BLACKOUT ’77: Part 1



All Five Boroughs

Neighborhood: All Over

On July 13, 1977, the power went out in New York City. What happened next depended on who and where you were.

“This is the greatest,” said a twenty-year-old in Rego Park. ” People aren’t afraid to come out of their houses. There are so many people on the street, nobody’s getting mugged.”

“I want to go home,” a Brooklyn woman cried as she and her fiancé drove down Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

A gang of young men had just charged down the block “like a herd of elephants, yelling, ‘Blackout, blackout.’ “

Until then the couple had no intention of letting one dark street spoil a romantic evening.

It took them an hour to return to her apartment, twenty blocks away.

The stadium light and sound crew started a gas generator.

The Mets chairman addressed the crowd: “This is the safest and coolest place to be.”

The chairman didn’t identify himself. Fans would have booed, as they had been booing mercilessly since June, when he traded the beloved Tom Seaver to Cincinnati. This was not the time to provoke them. He had already closed the concession stands.

Half a dozen players took the field and, by the headlights of two vans, pretended to play. They pitched, hit, ran the bases, even slid. Afterward they signed autographs along the railings.

The organist played “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas.”

Thousands of fans sang along.

A Manhattan psychiatrist, eager to see how people would respond, left his Lexington Avenue office and walked over to Park Avenue.

It was quiet and gloomy.

Cars crawled without honking. People walked without a sense of direction. Apartment houses stood above the dark streets like tombstones.

It seemed, he said, like “the end of the man-made world.”

“What’s up?” a reporter asked a young man and woman walking along Queens Boulevard.

Their smiles glowed in the dark.

“Remember what everybody did the night of the big blackout,” the young man said. “We’re going home.”

An NYU undergraduate was already home, alone in his East Fourth Street apartment, all ears: first gunfire out front of the Hells Angels headquarters; then breaking glass; and then (just as he was about to go to sleep, or to try) a scream, a woman’s scream, wholly unlike the other screams, screams of surprise and glee, that had been coming from the street.

This was “awful,” he said, “a long, bloodcurdling scream.”

Up and down the “alphabet” avenues just to the east, community activists built bonfires, collected money for beer and batteries, and posted sentries outside stores whose owners treated their customers well.

Drinkers drank, smokers smoked, dancers danced to salsa, rock, and mambo.

One group of revelers, hoping to ward off troubles worse than a blackout, sacrificed a cat.

There was some looting in the East Village, but not much. Had there been none, one activist said, the blackout would have been just plain fun, like a festival or feast.

Faintly at first, the psychiatrist heard the sound of bagpipes. The piper was a professional who’d started a mile north. He had a following. The psychiatrist joined them, cheering each new song.

“There was a riot in the street,” said a television producer in her thirties, who, along with her husband, an advertising executive, lived on Amsterdam Avenue.

They saw the guys with golf clubs.

They saw people pour out of the projects.

He called 911.

They saw men with sofas, bureaus, and dressers.

The line was busy.

Women with lamps, mirrors, and chairs.

He tried the local precinct.

Children with pillows and small tables.

Busy, too.

He called a precinct across town.

“Sorry,” the desk sergeant said. There was nothing he could do.

“We were trapped,” the woman said. “They could have burned our building down, they could have stormed the building, killed people . . . That’s what was really scary—the total absence of law and order.”

On Stillwell Avenue in Bensonhurst, a three-year-old followed her parents onto the front porch of her grandmother’s house. The fun began when her grandmother remembered she had a freezer full of chocolate whammy sticks. She began distributing them to neighbors and total strangers as they passed by. There were still plenty for the little girl. All she could eat.

“This,” she said, “is the happiest day of my life.”

On University Avenue, a twenty-year-old watched and waited.

“I always think before I move,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in some store when boom! the lights go on.”

He had been thinking for himself for years: He never knew his father; his mother drank herself to death when he was a boy. By the time he was sixteen, he had been thrown out of both high school and the Job Corps. Since then he’d held just one job; it lasted three weeks. Barely paid minimum wage. He needed more than that to live. He made it hustling. Tuesday 3:25:19 PM 12/16/2003

At eleven o’clock, after helping a gang open an A&P, he made a train of four shopping carts, loaded them up with groceries, and rolled them to a friend’s apartment. He went back out for a stereo and a television, but the crowd on the sidewalk was rough. He got bumped, dropped the TV, and decided to quit while he was still ahead.

The bagpiper marched another thirty blocks, down to Forty-fifth Street, where he entered the north doors of the Pan Am Building and proceeded to the balcony above the main floor of Grand Central Terminal. He paused, then let go with a stirring grand finale, which echoed off the walls.

The crowd below, hundreds of people, roared.

The psychiatrist walked home humming “God Bless America.”

On the steps of one of the row houses that graced the gaslit streets north of Fulton on Bed-Stuy’s east side, a sixty-seven-year-old woman sat with her Putnam Avenue neighbors. They didn’t need candles, and they cursed the darkness only because it did not bring relief from the heat.

“A hundred tomorrow, they say.” “Con Edison again.” “You remember the last time?” “They’re breaking it up on the avenue.” “This is like ’65 and ’68 all in one.” “Would you look at that?” “How could anyone have so little shame?”

The woman’s neighbors took turns searching for children who were out.

They argued with children who were not but wanted to be.

Her own children came by to check on her.

They had urged her to move.

But she had lived in the three-story brick building since the 1930s, raised four children there, owned it now, had countless friends in the neighborhood, was active in the church and president of a busy block association.

Both church and block association would be busier after the blackout. There was looting in every direction, though all she and many of her neighbors saw of it was an occasional peddler selling stolen wares.

“Our instruments were our livelihoods,” said one member of the Linden Woodwind Quintet. “As we walked home, up Broadway, we held on to them as if they were our lives.” The sidewalks were jammed. Kids on mopeds played chicken with cars, pedestrians, and one another. There was no music but an unsettling amount of noise.

The quintet walked up the median with their heads down, hoping if they didn’t see anyone, no one would see them.

As they crossed 110th Street, with three miles behind them and three to go, their bus came over the crest of the hill.

They took it to the corner of 171st and Fort Washington Avenue, where it was quiet and dark as a field in the middle of nowhere, without moon or stars.

The Harlem teenager who had thought the blackout was a bomb was shaken awake by her mother, who smelled smoke. The teenager grabbed her baby from his crib and went to the window. Fire trucks pulled up, and firemen put out a small fire next door.

Wide awake now, she recognized the voices of boys she knew. She and her sister joined them.

They played cat and mouse with the police.

“It was a little bit scary,” she said, “and a little bit fun.”

At midnight the jazz trio in Windows on the World played their last song. The staff had been taking patrons down since eleven, when Trade Center technicians got power to a service elevator with a generator. The elevator was small, the line waiting for it long; the trio’s guitarist and bass took the stairs.

The band’s leader waited with the restaurant staff. He would have liked to keep playing. The musicians on the Titanic, he noted, had played until the ship went down. But the Titanic’s musicians were not bound by union regulations.

The Brownsville looter had thought of staying home after he was jumped, but he wanted more. His third foray went smoothly. The fourth was spoiled by the arrival of the police. He left Pitkin for Utica Avenue. But there, instead of simply stealing, people were “tearing up” and “burning.”

He returned to an apartment crammed with people. It looked like a party, but no one was having fun. Friends and relatives were missing. Everyone was sniffing for smoke.

“I know you’re not going back outside,” his mother said.

“No,” he said, “I’m not.”

People without radios in neighborhoods without looting knew nothing about it.

Early on, people with radios didn’t necessarily know more. Reporters rushed out, but not into the neighborhoods with widespread looting. Some would not have known how to get there.

After hearing a WINS news anchor report that New Yorkers were displaying the same aplomb they had in 1965, a Brooklyn fire chief called the radio station. “Bushwick is burning,” he said.

“Where’s that?” the reporter asked.

Aware that the blackout might be a political opportunity disguised as a disaster, the mayor’s closest political advisers followed him to City Hall and joined city commissioners in deliberations large (should he ask the governor to send the National Guard?) and small (should he appear before cameras in work clothes or dress clothes?).

At twelve-thirty a.m., the mayor held his third press conference in three hours. He was animated, even upbeat. The floodlight was blinding and hot. He reveled in it.

“This has to be your greatest campaign stunt yet,” a reporter said.

“You couldn’t buy this attention,” the deputy mayor admitted.

A few minutes later, the fire department removed the generator that powered the light. It was needed at the city morgue.

Sometime after one a.m., the missing divorcée “pranced” around the corner. Her friend, who had been standing in front of the bar for three hours, said nothing, afraid that if she said what she was thinking she would lose her ride back to New Jersey.

Newsday began printing the Daily News, but the drivers’ union, which was fighting with management over labor representation, balked at the idea of delivering papers Tuesday 3:25:20 PM 12/16/2003printed at Newsday’s plant.

A Harlem man walked down Eighth Avenue on his way from his mother’s to his girlfriend’s.

Tuesday 3:20:59 PM 12/16/2003 He saw fireworks, smelled smoke; heard gunfire, people laughing, people crying, people cursing looters, people egging them on.

He just walked. He hadn’t given up “wheeling and dealing” so he could go to jail for stealing. Since going straight, he was on a roll: First he found a job dealing blackjack at the House Tuesday 10:56:20 AM 12/16/2003of Games; then, on the eve of 7/7/77, he put five dollars on 654 and won eight grand. He’d already rented rooms for a casino of his own.

His mother was safe. His girlfriend was safe. But he was too excited to sit down, let alone sleep.

He walked over to the rooms he’d rented, thinking back to ’68.

Come morning, he’d furnish the rooms, cheap.

“I must look pretty good to you about now, huh, Sanchez,” said a punch-drunk pulmonologist at Bellevue at about two a.m. He’d been bagging the young man for nearly four hours. Relief came when colleagues dug several old respirators out of deep storage and carried them up sixteen flights.

An “ingenious” respiratory therapist figured out how to power them the old-fashioned way, with compressed air.

By early morning, thousands of police officers were making hundreds of arrests an hour. They drove suspects to dark or dimly lit stations, but they couldn’t stick around to take fingerprints and mug shots, file formal complaints, and transfer prisoners to court for their arraignments. The cops they’d left on the streets still needed assistance.

Cells filled up, then lobbies and hallways, even offices, every inch of floor.

And by the time officers returned a second or third time, it was not easy for them to remember whom they had arrested, when they had arrested them, and what they had arrested them for.

New York Times reporters finished their stories and, together with their editors, dictated copy and headlines to colleagues in Hackensack. Record printers set the type and (following instructions from New York) pasted up pages A and B: seven articles and a note to readers in which editors explained the paper’s unusual form.

At one a.m. word had spread among passengers on the 9:20 to Manhasset that a diesel was on the way. Power diverted from Long Island arrived first. Shortly after two, the lights came back on. Passengers cheered. The lights went off. Passengers jeered. But the train began to move, slowly, toward Manhasset.

“I’m caught in a M*A*S*H nightmare and can’t wake up,” said a brawny nurse standing in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital’s parking lot at three a.m. Sirens and burglar alarms sounded on Eastern Parkway and Franklin Avenue. His arms and blue smock were covered with blood.

One nurse hoisted a teenager onto a litter, located a one-and-a-half-inch gash in his head, and began to shave it.

Another swabbed the blood and searched for glass. A doctor disinfected and anesthetized, then sewed five stitches.

One nurse snipped; another swabbed and applied a bandage. The boy stepped down. Another took his place.

The emergency room had filled up moments after the lights went out. Nurses and orderlies moved patients to pallets in the hospital courtyard. Then the courtyard filled up, and nurses and orderlies moved patients to the cafeteria. When the hospital’s backup generator failed, firemen mounted high-intensity spots on two trucks and a station wagon, thereby transforming the parking lot into a field hospital. The station wagon doubled as a supply closet.

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my career,” said the president of the hospital’s medical staff. “But never anything like this.” Earlier in the evening, he had delivered a baby. “The nurse held my penlight and I went to work. It was an ordinary delivery.” He no longer remembered if it had been a boy or a girl.

At four a.m Tuesday 3:25:21 PM 12/16/2003., an NBC Wednesday 10:49:47 AM 12/17/2003 News assistant arrived at his Rockefeller Center office. Six hours earlier, his train from Philadelphia had stopped short in Newark. Six hours to travel the final fifteen miles, including two through the Lincoln Tunnel. Not bad, he thought, considering that he had walked.

“We cried,” said the co-owner of Alec Zander, a Bronx furniture store. “We laughed. We wanted to kill. We just don’t know what to do. We’re finished.”

He stood with his partner in their Grand Concourse store. It was half past four. There was a parking meter on the floor but not much more. Looters had cleaned out the basement as well as the showroom, forty bedroom sets.

His partner had driven in from Rockland County at midnight, with his shotgun. The co-owner was already there, with his. At one point his partner darted into the street and started grabbing people. “If my partner hadn’t prevented me,” he said, “I would have shot some.”

The Times people piled back into the truck and drove the finished pages to Carlstadt.

By four, the presses were running.

By five, nearly half a million copies of the late city edition were on their way to newsstands and home delivery dealers. Never before had the Times printed an entire paper on an offset press.

Shortly after five, the mayor climbed onto a table at police headquarters and met with reporters, many of whom had attended his twelve-thirty and one-thirty news conferences and then had accompanied him on a short tour of the East Side, which included stops at a hospital, a fire house, and a few intersections.

There weren’t any surprises: The mayor blamed Con Edison for the blackout, reminded people that 911 was only for emergencies, and urged them not to drive into Manhattan. He then returned to Gracie Mansion for a nap, a shower, and a shave.

Negotiations between the News and its drivers’ union went nowhere. Management threatened to seek damages in court. Deliver the paper yourselves, the union said. Managers did. Forty thousand copies, mostly in Queens.

On University Avenue in the Bronx, an unemployed auto mechanic, thirty-two years old, sat in his car, on the lookout for trouble.

Earlier, he had been part of the trouble.

He didn’t start it, but as soon as a crowd got into the act, he joined in. People began “copping stuff out of a grocery store that was still open.” Then a supermarket on Featherbed Lane, “filling shopping carts and baby carriages.” “After that there was no way to keep us out of an open store.” Those reluctant to loot bought merchandise from looters, or gathered goods that looters had dropped or discarded.

The mechanic’s take included Pampers, baby food, meat, rice, cereal, three televisions, and a case of soap. He planned to sell two of the televisions and the soap. When he was done, he joined neighbors in front of the supermarket on the ground floor of the building where he lived with his girlfriend and their two children and, sometimes, two children from a previous marriage.

He pulled his car up on the sidewalk. “If that building goes, I have no place for my family to live.”



Excerpted from BLACKOUT by James Goodman, to be published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. Copyright (c) 2003 by James Goodman. All rights reserved.

Mr. Goodman has compiled this narrative of New York’s 1977 blackout from interviews, city records, first-person chronicles, and other accounts. For a complete annotated source list, please see BLACKOUT.

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