Your Guide To The 1977 Blackout And New York City's Original Summer Of Hell

40 years this week, the city that never sleeps plunged into a night of terror that saw 11 people die, more than 1,600 stores damaged from looting, more than a thousand fires and 500 police officer injured. 

By Benjamin H. Smith

Old New York. It’s a mythical time and place where graffiti-covered subway cars ferried hard living, foul-mouthed malcontents through a city where only the strong survived. It has inspired a slew of television shows, from Netflix’s ill-fated hip hop drama The Get Down to the upcoming HBO series The Deuce, all fueled by the notion that it was realer, cooler and better than the well-mannered metropolis of today with its lame low-crime rates and unfathomably high rents (though, hey, at least the subways still suck).

Few incidents loom larger in the ‘Old New York’ mythos than the infamous city-wide electrical blackout of 1977, which occurred exactly 40 years ago, as of last night. As the city that never sleeps plunged into the blackest of night, looters liberated appliance stores of their goods, fires broke out and chaos reigned in the greatest civil unrest New York had seen since the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863, which in an eerie coincidence began on the same date, 154 years ago. By the time power was restored, thousands of people had been arrested and damages were calculated to be the hundreds of millions. Long in decline, for many the event marked The Big Apple’s nadir, and the seeds of its eventual rebirth were planted in the ashes of its burnt out storefronts.  

Lightning Strikes Thrice

On the night of Wednesday, July 13, a fierce electrical storm cut across Westchester County, just north of The Bronx. At 8:37 p.m. an electrical substation in the town of Buchanan was struck twice struck by lightning, causing a reduction in power down the line. Less than 15 minutes later, lightning struck another substation in Yonkers, NY, which resulted in further outages. Power supplier Consolidated Edison was unsuccessful in restoring power, and by 9:36 p.m. the entire system serving New York City and Westchester County shut down. Power would not be fully restored to the city until 10:39 p.m. the following day.  

It Was The Third Blackout In New York City History

The Northeast blackout of November 9, 1965 was the result of a faulty electrical relay near Niagara Falls and left 30 million people without power for almost 13 hours. The blackout stretched from Rhode Island to Ontario, Canada. 10,000 National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty police officers were deployed to prevent looting, though the evening passed without incident.

The Great Northeast blackout of 2003 was the largest power failure in North American history, leaving 50 million without electricity for up to two days. The blackout affected almost the entire Northeastern United States, as well as the states of Ohio, Michigan and parts of Canada. While 11 people died during the blackout, the greatest danger in New York City at the time was fires as a result of people using candles to illuminate their homes. 

What’s The ’77 Blackout Most Remembered For? Looting

Within minutes of the lights going out, looting broke out across the five boroughs, especially in those neighborhoods hit hardest by the city’s protracted financial crisis. More than 1,616 stores were damaged, over a thousand fires raged and the looting continued through the night and into the following day. Five-hundred police officers were injured trying to subdue the uprising, leading to the largest mass arrest in the city’s history. Ultimately, 4,500 people were arrested and it is estimated over $300 million in damages occurred.

There Was A Serial Killer On The Loose

While residents and business owners worried about being robbed, the biggest fear for most New Yorkers during the summer of 1977 was the .44 Calliber Killer. Serial killer David Berkowitz murdered six people and wounded seven others in a series of brutal attacks in the city’s outer boroughs. From Christmas 1975 on, he targeted young women and couples, shooting them with his .44 caliber Bulldog revolver.  Berkowitz taunted authorities in a series of letters sent to police and New York Daily News reporter Jimmy Breslin, signing them “Son of Sam.” Less than 3 weeks before the blackout, on June 26, Berkowitz shot and wounded a couple after they left a disco in Bayside, Queens. His final shooting was just weeks later, on July 31, 1977, when he killed 20-year-old Stacy Moskowitz and shot her boyfriend Robert Violante. When police finally tracked the killer to his home in Yonkers, Berkowitz calmly told them, "I'm Sam."

The ’77 Blackout Helped Fuel The Rise Of Hip Hop

In the summer of 1977, hip hop music was not the global phenomenon it is today but a localized and unrecorded music scene, primarily based in The South Bronx. As looting broke out in the area, packs of aspiring young men raided stereo stores, outfitting themselves with the requisite musical equipment to make their hip hop dreams a reality. “There was a wealth of equipment available to all the local DJs” following the blackout, according to old school hip hop legend Grandmaster Caz in the 2016 documentary Hip-Hop Evolution, his onetime partner DJ Disco Wiz calling the blackout, “Absolute Christmas.” Emerging from the wreckage of the riots came a new generation of hip hop groups who would spread the genre’s message to the other New York City boroughs, and eventually the world.

Out With The Old, In With The New

In the blackout’s aftermath, Mayor Abe Beame blamed the outage on power supplier Con Edison’s "gross negligence.” However, many held the Brooklyn Democratic machine politician accountable for what in his words was a “night of terror.” Enter law and order liberal Ed Koch. One of six challengers from within Beame’s own party, which also included future New York state Governor Mario Cuomo, Koch promised to make public safety a priority and clean up what was described by a tourist at the time as “Fear City” (the pamphlet was actually printed up by various law enforcement unions in protest of Beame’s planned layoffs of 10,000 uniformed). Two months after the blackout, the incumbent mayor came in third in the Democratic primary, with Koch ultimately winning the nomination and the general election. He would go on to serve three terms as mayor and helped rehabilitate the city’s image as the epitome of urban decay. 

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