13 Jul

Mother Bucka's Ice Cream Parlor on W8th St., 1977

With record-breaking heat in New York over the last few weeks and caution from Con Ed to avoid city-wide blackouts, I thought it would be appropriate to look back to the blackout of 1977 on its July 14th anniversary.

It has been DISGUSTING in the city. Walking out of my apartment doors at 8:30am, I am instantly smothered in the kind of air that surely would circulate a crowded mens’ locker room after team practice in the Mojave Desert. Last summer, during heat like this, a blackout spread over my neighborhood with a cataclysmic boom for twelve hours. In the early evening, everyone peacefully congregated outside while the local grocer hocked its fast-thawing stock of frozen foods. By night the whole neighborhood seemed asleep, blanketlessly wrestling the heat in their beds. Coming home the next day, we threw away meats and milk from our fridges. It was eventless. Nothing like ’77.

On this day, thirty-three years ago, the lights went out around 8pm. The city was reeling over the Son of Sam murders and in steep financial crisis. Looting hit 31 neighborhoods. The hardest hit among them were Crown Heights and Bushwick, where 75 stores on a five-block stretch were looted and with 25 fires still burning the next morning. LaGuardia and Kennedy airports were closed down for about eight hours, automobile tunnels were closed because of lack of ventilation, and 4,000 people had to be evacuated from the subway system. Con Ed called the shutdown an “act of God”, enraging Mayor Beame, who charged that the utility company was guilty of “gross negligence.”

In all, 1,616 stores were damaged in looting and rioting. 1,037 fires were responded to, including 14 multiple-alarm fires. In the largest mass arrest in city history, 3,776 people were arrested. Many had to be stuffed into overcrowded cells, precinct basements and other makeshift holding pens. A Congressional study estimated that the cost of damages amounted to a little over $300 million. Shea Stadium went dark at approximately 9:30pm in the bottom of the sixth inning, as the Mets were characteristically losing to the Chicago Cubs 2-1.

In the city today, with a radically changed demographic from that of 1977, where gentrification has changed the once brown face of neighborhoods across all five boroughs, it’s difficult to imagine a New York filled with riotous passion for anything, for good or for bad.


Check out the NYTimes slideshow from the 1977 blackout, here.

The subway platform at 50th Street under Rockefeller Center was deserted at 5 p.m. on July 14.

The Long Island Expressway, left, was barren. The tunnels into Manhattan were closed because their ventilation fans were inoperable.

July 14, 1977, in the Bedford-Styuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.


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