Relive the 1977 NYC ‘Blackout’ with PBS Documentary Tonight
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Photo: Daily News
Some Boogie readers remember the New York City blackout of 1977, which resulted in the looting of over 1,600 stores and the setting of over 1,000 fires across the five boroughs. The city, which was dealing with unemployment, a limited police force, high crime, near-bankruptcy, a serial killer on the loose, a garbage strike and a heat wave, hit a saturation point.
This reporter was a teen at the time, and remembers many things about that summer. Young women, terrified of Son of Sam, were instructed to wear their hair hidden inside of hats, since the killer was targeting women with long, dark hair. (Yeah, we did that.) Burglar alarms and window bars were installed at our home in Queens, for the first time ever.
A new documentary on the blackout, American Experience: Blackout, airs tonight on PBS. The film covers the good, the bad and the ugly, highlighting the severe class divide in the city – something which resonates all too well with people today.
As the blackout struck that night, the Windows on the World restaurant served their guests free champagne by candleight. Residents on the Upper East Side held rooftop dinner parties. The more affluent neighborhoods had positive experiences, while the rougher neighborhoods dealt with looting, fires and gunshots. (Miraculously, nobody was killed.)
We decided to ask some friends about their memories of the blackout. The replies varied greatly. Many described the party atmosphere at first, where ice cream stores were giving away freebies, and strangers were talking to each other in the streets. Some told stories about making their way home, being led by the lights of other cars, slowly crossing chaotic intersections with non-working traffic lights. Many said that as the blackout went on and people heard news updates on their transistor radios, things started to feel progressively tense and eerie, even in the neighborhoods that were not affected by looting.
In honor of the PBS documentary, we decided to share some of those friends’ stories:
- Joe told us about working as a teen in a Baskin Robbins ice cream store in Queens on the night of the blackout. Soon after the lights went out, one of the neighborhood teenagers, who was known to cause fairly harmless (but constant) trouble in the area, ran inside with a flashlight. He made a bee line for his favorite flavor, Moa Moa Punch, and grabbed as much as he could, before fleeing. That was the extent of the damage in the area.
- Abraham was working in a department store in Brooklyn on Flatbush Avenue, in the area which is now the Fulton Mall. In order to protect their businesses from looters, delivery trucks were pulled up on the sidewalk, blocking the storefronts. Many employees chose to stay in those stores all night, standing guard.
- Katy recalled being at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, where they were dancing to mambo records. When the record player suddenly stopped, they didn’t yet realize what had happened. Once everything in the apartment went dark, they looked out the window and saw that it was affecting the entire city. The group of friends thought about breaking the glass of the Charles Jourdan store (the equivalent of Manolo Blahnik at the time), but “chickened out.”
- Michael described being stuck in an elevator of his building as a teen. Realizing that his bicycle had a pedal driven generator, he used it to provide light until he was rescued by fire fighters.
- And then there’s George, who told us that, as soon as the blackout started, he walked downstairs from his Upper West Side apartment, was fortunate to hail a cab pretty quickly, and headed straight to the West Village. He first stopped in to the Ninth Circle Steakhouse, a popular gay bar at the time, which was mostly lit by a few flashlights. Describing an extremely festive atmosphere in the area, he met up with a friend and they continued to wander west. As they came upon Christopher and Weehawken Streets (practically in the Hudson River, and a big cruising spot at the time), they realized that the classic “back rooms” of the bars in that area had moved outdoors. Yes, it was a full blown, block-long orgy on Weehawken Street. There were wall to wall people, in flagrante. After moving on, George remembers staying out all night while hitting various bars. And when the sun came up, a bicyclist gave him a ride all the way uptown.
A few different friends were at the Mets/Cubs game at Shea Stadium. As David described it:
We were sitting behind first base and watched the lights go out in Queens coming closer and closer and closer and…whoosh. Shea Stadium went dark. The gold emergency lights went on. Eventually the players drove their cars on the field and turned on their headlights. Everyone walked out onto the field and out through the center field gate.
For another take on the ’77 blackout – and that whole year in New York City – we recommend reading Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler.
Also check out NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell, a 2007 documentary featuring interviews with, among others, Hilly Kristal, Frankie Knuckles, Afrika Bambaataa, Geraldo Rivera, Annie Sprinkle and Ed Koch. Clip is below.
Blackout airs tonight at 9pm on PBS. Check your local listings here.