July 13th and 14th, 1977 marked the days when the lights turned out in New York, and the city turned upside down. No one could have prepared themselves for the chaos which unfolded that night The power shortage may have lasted just a day, but the effects lived on years later. Believe us, it was just as dramatic as it sounds.
It started with a lightning storm, it ended in wide-scale destruction. It may seem like the New York blackout was merely a technical issue, but the aftermath brought to light a huge social issue. Popular Everything is exploring the ins and outs of one of the most dramatic powercuts American history has seen.
How It All Went Dark
Let’s set the scene, by traveling north of Manhattan (we’re talking 36 miles north) to where it all began. At 8:37 pm, the Nuclear Power Plant of Westchester County suffered an enormous blow after a lightning strike hit near the area. Sadly, this was only the catalyst for a series of more tragic events to come.
Bam! Three more lightning strikes, one more hour, and the power was gone. Almost the entire population of New York City stood in fear, as their city went dark. Within moments, the mood of these civilians shifted from confused worry to stress-fuelled anger. Let the riots ensue!
Reaching a Stand Still
1977 witnessed the largest, and quite possibly busiest city in America as it came to a complete halt. Subway trains stopped, elevators slowed down, and a pretty important baseball game had to be put on a hold. Talk about being left on a cliffhanger!
Situated in Queens’ Shea Stadium, the crowds eagerly watched the New York Mets battle it out against the Chicago Cubs before darkness struck. The game was suspended, set to finish at a later date. At this point, the crowds had no idea of the mass torment their city would see over the next 25 hours.
Classic Views, Only Darker
Have you ever stuck around to see the sunset over a skyline? We bet you’ve never seen this happen during a blackout. While this picture of a blacked-out Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhatten suggests an atmosphere of calm tranquility, the situation couldn’t be more different for some residents.
Here’s the hard, unsweetened truth. New York in the 1970s was a bleak place and on the verge of bankruptcy. All it took was a halt in electricity for all these problems to present themselves, as a great deal of New York entered a rampant frenzy of crime, destruction, and terror.
25 Hours of Burglary
What’s the one word that entered the New Yorkers mind’s as their city went dark? Panic. Quicker than you could even say the word “blackout,” people everywhere began rushing around to their nearest stores, getting their hands on literally anything they could, whether they needed it or not.
Want to know the stats? In the 25 hours the power was down, over 1,600 shops throughout New York City were robbed. Just take a minute to imagine the grocery stores, drug stores, and even a car dealership that faced complete havoc after the shutdown of electricity gave way to a rampage.
Looting at Every Corner
Want to know how many people were affected by the looting and vandalism? 31 neighborhoods, predominantly the poorest ones in the city. In particular, Crown Heights of Brooklyn faced one of the biggest hits.
Across a stretch of five blocks, a staggering 75 stores were looted. If this doesn’t reflect a concerning drop in income in society, we don’t know what will. Then-mayor of New York, Abraham Beame, had labeled the event as “a night of terror.”
Down Go the Buildings
To call the 1977 blackout a ‘light shortage’ would be a huge understatement. To put it bluntly, this event was the trigger that gave way to the deep-set anarchy which these locals were clearly feeling towards their declining city. Just to add to the chaos that ensued in these 25 hours, angered civilians began lighting torches and burning down some pretty long-standing buildings.
Here are a few more stats for you. By the time the city regained power and the city of New York finally made its way out of the dark, citizens had caused over 1,000 fires throughout their streets and neighborhoods. This takes the word ‘riot’ to a whole new level.
A Day of Projecting Hate
If you travel down into the underlying social issues that were prevalent in 1970s New York, you will find a city dealing with widespread racial inequality. What did it take to (finally) shine a spotlight on this issue? You guessed it, the 1977 New York blackout.
African American neighborhoods suffered an enormous hit, with black-owned stores being broken into. It seems crazy that it took nearly all the lights to shut off in a city for officials to recognize that such unjust treatment was going on in their society.
Talk about playing with fire! While some New Yorkers were setting buildings alight to mark their frustration on such a declining state, others used it to make a little cash in such a poor, dead-ended economy.
When the lights turned off, people turned desperate. Everywhere you turned, someone was lighting up an empty building to collect on fire insurance. To tell you the truth, this type of arson was going on way before the lights were even out, but the blackout certainly encouraged it further.
Those who remember the 1977 blackout, will immediately think of Brooklyn’s northern neighborhood, Bushwick. This New York district also suffered a huge hit from the city’s atrocities. Over the course of the power cut, 25 Bushwick fires were lit, all of which continued burning into the next day.
If you happened to be in this Brooklyn neighborhood the morning after the blackout, you would not be able to avoid the disheartening aftermath. An array of buildings covered the streets, 45 to be precise, that had crumbled down in the fires.
As you know now, the neighborhood of Bushwick was heavily involved in the atrocities of the 1977 blackout. We’ve mentioned their arson attacks, now let’s go into detail about the second-biggest crime that the blackout saw.
The lights went out, and the robbers went in. Thousands of Bushwick locals began breaking down security gates, smashing store-front windows, and yanking television sets out of their shelves. It is these events that caused many to label the occurrence as “the blackout that killed Bushwick.”
One Hectic Police Force
Within just ten minutes of the power being out, police stations were already receiving reports of looting. By the end of the blackout, 35 blocks of Broadway had been utterly ruined. You can imagine how busy these law enforcers must have been during such a grueling 25 hours. In almost every direction, you could see a policeman chaining together suspected criminals.
Amid the thousands of people who suffered brutal wounds during the power outage, 550 were police officers. In no way did this scare them out of doing their job though, as they arrested over 3,700 people, and that was just for looting! As the unlit hours passed, jails began to overload.
Hot and Bothered
Here’s a fact some of you may not know about 1977 blackout. During this time, the city of New York was experiencing the most intense heatwave it had ever seen. Effectively, the power outage had trapped these New Yorkers in the sweltering heat. Temperatures had risen fifteen degrees above average.
Did the heatwave spur on the crimes during the blackout? It’s definitely a high possibility. The drop in electricity immediately shut down all air conditioning in the affected areas.
Son of Sam
Before the time the lights switched off, the state of New York was already sent into a frenzy over the likes of one man – the self-confessed “son of Sam” David Berkowitz. This sadistic murderer had been sending shivers down New Yorker’s spines since July 1976, one year prior to the blackout.
The people of this city were overcome by emotions: fear from Berkowitz, and disappointment from the police force’s inability to capture this man. You could say, it was because such a huge crime was being carried out before their eyes that gave these residents the green light to cause such havoc during the blackout.
Blame It on the Kids
If you were a teen in the mid-1970s era of New York, chances are your prospects in life weren’t looking too high. The economy was facing an all-time low, so employers weren’t exactly jumping at the chance to hire new staff. How did these youths express their boredom? In the 1977 blackout.
The cutback of electricity could not have happened at a worse time. City youth programs had closed down, leaving thousands of young-adults to aimlessly roam the streets. One by one, they began to follow the burning and looting habits of so many New Yorkers during this time.
Reluctant Law Enforcement
The adverse situation in mid-1970s New York wasn’t just limited to its residents. The police force started to face some serious cutbacks too, due to the financial crisis. Pay freezes and layoffs had lead to a huge lack of morale in these cops.
It turns out, not all these law enforcers were busy arresting people that night. When asked to help out during the blackout, it seemed a lot of policemen had better things to do. Many who did get involved certainly weren’t risking their lives to get the job done. They arrested maybe two or three looters at a time, not exactly stressing over the bigger picture.
The Ones You’d Least Expect
One of the scariest parts of this whole event was how the crime didn’t discriminate. When we said people on every corner of the New York streets were looting, we meant it. It seemed like as soon as the lights turned off, everyone’s ugly side came out.
Church-goers, teachers, and even doctors were trying their hand as an outlaw. You may have been a law-abiding citizen your whole life, but when the blackout came, smashing storefront windows didn’t seem like such a bad thing after all. As soon as it hit 9:34 pm, everyone was in it for themselves.
Doing their Bit
Finally, some positivity! Not all of New York decided to run riot during the blackout. Many people managed to keep their cool, and do their best to try and help one another during this difficult time. How did they do this? Through the beauty of volunteer work.
Teamwork makes the dream work. Whether they were handing out flashlights or directing traffic to help people find their way through the darkened roads, these people were pulling together to prove that even in desperate times, society can still function.
One Big Festivity
Some people wanted to help out in the blackout, and others wanted to party! That’s right, taking a complete 360 from the looters were these hopeful opportunists. Bars stayed open all night to cater for those who wanted to celebrate the cut in power.
There may not have been food, but there was liquor, and that was enough to keep these people happy! Many New Yorkers were in such high spirits during this time, that they were not even aware of the looting and rioting until it made public news, the next day.
Smiles All Round
Sometimes, it’s the simpler things in life that we’re grateful for. Here denotes a perfect example of that – there may be no power, but these New Yorkers are quite content playing a game of cards, with a couple of candles to aid their sight.
Considering everything else that went on during the 1977 New York blackout, this picture is certainly a sight for sore eyes! We can’t help but notice how much more this moment reflects a somewhat calmer time, during yet another blackout, that occurred in 1965.
Comparing Old and New
So, what went down in 1965? Although this previous blackout affected many more people (branching from North East America up to Canada) it all took place in a much more relaxed atmosphere. Only 100 people were arrested and buildings stayed intact, people sat and dined and restaurants like nothing was wrong!
So, there were a lot less rioters and a lot more peace, what a way to define the swinging sixties! Learning about the social decline of New York towards the mid-1970s, it becomes clear to us why we see such a contrast in these two powercuts.
Opening a New Market
Who knew a city blackout could pave the way as a money-making opportunity? While one side of the 1977 New York population was looting and panicking, the other, more relaxed side were setting up shop.
These two boys were found on the Tribeca sidewalk of lower-Manhattan, selling candles to worried citizens. These products may not have been quite so in demand a few hours ago, but by the time the blackout hit, everyone wanted to get their hands on these bad boys.
Using Self Defence
The blackout didn’t paint such a bleak picture for everyone. A number of stores situated right in the center of New York successfully escaped the brutal consequences of looting. How did they manage to do this? Through the simple act of preparation.
There is hope, yet! Out of the thousands of burned down, destructed stores, a select few remained intact. Well, more intact than the others. Shopkeepers near Brooklyn’s Knickerbocker Avenue stayed put all night in their stores, armed with baseball bats and shotguns to shoo off the looters.
Allowing Hip Hop to Live On
Here’s an unlikely success story that may have come out of the 1977 blackout. During an interview, music mogul Grandmaster Caz expressed how the switched off lights actually paved a way for hip hop music. Why? Here’s what he had to say.
Apparently, raiding shops can be a good thing. Caz stated that the looting enabled aspiring musicians to finally get their hands on the correct recording equipment, as they normally wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Take this idea with a pinch of salt!
A Declining City
They may have been going bankrupt, but the home truths didn’t end there for the mid-1970s New York. A 34% drop in policemen created a huge rise in crime, a booming recession meant unemployment levels were rising, and the lack of money meant poverty levels were, you guessed it, rising.
What does this mean? If we paired the atrocities of the 1977 blackout with the detrimental state of New York at the time, you could say it was all one big cry for help. Desperate times call for desperate measures, even if that measure is looting a store. This seemed like New York’s last chance to make the government aware of their poor living conditions.
It Was Never the Same
It’s all over! Well, not quite. In the wake of the 1977 blackout, thousands of New Yorkers woke up realizing they’d never quite see their neighborhood the way they used to. Buildings had turned to ash, and stores were emptied. The city had been transformed, and there was no escaping that.
The morning of July 15th, 1977 was a time to say goodbye. Goodbye to the stores, that had either been burned down or looted and goodbye to old politics. Why? The former New York mayor was quickly replaced. It was out with Abraham Beame, and in with Ed Koch! The whole of New York was relying on this man to get them out of their financial rut.
Carry on Looters
If you thought the catastrophes all came to an end after the lights came back on, you’d sadly be wrong. It was reported that in the wake of the blackout, streets were still being looted! These New Yorkers really did have a bone to pick with society.
At this point, the question going round several New Yorker’s minds was “what have I got to lose?” Their city had reached an all-time low, all they could do now was continue proving a point of how awful their livin conditions had become.
An Expensive Catastrophe
Ever heard the term ‘you break it, you buy it?’ This reached new levels during the aftermath of the 1977 New York blackout. Place your bets on how many dollars the then-mayor of New York, Abraham Beame, decided the damage from this event raked up.
It took some time, but he finally settled on a price. Not 100, not 200 but over $300 million was required to clean up the mess from this power outage – and that was just for the lootings and fires alone! Today, that would equal about $1.3 billion. It seemed that the new mayor of New York had his work cut out for him!
Coming out Alive
Here’s the deal: the 1977 New York power outage was the most infamous blackout in US history, you can’t deny that. Considering this, it comes as a huge surprise to learn that pretty much all these angered residents emerged from that night in one piece. Despite the hatred, everyone came out alive.
One of the biggest shocks from the 1977 blackout was the lack of injuries. It would seem that these New Yorkers weren’t targeting their violence on other people, but on property. As we now know, this was due to the financial crisis they faced.
In the wake of the New York blackout, journalists flocked in the dozens to the district that had faced such mass devastation. Never before had Bushwich been so busy! Writers everywhere competed for the most gripping headline on how the power cut had ended this neighborhood, one burnt down building at a time.
The sad truth of it is, Bushwick had been suffering these sorts of troubles for years, well before a night of no electricity. It wasn’t until the blackout, however, that the district gained some recognition for its poor living conditions and high crime rate. Suddenly, the whole of New York knew about the sad case of Bushwick.