Feel The City Breakin’ And Everybody’s Shaking

Remembering The 1977 Blackout And How It Relates To Another Tough Summer In New York City

Forty-three years ago today, on a hot July 14 in 1977, New York City faced one of its darkest days – literally and figuratively. Shortly after 9:30 p.m. the night before, lightning struck two substations in Westchester County and within an hour, the entire city (minus the Rockaways) and northern suburbs were plunged into darkness.

The Mets were in the middle of a game at Shea Stadium. My 11th grade teacher was there with friends. At first everyone thought it was a stadium problem, but she noticed something was awry when the 7 train over Roosevelt Avenue didn’t move for several minutes. My mother stayed with a friend in Co-Op City in the Bronx. Mayoral candidate and future governor Mario Cuomo was giving a speech when the lights went out.

The blackout only lasted about 12-18 hours, but the scars it left can still be seen in the city to this day. The “Blackout of 1977” entered city folklore and citywide power outages became sort of an endemic symbol of NYC. (In 1994, NBC’s Thursday night lineup shows – Mad About You, Friends, Seinfield – all featured a story arc dealing with a New York City blackout).

In the midst of a financial crisis, white flight, crime concerns circling around the infamous Son of Sam, a sweltering heat wave and civil unrest, the city was at a breaking point in 1977. When the lights went out, the city raged. Looters struck shuttered storefronts in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick in Brooklyn. The latter neighborhood was especially hit hard.

In fact, the tough year of 1977 is referenced in the Bee Gee’s song “Stayin’ Alive,” released at the end of the year as the theme from the movie: Saturday Night Fever, which took place in New York City that year.

Feel the city breakin’/And everybody shakin’/stayin’ alive/stayin’ alive

If this all sounds awfully familiar, its because 1977 was a time similar to now – when New York City was enduring one seemingly unending crisis after another. It was, as my mom, described “the year the city almost broke”

That same year, the city was engulfed in the throes of a mayoral election. Embattled incumbent Abe Beame was fighting for his political life against a wide array of candidates; Besides Beame and Cuomo, then the state Secretary of State, other Democrats included Congressman Ed Koch of Manhattan, former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and Congressman Herman Badillo of The Bronx.

The early polls had Beame and Abzug favored to go to a runoff that Beame would likely win. Republicans ran State Senator Roy Goodman, a moderate from Manhattan, excited as the prospect of facing either the unpopular Beame or polarizing Abzug, who was sort of the AOC of her day. (Conservative firebrand, talk show host and Abzug adversary Barry Farber nearly threw a wrench in Goodman’s campaign by running a losing competitive GOP primary race). The blackout, riots and their aftermath changed the nexus of city politics. Cuomo was already running to the right, on law and order issues and Koch refocused his campaign on those issues as well, but with a slight progressive tinge. He went so far as to blame the POLICE themselves for not adequately doing their jobs. Journalist, writer and fellow Native New York Ross Barkan has a whole piece discussing Koch’s 1977 campaign here and his focus on fighting the police union.

In the end Koch and Cuomo advanced to the primary, but all the major candidates finished within a few points of each other. (About 5 points separated Koch, in first, and Sutton in fifth). Koch later defeated Cuomo and began a 12-year stint as mayor at the end of the year.

The city did recover from 1977. If you drive or walk up Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick today between Gates and Myrtle avenues, you will notice the difference in the architecture on the north side of the street versus the south side. The south side is where the brunt of the fires took place on July 14, 1977, leaving a huge scar in the neighborhood that went for as many as 12 blocks south to the intersection of Evergreen Avenue and Palmetto Street and west to Central Avenue and Himrod Street. Today, garden apartments, green space, the 83rd Precinct, a firehouse, a school and some new developments cover the scars of 1977.

It’s still too early to know what scars New York will face during this crisis – if any – but Bushwick tells a cautionary tale of how long and how tough coming back from a crisis can be. Bushwick still looked like Beirut for years afterwards, well into the 1980s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that investment came back into the community, in the form of new residential buildings and parks were developed on the site of the burned-out rubble.

We don’t have burned-out neighborhoods and with luck, we never will, but the city is reeling from a crisis that seems to be never ending. Hopefully that is where the similarities to 1977 end.

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