The City

The Night the Lights Went Out on Broadway

Forty years ago, a blackout plunged New York into what seemed like a failing city’s final moment of chaos. Here’s how it really looked.

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Michelle Neugebauer remembers exactly where she was when the lights went out. “I had just graduated from high school,” remembers the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation director, at the time a seventeen-year-old living in Bushwick. “I was at home with my boyfriend, alone, so probably doing lots of things I should not have been doing. The lights went out, and at that point I said, ‘Oh, shit. I know everyone in my family is going to get home as quickly as possible.’ ”

It wasn’t until later, she said, that she heard about the looting that had begun on nearby Broadway. “Then we were like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t sound like too much fun anymore.’ ”

The blackout that hit New York City on July 13, 1977, has achieved legendary status as a cautionary tale. Jonathan Mahler, in his decline-porn epic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, devoted his chapter on the blackout to NYPD officers scrambling to rein in looters in a district the police viewed as “a cross between a foreign legion outpost and a leper colony.” In Summer of Sam, it was the occasion for Spike Lee himself to play a WABC-TV reporter in Harlem declaring that people are “going crazy,” to swelling music and the sound of breaking glass. Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel City on Fire made the blackout its centerpiece, with a pair of children abandoned on the Manhattan streets at a time “when everything seemed on the edge of becoming something else.”

The central lesson of the 1977 blackout, it seems, has been fear: of violence, of anarchy, of an untamed city that would consume itself without a firm hand of law and order at the tiller. In 1975, after City Hall had resorted to accounting tricks to pay for social services amid the shortfall in tax receipts that followed white flight to the suburbs, New York had found itself with no one willing to buy its bonds, leaving the city on the brink of bankruptcy. An appeal to the federal government had met with outright refusal from President Gerald Ford, who disparaged the city’s debt woes as an “insidious disease,” prompting the Daily News’s famous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline. (Ford had been advised in this matter by his chief of staff, none other than future George W. Bush defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who warned that bailing out New York would be “a disaster.”) On the radio at the time, you could hear Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” in which the Long Islander dreamed of a future, four decades hence, when the whole of New York City would be condemned and abandoned.

So when Bushwick residents ended up on the front page of the New York Times hauling furniture and mattresses down the street in the shadow of the elevated J train tracks, it became an enduring image of the apocalypse that New York only narrowly avoided. But while it was undoubtedly a formative moment for both Bushwick and the city as a whole — in ways both good and bad — the reality of the night the lights went out, according to those who were there, was far more complicated than the legend would have it.

 

1. Darkness
Between 8:37 and 8:56 p.m. on July 13, 1977, a pair of lightning strikes in Westchester County knocked out the main transmission lines from the Indian Point nuclear plant, leaving New York City’s power grid dangerously overloaded. It struggled along until 9:27, when Con Ed’s Ravenswood 3 power plant in Long Island City crashed under the strain. New York City plunged into darkness.

New Yorkers’ initial reaction, by all accounts, was to go on doing what they had been when the power went out, as best as was possible. At Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center, servers lit candles, went on serving food and drinks, and waited for backup generators to kick in; partyers filled up the dry fountain in Washington Square Park, much as always; performers in the jukebox musical Beatlemania, then on Broadway at the Winter Garden, switched seamlessly from electric to acoustic guitars. Across the river in Brooklyn, the response was initially the same: It was an adventure that neighbors would share together.

John Dereszewski, Community Board 4 district manager, 1977–79: It was very strange. It was a very hot and humid night; the air conditioner was on. The lights went, and then they went back on again. But then about five minutes later, the lights went off again. And then we started hearing people talking in the street outside, and looked out the window, and all the lights were out. And it was, “This is really going to be something.”

Sal Tejeda, healthcare administrator, lived in Bushwick until early 1990s: I was fifteen years old and living on Stanhope Street across from the emergency room entrance to Wyckoff Heights Hospital. I was watching CPO Sharkey on NBC’s channel 4 starring Don Rickles, so it must’ve been on a weeknight after 8 p.m.

Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, grew up on Grattan Street and Morgan Avenue: My boyfriend and I, we went outside and people were hanging out. Everybody had a transistor radio; there were people hanging out on the stoops. In the very beginning it felt like fun and kind of exciting. People were really talking to each other and hanging out.

Dereszewski: I didn’t have a car or anything, and I would have been pretty well stranded, since I lived in Greenpoint. But the city planning commission liaison had a car, so he was able to drive me home. I think we actually stopped at a bar to have a few drinks before we got back — which was kind of nice, candlelight, drinking the beer before it got warm.

Lilly Gordils, former Bushwick resident: I remember everyone hanging out in front of their building listening to music and partying. Never felt scared.

Fredrick Martinez, maintenance engineer, lived in Bushwick from 1965 to 1990: I was on the roof of my building on Knickerbocker and Hancock, smoking with the fellas, when we noticed the lights going out like a wave. By the time we made it to the street, everything was dark. People were scrambling back and forth looking for batteries, candles, flashlights.

Tejeda: I had experienced more than a few blackouts while on summer vacation in the Dominican Republic at this time, so I knew what was going on when the TV and everything else shut off. That might explain the lack of panic.

 

2. Law and Order
“Within minutes of the blackout, there were reports of widespread looting and major fires at various locations,” reported the Daily News the next day.

Of all those who remember the day of the blackout, few have taken responsibility for starting the store break-ins — in addition to Bushwick, Flatbush, Harlem, and the Grand Concourse were especially hard-hit. Nothing like this had happened in the city’s previous blackout, in November 1965, when only five arrests for looting were reported. (A blackout baby boom was also reported nine months later, though this turned out to be apocryphal.) From most accounts, the 1977 crime wave was begun by a relative handful of teens and young adults in poorer neighborhoods, even as many of their neighbors rushed into the street to help direct traffic — just as they would in the city’s next major blackout, in 2003 — or helped stand guard outside stores whose alarms were now useless.

Soon, though, more and more people joined in, once they saw it was a free-for-all. All told, 1,000 fires were reported across the city the night of the blackout, and 3,700 people arrested, mostly for looting. Rap pioneer Grandmaster Caz would later claim that the night’s raid on electronics stores helped spark the spread of hip-hop: “The next day there were a thousand new DJs.”

Dereszewski: An extremely hot and humid night — it was about the worst kind of weather that you’d ever want to have something like a blackout occurring. That was a contributing factor, I think, to a lot of the activities.

Neugebauer: My family members did start to come home. My one sister was at NYU, and she took a bus home that went through Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy — it was the B-38 bus, the DeKalb Avenue bus — and then she walked on Wilson Avenue home. And she got home and she said, “It’s really bad.” She was shell-shocked.

Mike Nieves, former school board official, lived in Bushwick until 2012: I was in high school at the time — I went to Brooklyn Tech. I lived three blocks off of Broadway. Broadway was hit hard with the vandalism.

Lourdes Cruz, Bushwick resident: I was only ten at the time, but I do remember that day as if it was yesterday. My dad was telling my mom to lock the door and not to let no one in. I had two sisters and one brother — my dad was scared for us. He thought he still had to go to work. As he went out the door he noticed his friends and people from the neighborhood were looting. I was looking out the window. People were coming with shopping carts of stuff: shoes from the shoe store, food from the supermarket downstairs.

Martinez: That night there wasn’t a lot of looting because most of the stores were still open and the owners kept guard, but the next morning all hell broke loose. A lot of store owners on Broadway took advantage and set their own stores on fire after realizing they had been looted.

Neugebauer: My other sister’s boyfriend had a car, and he said that he would take my boyfriend, who lived on the other side of Myrtle, and give him a drive home. I remember Knickerbocker Avenue was fine — we talked afterwards that it was because a lot of stores are still controlled by the Mafia and no one is going to touch Knickerbocker Avenue. But when we got to the other side of Myrtle we started to see hordes of people going towards Broadway.

Dereszewski: Later that afternoon, there was a member of the community board who I did run into, and we both walked down to Broadway. And at that time, it must have been the second or third wave of looting. People messed the place up, and some places they started fires. People had all kinds of stuff in their hands. It was kind of a weird experience just to see it.

 

3. Planned Shrinkage
Four months before Ford’s drop-dead notice in 1975, the fiscal crisis had already led the city to lay off 5,000 police officers, along with 14,000 other city workers. Much of the brunt of the layoffs was borne by the neighborhoods that city Housing Preservation and Development commissioner Roger Starr had urged be targeted for “planned shrinkage,” a policy of denying resources to areas considered “virtually dead” and redirecting them to more well-off districts. Even before the 1975 fiscal crisis, Mayor John Lindsay had moved to close firehouses and lay off fire marshals in many poor neighborhoods, under the guise of a RAND Corporation study that claimed to show the city could save money without harming response times.

Moreover, because the city allowed police officers to live outside of city limits — something nearly 40 percent of officers still do — when Mayor Abe Beame ordered police to report to their nearest precinct, the remaining police disproportionately ended up in precincts along the Bronx and Queens borders. According to one report, Bushwick had only fourteen officers on duty the night of the blackout.

Dereszewski: There’s a police precinct, the 83rd precinct, that is literally half a block away from Broadway, right at the core of it, very close to where Gates and Broadway intersect, and yet there really wasn’t a cop to be seen. There was that whole issue that the word went out to just go to where you live.

I don’t know what police coverage might have done — it might have just inflamed the situation. But the fact of the matter was it was total chaos. People could do whatever they wanted to do, and many of them did.

Neugebauer: I don’t remember [police] at all. And if there was a police presence, you know, my own interaction with police when I grew up in Bushwick was a negative one. Our younger sister was in a very serious car accident. My older sisters and their Puerto Rican boyfriends went to the precinct looking to see if there was any word, and they were like so racist and nasty to them. It wasn’t like the fire department — it seemed like they were always hanging outside, they were nice to the kids in the neighborhood. But the precinct was not involved at all — of what I remember.

Ruth Kinard, former Bushwick resident: I lived on Decatur and Knickerbocker. We had a good block association, so the first thing that happened was the men on the block blocked the street off with their cars and stood on the corners to protect the stores. I know quite a few of them were armed. No incidents happened on our block, although Broadway was a disaster.

Dereszewski: The blocks that got themselves organized, those were the blocks that survived, as opposed to being burned down.

Guillermo Nuñez Jr., Bushwick resident: I was ten years old, and I remember my father was the only smart one that put his car on the sidewalk and put on his headlights. Then everyone went into formation, and that’s how they protected our block.

Cruz: It looked crazy, as if there was a big party happening — everyone yelling, running, but no police. My mom had candles everywhere. My dad never came back until morning, with a brand-new TV set.

 

4. Aftermath
By the time the power returned the next day and the looting died down, much of the Broadway shopping strip was in ruins. And the next week brought a coda that was in many ways even worse: On July 18, a fire started in an abandoned knitting mill slated for redevelopment on the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleecker Street. As with the fires that had ravaged much of the neighborhood in preceding years — some arson, some accidental, all aided by bank redlining and a subprime mortgage scandal that had left numerous Bushwick buildings abandoned and with no way for new buyers to finance repair work — it spread quickly via the common “cockloft” attics that provided ventilation in the neighborhood’s old tenements. The “All Hands Fire” ultimately consumed thirty buildings and left 250 families homeless.

The month after the blackout and fire, the Daily News launched a five-part series titled “Our Dying Neighborhoods.” The resulting uproar not only created a lasting image of 1970s New York — the city that had to be brought back from the brink — but helped elect Ed Koch mayor that fall; within a few years, his city housing authority had built 1,076 low-income and 243 senior-citizen housing units in Bushwick. It was the city’s last major public housing construction effort to date.

Neugebauer: I remember going to church that weekend and the pastor reaming everybody out: “If you participated in any of that looting, you need to make reparations. You need to give your stuff back. This is not who we are, this is not what the community is about, this is a horrible thing that happened. Talk to your neighbors.” And [he] really was admonishing everybody.

Dereszewski: New York City was still going through the fiscal crisis, and it seemed like the city was incapable of doing anything. There was just a feeling that the city was [heading] toward collapse, and this was almost the icing on the cake.

Martinez: It made things worse for everyone after the blackout, because now the good hardworking people who depended on many of the stores and businesses on Broadway had to go elsewhere.

Neugebauer: For me that felt like the beginning of the end with Bushwick. We had had housing abandonment and arson before, but things just seemed to accelerate.

Dereszewski: I can clearly verify that the very worst of the most destructive fires in Bushwick — many of which were arson-related — occurred before the blackout and All Hands Fire. When the lights went out in 1977, all of the damage that affected the most impacted portion of Bushwick’s central core — Himrod, Greene, Harman Street — had already occurred.

Neugebauer: I got followed home at one point — a guy grabbed my ass right outside the house. You just really felt dislocated, discombobulated, scared to be out at night, when we never, ever felt that way before. Because it was just these completely unguarded spaces where people would hang out and jump out. So it just felt like the whole fabric of the neighborhood had been ripped apart at that point.

Before that — even with the scattered arson and housing abandonment that had happened — it still felt very much like a real community, where people hung outside and socialized. It was mostly Puerto Rican at that point; there were a lot of Italians still there, and working-class white people and the old-time black community. It just felt like a neighborhood where people watched out for each other and where institutions like the churches were strong. It’s something that influenced me very profoundly to do the work that I do.

Dereszewski: The blackout plus the All Hands Fire less than a week later highlighted the critical situation of neighborhoods like Bushwick and put the idea that we gotta do something about neighborhoods like this on the agenda.

The day after the fire, I got a call from the executive editor of the Daily News, who was pretty much shaken and wanted to go and see for himself what was out there. We took a ride, and he ended up assigning people like Martin Gottlieb and Sam Roberts, who were both working for the News, to do articles.

It became an issue in the mayor’s race. The day or so after the fire, Beame, I think for the first time in three and a half years, visited Bushwick. And he was not well received.

Nieves: After all the burning of residential housing in Bushwick, you could see empty land for blocks. Koch came back in and built Hope Gardens and built all that public housing, and it helped revitalize the neighborhood. And Saint Barbara’s church played a big role in how the housing was built and where it was placed: It’s constructed to be only twelve families to a building, and not these Robert Moses buildings that have hundreds of families.

Dereszewski: This wasn’t the first blackout that we had — there was one in 1965. That occurred in the fall, on a cool evening, with a full moon, and the reaction there was very, very calm. And the blackout that occurred about fourteen years ago, it occurred in the summer, but it was late afternoon, and it was not a bad day, and the city responded very quickly.

By 2003, people saw New York City in a more positive turn: Crime had gone down, the city’s economy was expanding, there was areas of hope. Obviously it wasn’t spread around equally; there were certainly areas where there was still a considerable amount of despair. But around 2003, there was a feeling that the city basically had come back and was doing well. And that of course couldn’t be any more different from how things were in ’77.

Neugebauer: We moved out of the neighborhood two years after the blackout, after Saint Leonard’s church — that was the church we went to — closed down, and it would seem like every single house around ours burned down. My family moved to Ridgewood. We thought we were moving to this middle-class rich neighborhood! We gave our parents such a hard time for leaving Bushwick. They were like, “This is about you and about your safety! What, are you nuts?” But we were part of a real community. It was a shame.

Dereszewski: Having lived through it, I didn’t really see it as horrible times. But the blackout really did highlight how bad the situation had gotten in the city, economically, politically, psychologically. When you’re on the verge of bankruptcy where services are being curtailed, people are even talking about giving up on whole stretches of neighborhood because it’s not worth it — it kind of showed that.

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