THE NEW YORK CITY BLACKOUT, 1977

On July 13, 1977,  fifteen million New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs, parts of Long Island and Westchester County were left to endure hot summer weather without power for 25 consecutive hours. Around 8:37 PM, lightning storms in Westchester County knocked out two circuit breakers that might have drawn power from other utilities, then hit a large power transformer that resulted in an explosion. This explosion forced a nearby large plant to shut down with additional lines hit in the process. Consolidated Edison, or simply Con Ed, ordered voltage reductions to keep the power system running. Unfortunately when safety devices meant to protect against overloads stopped working at a plant in Queens, the entire network was shut down at 9:34 PM. 

New Yorkers were unprepared for the events that would ensue for the next 24 hours in sweltering temperatures with no air conditioners, low toilet pressure, and food that would spoil overnight. A line of 18 workers had to relay patients’ meals up to the eighteenth floor at Bellevue Hospital. At Shea Stadium, the New York Mets played against the Chicago Cubs with third baseman Lenny Randall at bat. As the lights at the stadium went out, 25,000 fans in attendance broke out into a chorus of “Jingle Bells.” In Grand Central Station, travelers held candles and flashlights for one another at public telephone booths. A spontaneous block party broke out in front of an Upper East Side restaurant where Andy Warhol and Woody Allen were in attendance. Riders were stranded 150 feet on the ferris wheel in Coney Island. 

Mayor of New York City Abraham Beame stated he was outraged at Con Edison’s incompetence and lack of reasoning behind the huge power outage of the New York City area. Mayor Beame prompted an investigation and declared a state of emergency: “Con Edison at best has shown gross negligence, and at worst something far more serious.” This caused United States President Jimmy Carter to order an investigation by the Federal Power Commission, which resulted in the Commission’s conclusion that ConEd never undertook any proper precautions since the 1968 blackout in New York City. ConEd attributed the natural occurrences of the three lightning strikes as the cause of the power outages, as they bizarrely called it “an act of God.” At the time, ConEd officials had no explanation as to why the devices designed to specifically protect ConEd from lightning failed. 

During the 1970s, New York City faced economic stagnation, which was intensified as large sections of its middle-class left the city for suburbs. By 1975, New York City’s officials and wealthy class saved itself by budget and policy decisions that would consequently harm poor New Yorkers at the time and years later. Conditions for neighborhoods with poor Black and Latino New Yorkers were still devastated from the economic strangulation of redlining, decrease of manufacturing jobs, unable to get high-paid jobs due to being unskilled, and were left to rely on public assistance. The Welfare Rights Movement was on the rise since the 1960s, but Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers were still faced with urban poverty.

Brooklyn’s Broadway pictured in 1977. Photo credit: FDNY Photo Archive/Courtesy of Adam Schwartz “Up from Flames”

 As decades of racist economic deprivation tore through neighborhoods such as Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Bronx and Harlem, poor Black and Latino New Yorkers were left to fend for themselves, which resulted in looting of stores throughout New York City.

Harlem’s 125th Street saw stores looted between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue:

There is not a television set left in Harlem,” said Patrolman John Ryan.

The windows of stores in the Bronx were shattered with merchandise taken. Youth in the Bronx went into supermarkets and left with carts filled with goods. The streets of Times Square were filled with youth who stole radios, smashed windows of stores, and opened fire hydrants. NYPD arrested up to 3,500 people, with over 100 police officers injured. The officers profiled lots of New Yorkers and arrested them. The people who were arrested were gathered onto buses for their arraignment at Manhattan’s Criminal Court Building. Many bystanders were caught up in the crosshairs. The city’s jails populations went from 7,000 to 15,000 in a matter of hours. The eight-by-ten “standing only rooms” meant to hold up to 10 people, were packed with up to 40 people. Majority of these people ended up transferred to Riker’s Island.

Mayor Beame used language that dehumanized the poor people who rebelled as “savages,” and dubbed the 25-hour long power outage as “the night of terror.”

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