When the Big Apple Burned
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
In 1977, the lights went out in New York City and all hell broke loose.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The Paradise Camp Fire, the Malibu mudslides and in the not-so-distant past portions of the South mired in post-hurricane misery have seen their share of suspected looters being arrested. Opportunists to the core, these looters may be driven less by actual need and more by causal connections to tragedy and proximity.
But what happens when it’s not that? What happens when, during a day like any other day, the part of our social fabric that most of us take for granted is not there to be taken for granted anymore? On July 13, 1977, at precisely 9:36 pm, that happened: Every single light in New York City went out.
New York, a city of almost 8 million people in the 1970s, had seen the lights go out just 12 years earlier. For about 13 hours in November 1965 — during which the city’s crime rate was the lowest it had been since New York police started keeping city crime records — New Yorkers bonded to get through it.
But in 1977, Nixon’s resignation was just three years old, President Gerald Ford’s refusal to bail New York out of bankruptcy was only two years gone and the Vietnam War had been over for about as long, with returning vets fighting drugs, unemployment and mental illness in a different kind of war.
And then, on July 13, the lights went out. In Brooklyn — Flatbush, to be exact. In a nice bit of foreshadowing, I was watching Baretta, a TV cop drama. It wasn’t a fuse or a circuit that had blown, and it wasn’t just my room that went dark; it was everywhere. The city that usually sparkled outside of my bedroom window disappeared, and there was an eerie quiet as people waited for Con Ed, the power company, to fix the glitch and pick up the pieces from the lightning strike that had caused it.
It took about 15 minutes for the realization that the lights weren’t coming back on to sink in, at which point the silence was broken by the noise of the only things that could move in the dark: cars. Car horns were honked, and for the briefest of time on the streets, there was a sense of freedom — and wildness. Wildness with a party atmosphere. At first.
While we watched neighbors, fellow homeowners with flashlights, directing cars and making sure the people they knew were OK, something else was happening. People who didn’t possess anything — cash, comfort, couches — were going to get what they had long lacked. There was a frantic determination in the eyes of drivers as they headed up to Flatbush Avenue. It was the Day of the Locust, and the sky was now lit with orange, from fires. The outmanned fire department and outgunned police department did what they could, which wasn’t much. I started to run toward the lights and action, as an adolescent would — until my mother spoke.
“Let’s go inside.” She had lived through the 1965 blackout, but this was different.
“Absolute madness,” said New York Daily News editor Vincent Cosgrove years later. “But the city was sick — the thing was, now everyone could see it.”
And see it we did: 31 neighborhoods were hit hard with looting, the have-nots trying to have, and out-and-out vandalism, the have-nots trying to destroy what they couldn’t have. Passels of Pontiacs rolled off car dealership lots in the Bronx, and in Brooklyn hundreds of stores were looted after people tied ropes around storefront grates and yanked them off with their cars. Citywide, more than 500 police officers were injured, around 4,000 people were arrested, more than 1,500 stores were destroyed and more than 1,000 fires were set. Only one person was reportedly killed, an alleged mafia member whose shooting death the blackout made a little more convenient. Cost estimates for the blackout damage hit the $1.2 billion mark, in 2017 dollars.
The blackout also scuttled the career of Mayor Abe Beame, who was replaced by Ed Koch, while in the field of unintended consequences it gave a boost to the nascent Bronx-born hip-hop scene. “I went right to the place where I bought my first set of DJ equipment, and I got me a mixer out of there,” Grandmaster Caz told the podcast 99% Invisible in 2014.
Watching from our living room window, though, it was an amusement park of misdirected hostility, cars careering down Bedford Avenue, ignoring the people with flashlights functioning as traffic lights. “It would be a little too pat to say the city was never the same after this,” says former parole officer Irma Norman, who was busy sheltering in place, sidearm at the ready. “But you can change things with a hammer. Or you can change them with a bomb. This was a bomb.”
While New York City today is fine, and memories of the three-day ruin are consigned to cinema and newsreel, the reality remains: All it took was a light switch.