwhelmingly apparent. Some even demanded that the looters be shot.

In an interesting side note, some pop culture historians have speculated that the looting helped give rise to hip hop. Many DJs, who otherwise couldn't afford high-end turntables and mixers, picked them up in the looting. The DJ techniques that would later become common, such as scratching, may have been pioneered on these stolen components.

Con Edison worked to solve the problems with the system, instituting changes that are still in effect today. The Carter administration gave $11 million dollars to the city to help with the recovery.

The Blackout Exposed A Troubled City

When the Yankees were called the Bronx Zoo. Source: (NJ.com)

The bright spot of New York's summer of 1977 was baseball. The New York Yankees had just signed Reggie Jackson and the team, which would go on to win the World Series, was doing well. In June of that year during a game with the Red Sox, the contentious relationship between Jackson and Yankees’ manager Billy Martin became quite clear, providing more reason for the team’s moniker, the Bronx Zoo. As the Yankees soared to the top of the American League, their success continued to shine a spotlight on the struggling city. During the world series, the broadcast would cut away from the game to a nearby school that was on fire, allegedly inspiring a quote from sportscasters that may in fact never have been uttered. Nonetheless it was line that seemed to encapsulate all the city had been through during that summer: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."

Tags: Crime In The 1970s | New York City | Poverty | Son Of Sam

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Terry Claypoole

Writer

Terry is a lover of the beach, history, politics and has a passion for social media and technology. In her spare time, you can find her at the beach (of course) enjoying the sand and sun and listening to music from the groovy era.