Revisiting the Blackout of 1977

Note: This is an updated, edited version of an earlier blog post. I thought it was a timely subject.

This past Saturday, as it did 42 years ago to the day, the lights went out in Manhattan. I appreciated watching my Twitter feed showing the good Samaritans who were directing traffic while I was 200 miles away in my air-conditioned home. When it happened in 1977, it struck all five boroughs, and I was in Brooklyn for the summer after my freshman year at college.

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photo credit:  New York Daily News, July 13, 1977

In 1977 the power went out in the middle of a Met game at Shea Stadium. Do you know who was at bat when the lights went out?*[see below for the answer]  I didn’t until I did a bit of research to refresh my memory about the events.

I wasn’t at Shea that night. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie when everything went dark.

I have vivid memories of that evening. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.

It had been a hot, humid day and the commute home was steamy. Air conditioning in subway cars was iffy at best. I couldn’t decide which I needed more: food or a shower. I decided on food first. Then I went to rinse off.

It was unnerving to be plunged into darkness while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.

I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found a flashlight. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I spent much of the next hour on the phone talking to a friend, Ron, as I was doing regularly that summer. Though I knew him since elementary school, our relationship was changing as the summer progressed. I was nervous and excited about our burgeoning romance.

Fortunately, things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio.

Eventually my aunt and uncle got back and the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to find relief from the heat in the scant breeze. After a while we gave up, went inside and tried to get some sleep.

When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with Ron. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth that was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it.

A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends, Alison and Dianne. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the usual traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back to Canarsie unscathed– my only mishap was in bumping a garbage can while making a U-turn. We were exhausted from laughing so hard.

Despite my driving deficiencies, Ron and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that define hazy, hot and humid.

Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. This was in stark contrast to the blackout of 1965 when New Yorkers were helpful and law-abiding. This time some people took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. Over 3500 people were arrested. Electronics equipment stores were targeted by looters. There has been speculation that the 1977 blackout gave a boost hip hop. Having gotten ahold of turntables, speakers and other equipment, lots of DJs emerged from the lawlessness.

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The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air that left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.

It was a time of transition for me. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, paradoxically, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, a work still in progress, but I was headed in a healthier direction.

 

*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize J

5 thoughts on “Revisiting the Blackout of 1977

  1. What a memory you have for details. Aunt Barbara and I must have been visiting our friends Robyn and Charlie. I don’t think you needed a babysitter at age 17 but it was reassuring having us in the same house. You were probably working for the perfume company in NY at the time. Better than being caught on the subway as I was in 65.
    Uncle Terry

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    1. Right, even though I didn’t need a babysitter, under the circumstances it was very considerate of you guys to come back. I may have had the job at Perfumer’s Workshop at that point. I started the summer temping and then my Dad had a connection that got me the job which I kept through every summer and college break. Thankfully I wasn’t on the subway! I remember your story with Uncle Mike.

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  2. First of all, let me just say I never liked that Ron. There are many reasons that I won’t go into and it probably is beyond the ability of any of you to comprehend. But I never trusted that guy.
    However, remembering the blackout, I must say, I recalled that in the history of the city, there have been blackouts and some of them were widespread and prolonged. I guess this was one of them. The response to the black out-the looting and vandalism-were symptomatic of the breakdown in law and order that can accompany such situations in general and the specifics of the poor status of the city in those days. It was surely a frightening time but I suspect that the current 24 hour news cycle would likely have made it even scarier.

    thank you for the outstanding blog post. And keep a candle handy.

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    1. You make me laugh, Gary. It is interesting that with this latest blackout there weren’t reports of looting or violence. I think there still is that potential, but it is interesting that it didn’t happen with subsequent blackouts. I’m wondering if 1977 was the aberration and resulted from the terrible times the city was going through.

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