For those of us that lived through the peaceful blackout of 2003 in New York City, an outage that affected eight states as well as Ontario, Canada, there was always the memory of the violent 1977 blackout. Though lasting only two days, the earlier blackout was situated in a much different social time. New York City was virtually bankrupt, now gentrified neighborhoods like the East Village could be dangerous places to be after hours. Fear-mongering was prevalent in this tough time of high unemployment–the Fear-City anti-tourist pamphlet came out in 1975, an extreme reaction to layoffs in police, firefighting, sanitation, and other municipal services. To top it off, the Son of Sam, New York City’s most notorious serial killer was still on the loose.
In “Blackout,” the latest AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on PBS, explores what happened on the hot and humid day of July 13, 1977 and the days to follow. Lightning took out an electrical line in Westchester County, leading to a domino effect of downed lines from an overload of demand. Con Edison engineers were forced to disconnect customers to prevent a total failure of the system. But a story like this is better told through New Yorkers themselves, including first responders, journalists, shop owners, and those who worked in the Con Edison control center on West End Avenue. This exclusive clip on Untapped Cities shows, among other accounts, how disconnected even the police force was–their cars lacked AM/FM radios to begin with and for some, the portable radios went down.
The relevance today should not be lost on viewers–as this blackout, more than in 2003, showed the division between the haves and have-nots in New York City. If this happened today (though less likely due to the floating power barges added after 2003), would some neighborhoods take it in stride as in 1977, when free champagne flowed at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center, and impromptu block parties emerged? Would other neighborhoods be the victim of looting and unrest? As PBS reports, “By the time the power was fully restored more than a day later, more than 1,600 businesses had been looted, over 3,700 people had been arrested, and firefighters had battled more than 1,000 fires.”
Perhaps it would not be so extreme as in the 1970s, but the history sits under the surface here in New York City. “The 1977 blackout reminds us of how easily we take things for granted,” says Mark Samels, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer. “We expect the lights to turn on, the garbage to be picked up, and the trains to run — all these systems keep our daily lives going. But when a city is plagued by crime, unemployment, reduced services, and growing anger, an event like a blackout can be the spark that ignites a fire. The thin crust of civilization is suddenly gone and we discover that urban life is much more fragile than we thought.”
Check out “Blackout” on PBS Tuesday July 14th at 9pm. Next, read about how the New York City combats power outages today.