9:34 p.m. Darkness descends upon New York City.
It has been a normal Wednesday evening for millions of New Yorkers. Commuting home from a late night at the office, wrapping up a PTA meeting, or ducking out of the heat and into a movie theater, the city had settled into its routine. Suddenly, as if someone flipped a switch, all the lights went out and the city soon spiraled out of control.
“It’s the whole goddamned world!” one New Yorker exclaimed.
Or so it felt for many New Yorkers on a hot July evening in 1977. Unlike the 1965 Northeast blackout, the one that plunged New York into darkness this time was limited to the boroughs of the city alone. And alone, the city would be forced to come to grips with a night of violence, looting, and social disorder.
Heart of Darkness
“It was a holiday atmosphere,” one person recalled of the moment the lights went out. But the holiday atmosphere quickly dissolved.
In contrast, in 1965, the lights went out around 5:30 on a cool November evening, and many people came out into the streets, shared meals and stories, candles and flashlights, kinship and civility. Many people thought the same would happen this time around.
“The ’77 blackout was a disaster. I still lived in the same place as I did in ’65. Prior to it occurring, that event had always been mentioned as evidence of New Yorkers’ basic civility and ability to pull together under pressure and was even remembered as a fun event,” another person said.
By 1977, New York was a different place. There was a seething animosity lurking just a scratch beneath the surface. Within an hour, parts of New York City looked like a war zone. In Brooklyn, Fifth Avenue was aglow from fires burning in garbage cans on nearly every corner. A few men, who, minutes earlier were helping people get home, were now desperately trying to steer them away. They stood on President Street and direly warned people to turn onto Fourth Avenue.
When questioned, they simply answered, “They’re shooting up there. Don’t go no further. Make sure you turn here.”
Mayor Abe Beame quickly declared a state of emergency, and extra police and fire fighters were dispatched across the city. But it was too late. Roving bands of marauders took to the streets in a wave of violence and destruction not seen in the city since the 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. riots. What began as neighborliness swiftly devolved into an orgy of looting and arson.
A raucous cry of, “It’s Christmas time! It’s Christmas time!” echoed through the city as people began to pillage store after store. But for the mayor and many citizens of New York City, it was “a night of terror.”
Consolidated Edison (ConEd), the utility New Yorkers love to hate—was singled out by Mayor Abraham Beame as the sole reason for the 1977 blackouts, citing “gross negligence” on its part for the blackout that caused so much looting, arson and violence in the city over the span of 12 sweltering hours in July. Con Ed chairman Charles Luce cited “acts of God” and the unpredictable and highly improbably quadruple strikes of lightning hitting the exact wrong spots each time. Either way, New York went dark, and all hell broke loose.
A severe thunderstorm swept across Westchester (north of the city) on the evening of the blackout—just as 9 million electrical users were switching on their air conditioners to do battle with the hot, humid night. Estimates place the demand on the system at around 3,800 megawatts of power. To cope with this, ConEd was drawing power from various networks, including New England and Pennsylvania.
Around 8:30, lightning in Westchester knocked out about 900 megawatts from the system. Controllers with ConEd scrambled to make up the power loss. If that had been it, the system would have maintained itself, and a crisis would have been averted. However, 20 minutes later, two more lightning strikes took out two 345-kilowatt lines that brought power from upstate New York and New England. Another lightning strike three minutes later reduced ConEd’s supply by 2,000 megawatts. For ConEd, that was the beginning of the end.
After the 1965 blackout, procedures were put in place to protect power plants and transmission lines from failure. Systematically, outside providers in Pennsylvania, Long Island and New Jersey began to sever themselves from the failing grid. ConEd operators tried to “shed power” (that is, reduce the demand by cutting off power to certain areas). However, by 9:30, the last power station, “Big Allis,” located in Queens, shut down. With it, all of New York went dark.
Could something like this happen again? When dealing with a system with a large number of components and variables—and adding in the uncertainty of weather—the numbers say “yes,” and history proves this: In 2012, two major storms, one on June 29th and then Hurricane Sandy in October, darkened 3.8 million homes and businesses from Indiana to North Carolina, along with more than 8 million others along the Eastern seaboard.
And weather is not the only culprit. Speaking to Fox Business in 2013, Massoud Amin, professor of computer and electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, pointed out that U.S. power control stations see as many as 100,000 probes by hackers each day. What this means is that outside sources are mapping out the U.S. system, searching for any and all flaws to exploit and possibly darken more states than any natural disaster could manage to do. However, many cyber experts believe that such an attack would require resources beyond what most hackers could muster and that only major powers such as Russia or China could conceivably launch such an attack on the electrical grid. And, they ask, why would they?
Nevertheless, despite building a smarter, stronger grid, the United States and Canada are, and will be, prone to large blackouts each year.
‘Carter Is Not Giving Us What We Want’
“Everyone’s got a little thievery, a little wrong in them,” said Willis Barnes in an interview for Robert Curvin and Bruce Porter’s study of the blackout that was published in 1977. “There was a lot of fear mixed with excitement. A lot of people didn’t know what was going on, but when they saw all the looting, they got it on, too.”
It only took an hour before the reports flooded into police precincts: Stores on entire city blocks were being wiped clean. On Broadway in Brooklyn, on Flatbush and Utica, in midtown and in the Bronx, if it wasn’t nailed down, it was walking out with someone. What was not being looted was set aflame.
Under cover of darkness from the night and the blackout, bands of criminals set out to loot what they could. And what they wanted was only the best.
“When it’s dark, you take everything you can get,” Jackie House, aged 16, said. “Who wants to buy sneakers for $24? [President] Carter is not giving us what we want. He ain’t giving us nothing. So, we have to take it.”
“The street people were the first ones out,” NYPD Lieutenant Matthews said. “And as it progressed later and later, others got involved. If you weren’t criminally inclined, your first inclination that night was to go and see if your family was OK and then go out on the street.”
According to Curvin and Porter, within the first hour of the blackout, stores selling highend, easily fenced merchandise were the first ones targeted. Ace Pontiacs in the Bronx saw 50 new cars stolen; men and women lugged furniture, televisions and stereo equipment into trucks—often the same ones used to rip the steel grates from the storefronts.
After the high-end items were taken, the rest of society began to pick through the remainders. But these people went out seeking the day-to-day necessities. They targeted supermarkets, furniture and clothing stores. In 1977, America was in the grips of a deep recession, and many residents of New York— the “stable poor and working class”—were on tight budgets. These things would be used to furnish their homes and feed their families for another week.
For some, the idea of looting was more of a notion not to be left out of the action.
“It seemed almost a matter of principle that they take something that night,” Curvin and Porter remarked. One policeman from Bedford-Stuyvesant’s 77th Precinct found a shopping cart on the sidewalk with a five-foot-long slab of meat, still mostly frozen. He later recalled, “It was as if the guy who’d stolen it suddenly said to himself, ‘What the hell am I doing with this?’ and so, he left it there.”
All told, 1,616 stores suffered some sort of damage that night, and the fire department responded to 1,677 fires of the more than 3,700 reported.
The 1977 New York City blackout stands out as an anomaly when it comes to the levels of violence, looting and destruction if compared to the 1965 and 2003 Northeast blackouts.
What drove New Yorkers into such a frenzy in 1977 but found them reveling in civility and general neighborliness in 1965 or 2003? The numbers, alone, show the disparity: Five arrests for looting in 1965, 250 blackout-related arrests in 2003, as compared to 3,776 people arrested, 1,616 stores looted or destroyed, and 1,037 arson-related fires in 1977. So many people were arrested then that the city had to open the Tombs, a prison the federal government declared so decrepit in 1974 that it was abruptly shut down.
The first possible reason for the differences could be attributed to timing. The 1965 and 2003 blackouts both struck in the late afternoon (5:30 in 1965 and just after 4:00 in 2003), leaving many business owners still at their stores and able to keep an eye on them. The 1977 blackout struck in the late evening (9:30). By then, the stores had been empty for hours. Also, when the blackouts occurred earlier in the day, NYC government officials were able to quickly muster the resources needed to maintain peace in the city, and most New Yorkers were still at work or trying to get home.
A deeper cause lies with the state of the economy at the time of the blackouts. For the most part, the economies of the late 1960s and early 2000s were fairly stable across all economic and social classes. This was not the case during the late 1970s. America was mired in a deep, lasting recession. Some may remember President Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” buttons—as though that would stop the economic crisis. And that was part of the problem: Americans felt helpless and hopeless and believed that the country was falling apart.
This was especially true in blighted urban centers such as New York. High unemployment, skyrocketing inflation and racial unrest swirled into a tempest of violence and looting.
“They were just waiting for something like this so they could go berserk,” Lydia Rivers told Newsweek in 1977. Another man said, “It’s a chance for us to let our frustrations out.”
That malaise and animosity could comprise the final cause. In 1965, and again in 2003, New Yorkers felt, according to Slate magazine, a sense of ownership in their city and in their neighborhoods.
“Large numbers of immigrants, who have a stake in their businesses and communities, have changed the face of the city’s neighborhoods. A virtuous cycle has taken hold [in 2003], in which civic pride has led all manner of New Yorkers to care about their city.”
That civic pride was missing during the 1970s. We can only hope that that pride does not disappear across America by the time of the next great blackout.
For the owners of the 1,616 stores, it was all a matter of timing. Bad timing.
When the 1965 Northeast blackout struck, most store owners were just closing their shops, so they stuck around to keep an eye on things. However, the 1977 blackout struck at 9:30 p.m. and caught nearly every store empty and locked down for the night and the owners gone to their Rockland County or Long Island homes.
As long as what the looters wanted was locked away behind steel gates and barred windows, who owned the store did not matter. In a few instances, they knew exactly from whom they were stealing.
This was the case of the Fort Greene Cooperative Market. It was set up in 1968 by a number of black members of the community as a means to help the neighborhood find a market that offered lower prices and quality goods. Emile Curry, the store’s chairman, believed that his store played a positive role in the community and wanted to portray that trust by not installing metal gates across its plate glass storefront. It was a fatal mistake.
“The store was broken into within minutes” of the lights going out, he said.
“I thought we had deep roots in the community.” Adding insult to an already horrid outcome, the Finast market down the street went unmolested, because the steel gates protecting the store were too tough for the looters to pry apart.
Across town, on Columbus Avenue near 94th Street, Furniture and Things, a store opened by two enterprising black men, Stanley Armstrong and Frank Prescott (who received the second Small Business Administration loan ever given to a minority in NYC), looked at their demolished store. Looters had smashed through the front windows in a frenzy of rage and lust. What they could not carry out they destroyed: A chandelier was shattered, and couches and chairs were torn apart by knives. All the while, the residents in the floors above did what they could to deter the looters. They poured water on them and tried to scare them away with flashlights.
In the end it was not enough, and Armstrong and Prescott were ruined.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Armstrong said. “I’m not a gun man. I don’t own one, and I wouldn’t know how to use one if I did have one. But I can’t even get the private security agencies on the phone, and I know the cops won’t be able to guard the store.”
Even if Armstrong had had a gun, it probably would not have made a difference. In Harlem, Simon Furniture Company’s owner, Eugene Riback, stood behind four armed security men with guard dogs pulling tight on their leashes amidst the looted remains of his store. Despite the menace confronting them, two thieves dashed in and began to haul away a washing machine. When one of the guards pointed his gun at the thief’s head from just three feet away, the looter stared down the barrel and growled, “You either kill me, or I go out the door with the washer.” The guard put the gun away, and Riback watched the washer go out the door.
Ice Was More Valuable Than Gold
As dawn broke, it was more than just the store owners who had to make the best in a tumultuous world.
Time magazine reported seeing a young woman wandering the streets in East Harlem.
She was desperately seeking out any store that had not been looted. “I’m trying to buy some bread,” she said. “I can’t find none.”
Across town in Brooklyn, 70-year-old Rose Stevens wept as she wandered outside the burnt remains of her apartment above a meat market the looters had set on fire. “I wish I died,” she lamented. “I have no place to go.”
The blackout quickly brought to the forefront New Yorkers’ dependency on a stable, reliable electrical grid. By the morning of the 14th, many people were just getting home after finding themselves stuck on the subway or in elevators. When the power went out, so did their air conditioners, freezers and televisions. A lucky minority was able to rely on battery-powered radios to keep current about the news, but many found themselves in a foreign world—a world without the drone of air conditioning or chatter on the television.
Worse still, people on the upper floors of high-rise apartments were without water, because the pumps depended on electricity. Most of those residents decided to sleep in the lobbies of their buildings instead of climbing the daunting flights of stairs in the dark. Some neighborhoods erupted into spontaneous block parties as people began to realize their food would spoil in the freezers. For them, ice was more valuable than gold.
In some ways, the spirit of the 1965 Northeast blackout prevailed, but New York became a changed city after the 1977 blackout. Many neighborhoods became a blighted sore as store owners abandoned the area, thereby leaving people without jobs or services.
One thing many New Yorkers learned was that they needed to be better prepared for the future. With an ever-increasing demand on an aging electrical grid, it is not a matter of if, but when, the next massive blackout strikes a major metropolitan area.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.