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Blackout 1977: Conned Again

God Gets a Bum Rap

Despite Con Ed’s claims in the wake of the blackout that only an “act of God” breached the elaborate sys­tem of defenses it had mounted fol­lowing the great failure of 1965, in fact, a crucial link in its supply system broke down in September of last year. And, astoundingly, Con Ed had no intention of repairing it until May of 1978, 10 months from now.

Officials at both the Public Service Commission and at Public Service Electric & Gas Co. — the big New Jersey utility that exchanges Elec­tricity with Con Ed — have admitted that, had this line been in operation, large amounts of electricity could have flowed into New York during the height of the crisis.

In his press conference last week, Charles Luce, chairman of Con Ed, made no mention of this line, nor indeed have other company officials. Maps issued by the company appear to depict the bro­ken-down line as if it were in operating condition.

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The line in question is a 345-kilovolt (kv) stretch of cable running from the Hudson terminal of the Public Service Electric & Gas Co. across the bottom of Manhattan to the Farragut station of Con Ed in Brooklyn. At this point electricity generated in New Jersey could have been switched in massive quantities back to central Manhattan, across Brooklyn, up through Queens, and indeed could have surged powerfully through the entire Con Ed system.

The transmission cable was taken out of service on September 4, 1976, because of a failure in a phase-angle regulator, which modulates the flow of elec­tricity. Con Ed, apparently, had no standby equip­ment and did not repair the regulator because it saw no pressing need for the line. A spokesman for the New York Public Service Commission, the state regulatory agency that oversees Con Ed’s operations, pointed out that Con Ed was selling less electricity than anticipated and hence, did not push forward with the repairs.

The broken-down 345-kv line seems to have been a lynchpin of Con Ed’s system. Modern electric supply networks depend on a system for exchanging power with other utilities in a series of regional grids. In the case of Con Ed, power is, of course, to a major extent, generated by the company itself. But it is also extremely dependent on interchanges with other power grids that can feed it electricity in times of need. Thus, Con Ed can look to the Northeast, where the New England power pool can help out. And it can turn to the north, for assistance from the New York power pool.

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But, perhaps most important, it can turn south to the so-called PJM interchange for a potentially huge surplus of electricity. This is a pool made up of the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. In the past it has been difficult for private utility systems, such as Con Ed, to hook into the mass power blocs — the huge TVA system, the western public cooperatives, etc. — that are available in other parts of the United States. Big public systems have a hard time meshing into the private utility networks because the latter have not had transmission lines big enough to carry the electricity. It is rather like a turnpike suddenly meeting a bridle path, with a corresponding paralysis at the meeting point.

One of the results of the 1965 blackout was a consensus by state and federal government and the private utilities to see what could be done to boost capacity and better coordinate interchanges among the regional power pools and their member utilities. It should be pointed out that subsequent reforms were largely voluntary efforts undertaken by the companies. While the Federal Power Commission, which under the law regulates interstate whole­sale shipment of power, could set standards for interconnections and power pools, it has preferred to work on a voluntary basis with the private companies. It encouraged them to form advisory committees, which have laid out general plans for improvement and which the FPC endorses as a virtual national policy.

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All in the Family

Over the past 10 years these reforms and guidelines have been bundled together and put out as a National Power Survey. But the informal, ad hoc nature of the proceedings, left largely in the hands of private industry, has made it impossible to tell how effective the post-1965 operation has been.

Last week’s blackout starkly exposed the apparent nonchalance of the Federal Power Commission, the state Public Ser­vice Commission, and Con Ed itself in devising a truly crisis-proof system.

Consider the Con Ed system. In essence, the company operates a transmission loop. Power from New England and the New York power pool can surge down through Millwood in Westchester, where it is joined by power produced by Con Ed’s Indian Point plant. In addition, two lines — one 500-kv and the other 345-kv — can send electricity out of the PJM pool into a substation at Ramapo on the New York­–New Jersey border, and hence to the Con Ed main line at Buchanan. This, then, is the main highway for electricity, whether purchased from outside or produced by Con Ed, and it pours straight down into the main Con Ed service area that culminates in the huge New York market.

Obviously, this is only part of the system since a cutoff of supply would leave the city helpless. So there is a bottom to the loop, consisting of two transmission lines. One of these is a 230-kv cable that attaches the PJM system to New York via Linden­-Goethals (Staten Island) Brooklyn and then into the rest of the system. The second point at which the loop is closed is the previously mentioned 345-kv line between New Jersey and Brooklyn.

What happened last week was that the “act of God” — lightning — effectively closed the northern corridor. Since the 345-kv had been broken down and unre­paired since September 1976 — and since the company’s generating facilities could not be brought on stream fast enough — the pressure to supply the loop fell largely on the Linden-Goethals line. In effect, this cable became the lifeline to the PJM pool. For a time, the Long Island Lighting Company was also able to put electricity into the city through Jamaica. But the Lilco system was no match for the occasion, especially since it is interconnected to power in the Northeast through a relatively small cable under Long Island Sound.

Consequently, Lilco shut down supplies to New York at 9:25 p.m., and, four minutes later, the phase-angle regulator at Con Ed’s end of the Linden-Goethals link broke. Almost at once “Big Allis” at Ravenswood shut itself down to avoid burning out under the load.

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If Only…

According to officials at the Public Ser­vice Electric & Gas Co., there was a possibility that, had the 345-kv line been in service to help out the hard-pressed 230-kv cable, things might have gone differently. Mr. Wei Shing Ku, transmission-planning engineer with the New Jersey utility, told us, “If we had had the two ties in service and if they did not trip during the power surge, it is possible you could have alleviated the blackout.”

The question for the various investiga­tions now under way is why the Federal Power Commission did not insist on an adequate interchange system.

The same question can be more severely posed to the Public Service Commission, which appears to have behaved in a lethargic manner. And, finally, shopowners and the citizenry of New York City will no doubt be questioning this faulty interchange sys­tem in litigation against Con Ed. Indeed, Con Ed ratepayers might legitimately ask why this line, paid for with their money, has been allowed to be out of commission for so long. They may very well also ask whether their money, which went to con­struct the Astoria 6 and Indian Point 3 power plants (taken over by the Power Authority of the State of New York) might not have better been spent on a really strong interchange system to guard against catastrophe and other acts of God.

As for Con Ed: It is too easy, in the manner of much press comment, to dismiss the utility as a hapless victim of a cabal of incompetent engineers. The fact is that, since the 1965 blackout, this company has time and again vigorously opposed efforts within the federal government to establish a national network of regional power grids to cope with supply and de­mand in an efficient way.

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Set Against Reform 

In the mid-1960s, when interchange, or “reliability” legislation was before Congress, staff aides working on the bill recall that Con Ed opposed it on grounds that it would impede the company from doing what was needed. This same legislation, fortuitously, is emerging this week from the house commerce committee. Con Ed officials cheerfully told us on Monday that the bill “wouldn’t affect us,” because Con Ed was “solidly interconnected.” The spokesman went on to declare the company was opposed to the legislation because, as he put it, reliability was tied to rates, and in that case, the state regulatory commis­sions do the most “efficient” job. In a roundabout way he was echoing what all private utilities have said since the early part of this century. They do not want federal intervention in their areas where they have worked out comfortable relationships with state bodies.

What Is Needed Now

It is almost a waste of time to investigate the rusted, archaic structure of Con Ed with a view to ever putting it in reasonable running order. The basic problem is to reduce the consumption of electricity and at the same time, wherever possible, move toward the introduction of alternative en­ergy sources. These alternatives — and here we are thinking mainly of solar, small-­scale hydro, and wind — should be taken up through a decentralized scheme, imple­mented in the City of New York neighborhood by neighborhood. It is hard to believe, no matter how much goodwill the officials of Con Ed might have, that they can run a profit-oriented company based on reduced sales. And reduced sales is precisely what is needed.

We are not talking about reducing the supply of electricity to poor people or small businessmen or, indeed, to middle-class residential users. We are talking rather about cutting back consumption by the huge office buildings, which are the real gluttons of electricity in this city.

The best thing for New York would be for the city council to initiate a study on the feasibility of taking over Con Ed. As events in San Francisco have shown, it is not necessary to purchase all parts of the system outright. Those features of the Con Ed apparatus that are of use to the citizen­ry can be leased for some period of time.

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A new public organization needs to be set up to design and implement an energy system for the city. This would involve phased introduction of solar and wind energy. As the City of Hartford now illustrates, it is quite possible to create munici­pal organizations that put unemployed peo­ple to work in the construction, installation, and maintenance of all sorts of solar plants, and in the introduction of insulation.

Overall, New York should increasingly be looking toward an energy system that employs a strengthened electrical-inter­change grid to back up alternative means of energy production. There will always be people — even in the midst of a blackout — ­who declare such proposals to be rankly utopian. Even as they despise the future (which is, for anyone looking around the U.S., not so far distant) they should contemplate what the current policy portends: increased means of electrical production, both within the Con Ed area of operation and within the region as a whole. Such means will include nuclear power and reintroduction of coal-fired electricity gen­eration, with attendant pollution. It also will undoubtedly result in the development of offshore oil and gas, with concomitant processing industries onshore.

Filth at sea will be married to filth on land. Where maps from the National Insti­tutes of Health now show eruption of cancers of all sorts in the refining and chemical industrial areas of New Jersey, similar charts for the last quarter of the century will surely reflect the spread of this disease from New Jersey’s cancer alley all around New York and the North­east.

The blackout revealed the city to be at a crossroads in energy policy and at a politi­cally apt time.

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Let the Candidates Speak

Every mayoral candidate should be compelled to set forth a coherent energy program for the future of the city. Energy has far greater importance than many of the issues on which candidates have been quick to take positions. A reasonable cam­paign plank should begin with a program of public takeover of Con Ed and include a detailed plan for introducing alternate en­ergy. Such an energy policy should contain a general outline of what the candidate sees as the future industrial base of the city. The provision of such an energy policy would be a speedy way of assessing just how pro­gressive each candidate is in areas of vital concern to the city’s future.

 

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When the Lights Went Out in New York City

It was a Thursday afternoon and most of the Village Voice staff was going about its business at 36 Cooper Square. Then the lights — and everything else electrical, including the desk phones — went dead. Flip phones flipped open, but dialing out was a crapshoot — the lines were jammed, if you could get a signal at all. Editors sent writers out across the city to research stories for the following week’s edition, which would come out just a few days later, on Tuesday evening. There was still plenty of time for reporters such as Wayne Barrett, James Ridgeway, and Cynthia Cotts to dig into the history of infrastructure neglect that led to the August 14, 2003, blackout.

Barrett zeroed in on New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki: “There he was on Larry King Live, the governor of a state that couldn’t even watch him, promising to get to the bottom of the first 21st-century blackout, looking for any culprit but himself. After eight and a half years of the most disastrous energy policies in New York history, George Pataki spent the last few days frantically turning himself into a human floodlight, scanning an eight-state collapsed grid for a blameworthy glitch, when he needed only to shine the klieg on himself.” Barrett also noted that other parts of the Northeast region dodged the outage because they had avoided aligning their systems with New York’s: “Pataki policies have turned New York into a ‘regional pariah,’ with manic deregulation, skyrocketing prices, and both transmission and capacity disinvestment driving other, sounder systems away.” Additionally, Barrett ferreted out the campaign contributions from energy suppliers and the political favoritism that led to the catastrophe. Read Barrett’s full article.

New York Gov. George Pataki listens to a question at a press conference outside the New York State Emergency Office in Albany, N.Y., on Thursday, Aug. 14. 2003, where he said that 60 percent of New York State was still without power.

James Ridgeway’s mordantly headlined “Power to the People? Hardly.” had a local and federal perspective: “Once it became clear that we could not blame Canada for the largest blackout in North American history, the politicians started saying no one was to blame. The hapless Bloomberg jabbed a finger at those ordinary people who don’t turn off the light when leaving the room and don’t want power lines running through their backyards.”

And then he pointed out the ways in which Bush the Second’s administration had set the stage for the blackout: “Pointing fingers or even just being pissed off about it has been depicted as unsportsmanlike and, what’s worse, unworthy of true New Yorkers, whose stoicism ought to cover sleeping on the streets or walking five miles in the dark. Thank God, said the reporters, that at least as people trudged home across the Brooklyn Bridge, they didn’t have to look back at clouds of smoke from burning towers. If this attitude holds, it will amount to yet another chapter in the Bush administration’s amazing success story of hoodwinking the public, right up there with the disappearing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the tax cut for the rich jump-starting the economy. Because the real blame for this blackout lies not in technical glitches, but in political policies.”

And then Ridgeway delivered a conclusion that could have been written last year when Republicans rammed through yet another tax cut for the richest Americans: “Bush and his right-wing Republican coalition that runs the nation are determined to cut back to a bare minimum the federal government that holds us all together. In addition to finishing off the New Deal’s social welfare system and getting rid of the Department of Education, federal regulation has gotta go.”

Cynthia Cotts’s “It’s Deregulation, Stupid” highlighted a Daily News headline, “Experts know zip over zap,” and then went on to remind readers that New Yorkers were not the only ones without power that summer of 2003: “The Republicans’ embarrassed silence allowed Democrats to seize control of the narrative. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, an energy secretary under Clinton, landed on the front page of The New York Times on August 15 with the now famous quote, ‘We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid.’ He not only got the Iraqis laughing (they have been without electricity for months), but also provided a spark for ensuing news coverage.”

Cotts referenced a Times story that said one of the blackout’s causes was “an unregulated energy market in which private companies have no incentives to build transmitters, and industry monitors have no power to enforce reliability rules.”

Which sounds very much like the deregulatory dream of Trump and the current Republican Congress.

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The Night the Lights Went Out on Broadway

Michelle Neugebauer remembers exactly where she was when the lights went out. “I had just graduated from high school,” remembers the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation director, at the time a seventeen-year-old living in Bushwick. “I was at home with my boyfriend, alone, so probably doing lots of things I should not have been doing. The lights went out, and at that point I said, ‘Oh, shit. I know everyone in my family is going to get home as quickly as possible.’ ”

It wasn’t until later, she said, that she heard about the looting that had begun on nearby Broadway. “Then we were like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t sound like too much fun anymore.’ ”

The blackout that hit New York City on July 13, 1977, has achieved legendary status as a cautionary tale. Jonathan Mahler, in his decline-porn epic Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, devoted his chapter on the blackout to NYPD officers scrambling to rein in looters in a district the police viewed as “a cross between a foreign legion outpost and a leper colony.” In Summer of Sam, it was the occasion for Spike Lee himself to play a WABC-TV reporter in Harlem declaring that people are “going crazy,” to swelling music and the sound of breaking glass. Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel City on Fire made the blackout its centerpiece, with a pair of children abandoned on the Manhattan streets at a time “when everything seemed on the edge of becoming something else.”

The central lesson of the 1977 blackout, it seems, has been fear: of violence, of anarchy, of an untamed city that would consume itself without a firm hand of law and order at the tiller. In 1975, after City Hall had resorted to accounting tricks to pay for social services amid the shortfall in tax receipts that followed white flight to the suburbs, New York had found itself with no one willing to buy its bonds, leaving the city on the brink of bankruptcy. An appeal to the federal government had met with outright refusal from President Gerald Ford, who disparaged the city’s debt woes as an “insidious disease,” prompting the Daily News’s famous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline. (Ford had been advised in this matter by his chief of staff, none other than future George W. Bush defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who warned that bailing out New York would be “a disaster.”) On the radio at the time, you could hear Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” in which the Long Islander dreamed of a future, four decades hence, when the whole of New York City would be condemned and abandoned.

So when Bushwick residents ended up on the front page of the New York Times hauling furniture and mattresses down the street in the shadow of the elevated J train tracks, it became an enduring image of the apocalypse that New York only narrowly avoided. But while it was undoubtedly a formative moment for both Bushwick and the city as a whole — in ways both good and bad — the reality of the night the lights went out, according to those who were there, was far more complicated than the legend would have it.

Looters and residents of the Bushwick neighborhood run down Broadway during the blackout in New York, July 14, 1977. Generations of the Casuso family have endured urban blight and change as they continue to call the neighborhood their home.

 

1. Darkness
Between 8:37 and 8:56 p.m. on July 13, 1977, a pair of lightning strikes in Westchester County knocked out the main transmission lines from the Indian Point nuclear plant, leaving New York City’s power grid dangerously overloaded. It struggled along until 9:27, when Con Ed’s Ravenswood 3 power plant in Long Island City crashed under the strain. New York City plunged into darkness.

New Yorkers’ initial reaction, by all accounts, was to go on doing what they had been when the power went out, as best as was possible. At Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center, servers lit candles, went on serving food and drinks, and waited for backup generators to kick in; partyers filled up the dry fountain in Washington Square Park, much as always; performers in the jukebox musical Beatlemania, then on Broadway at the Winter Garden, switched seamlessly from electric to acoustic guitars. Across the river in Brooklyn, the response was initially the same: It was an adventure that neighbors would share together.

John Dereszewski, Community Board 4 district manager, 1977–79: It was very strange. It was a very hot and humid night; the air conditioner was on. The lights went, and then they went back on again. But then about five minutes later, the lights went off again. And then we started hearing people talking in the street outside, and looked out the window, and all the lights were out. And it was, “This is really going to be something.”

Sal Tejeda, healthcare administrator, lived in Bushwick until early 1990s: I was fifteen years old and living on Stanhope Street across from the emergency room entrance to Wyckoff Heights Hospital. I was watching CPO Sharkey on NBC’s channel 4 starring Don Rickles, so it must’ve been on a weeknight after 8 p.m.

Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, grew up on Grattan Street and Morgan Avenue: My boyfriend and I, we went outside and people were hanging out. Everybody had a transistor radio; there were people hanging out on the stoops. In the very beginning it felt like fun and kind of exciting. People were really talking to each other and hanging out.

Dereszewski: I didn’t have a car or anything, and I would have been pretty well stranded, since I lived in Greenpoint. But the city planning commission liaison had a car, so he was able to drive me home. I think we actually stopped at a bar to have a few drinks before we got back — which was kind of nice, candlelight, drinking the beer before it got warm.

Lilly Gordils, former Bushwick resident: I remember everyone hanging out in front of their building listening to music and partying. Never felt scared.

Fredrick Martinez, maintenance engineer, lived in Bushwick from 1965 to 1990: I was on the roof of my building on Knickerbocker and Hancock, smoking with the fellas, when we noticed the lights going out like a wave. By the time we made it to the street, everything was dark. People were scrambling back and forth looking for batteries, candles, flashlights.

Tejeda: I had experienced more than a few blackouts while on summer vacation in the Dominican Republic at this time, so I knew what was going on when the TV and everything else shut off. That might explain the lack of panic.

13th July 1977: A restaurant with only liquor left after the New York blackout.

 

2. Law and Order
“Within minutes of the blackout, there were reports of widespread looting and major fires at various locations,” reported the Daily News the next day.

Of all those who remember the day of the blackout, few have taken responsibility for starting the store break-ins — in addition to Bushwick, Flatbush, Harlem, and the Grand Concourse were especially hard-hit. Nothing like this had happened in the city’s previous blackout, in November 1965, when only five arrests for looting were reported. (A blackout baby boom was also reported nine months later, though this turned out to be apocryphal.) From most accounts, the 1977 crime wave was begun by a relative handful of teens and young adults in poorer neighborhoods, even as many of their neighbors rushed into the street to help direct traffic — just as they would in the city’s next major blackout, in 2003 — or helped stand guard outside stores whose alarms were now useless.

Soon, though, more and more people joined in, once they saw it was a free-for-all. All told, 1,000 fires were reported across the city the night of the blackout, and 3,700 people arrested, mostly for looting. Rap pioneer Grandmaster Caz would later claim that the night’s raid on electronics stores helped spark the spread of hip-hop: “The next day there were a thousand new DJs.”

Dereszewski: An extremely hot and humid night — it was about the worst kind of weather that you’d ever want to have something like a blackout occurring. That was a contributing factor, I think, to a lot of the activities.

Neugebauer: My family members did start to come home. My one sister was at NYU, and she took a bus home that went through Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn and Bed-Stuy — it was the B-38 bus, the DeKalb Avenue bus — and then she walked on Wilson Avenue home. And she got home and she said, “It’s really bad.” She was shell-shocked.

Mike Nieves, former school board official, lived in Bushwick until 2012: I was in high school at the time — I went to Brooklyn Tech. I lived three blocks off of Broadway. Broadway was hit hard with the vandalism.

Lourdes Cruz, Bushwick resident: I was only ten at the time, but I do remember that day as if it was yesterday. My dad was telling my mom to lock the door and not to let no one in. I had two sisters and one brother — my dad was scared for us. He thought he still had to go to work. As he went out the door he noticed his friends and people from the neighborhood were looting. I was looking out the window. People were coming with shopping carts of stuff: shoes from the shoe store, food from the supermarket downstairs.

Martinez: That night there wasn’t a lot of looting because most of the stores were still open and the owners kept guard, but the next morning all hell broke loose. A lot of store owners on Broadway took advantage and set their own stores on fire after realizing they had been looted.

Neugebauer: My other sister’s boyfriend had a car, and he said that he would take my boyfriend, who lived on the other side of Myrtle, and give him a drive home. I remember Knickerbocker Avenue was fine — we talked afterwards that it was because a lot of stores are still controlled by the Mafia and no one is going to touch Knickerbocker Avenue. But when we got to the other side of Myrtle we started to see hordes of people going towards Broadway.

Dereszewski: Later that afternoon, there was a member of the community board who I did run into, and we both walked down to Broadway. And at that time, it must have been the second or third wave of looting. People messed the place up, and some places they started fires. People had all kinds of stuff in their hands. It was kind of a weird experience just to see it.

Harlem street on July 13, 1977 during the Blackout of 1977.

 

3. Planned Shrinkage
Four months before Ford’s drop-dead notice in 1975, the fiscal crisis had already led the city to lay off 5,000 police officers, along with 14,000 other city workers. Much of the brunt of the layoffs was borne by the neighborhoods that city Housing Preservation and Development commissioner Roger Starr had urged be targeted for “planned shrinkage,” a policy of denying resources to areas considered “virtually dead” and redirecting them to more well-off districts. Even before the 1975 fiscal crisis, Mayor John Lindsay had moved to close firehouses and lay off fire marshals in many poor neighborhoods, under the guise of a RAND Corporation study that claimed to show the city could save money without harming response times.

Moreover, because the city allowed police officers to live outside of city limits — something nearly 40 percent of officers still do — when Mayor Abe Beame ordered police to report to their nearest precinct, the remaining police disproportionately ended up in precincts along the Bronx and Queens borders. According to one report, Bushwick had only fourteen officers on duty the night of the blackout.

Dereszewski: There’s a police precinct, the 83rd precinct, that is literally half a block away from Broadway, right at the core of it, very close to where Gates and Broadway intersect, and yet there really wasn’t a cop to be seen. There was that whole issue that the word went out to just go to where you live.

I don’t know what police coverage might have done — it might have just inflamed the situation. But the fact of the matter was it was total chaos. People could do whatever they wanted to do, and many of them did.

Neugebauer: I don’t remember [police] at all. And if there was a police presence, you know, my own interaction with police when I grew up in Bushwick was a negative one. Our younger sister was in a very serious car accident. My older sisters and their Puerto Rican boyfriends went to the precinct looking to see if there was any word, and they were like so racist and nasty to them. It wasn’t like the fire department — it seemed like they were always hanging outside, they were nice to the kids in the neighborhood. But the precinct was not involved at all — of what I remember.

Ruth Kinard, former Bushwick resident: I lived on Decatur and Knickerbocker. We had a good block association, so the first thing that happened was the men on the block blocked the street off with their cars and stood on the corners to protect the stores. I know quite a few of them were armed. No incidents happened on our block, although Broadway was a disaster.

Dereszewski: The blocks that got themselves organized, those were the blocks that survived, as opposed to being burned down.

Guillermo Nuñez Jr., Bushwick resident: I was ten years old, and I remember my father was the only smart one that put his car on the sidewalk and put on his headlights. Then everyone went into formation, and that’s how they protected our block.

Cruz: It looked crazy, as if there was a big party happening — everyone yelling, running, but no police. My mom had candles everywhere. My dad never came back until morning, with a brand-new TV set.

Aerial view of a building burning in the wake of the New York City blackout, Brooklyn, New York, New York, July 14, 1977.

 

4. Aftermath
By the time the power returned the next day and the looting died down, much of the Broadway shopping strip was in ruins. And the next week brought a coda that was in many ways even worse: On July 18, a fire started in an abandoned knitting mill slated for redevelopment on the corner of Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleecker Street. As with the fires that had ravaged much of the neighborhood in preceding years — some arson, some accidental, all aided by bank redlining and a subprime mortgage scandal that had left numerous Bushwick buildings abandoned and with no way for new buyers to finance repair work — it spread quickly via the common “cockloft” attics that provided ventilation in the neighborhood’s old tenements. The “All Hands Fire” ultimately consumed thirty buildings and left 250 families homeless.

The month after the blackout and fire, the Daily News launched a five-part series titled “Our Dying Neighborhoods.” The resulting uproar not only created a lasting image of 1970s New York — the city that had to be brought back from the brink — but helped elect Ed Koch mayor that fall; within a few years, his city housing authority had built 1,076 low-income and 243 senior-citizen housing units in Bushwick. It was the city’s last major public housing construction effort to date.

Neugebauer: I remember going to church that weekend and the pastor reaming everybody out: “If you participated in any of that looting, you need to make reparations. You need to give your stuff back. This is not who we are, this is not what the community is about, this is a horrible thing that happened. Talk to your neighbors.” And [he] really was admonishing everybody.

Dereszewski: New York City was still going through the fiscal crisis, and it seemed like the city was incapable of doing anything. There was just a feeling that the city was [heading] toward collapse, and this was almost the icing on the cake.

Martinez: It made things worse for everyone after the blackout, because now the good hardworking people who depended on many of the stores and businesses on Broadway had to go elsewhere.

Neugebauer: For me that felt like the beginning of the end with Bushwick. We had had housing abandonment and arson before, but things just seemed to accelerate.

Dereszewski: I can clearly verify that the very worst of the most destructive fires in Bushwick — many of which were arson-related — occurred before the blackout and All Hands Fire. When the lights went out in 1977, all of the damage that affected the most impacted portion of Bushwick’s central core — Himrod, Greene, Harman Street — had already occurred.

Neugebauer: I got followed home at one point — a guy grabbed my ass right outside the house. You just really felt dislocated, discombobulated, scared to be out at night, when we never, ever felt that way before. Because it was just these completely unguarded spaces where people would hang out and jump out. So it just felt like the whole fabric of the neighborhood had been ripped apart at that point.

Before that — even with the scattered arson and housing abandonment that had happened — it still felt very much like a real community, where people hung outside and socialized. It was mostly Puerto Rican at that point; there were a lot of Italians still there, and working-class white people and the old-time black community. It just felt like a neighborhood where people watched out for each other and where institutions like the churches were strong. It’s something that influenced me very profoundly to do the work that I do.

Dereszewski: The blackout plus the All Hands Fire less than a week later highlighted the critical situation of neighborhoods like Bushwick and put the idea that we gotta do something about neighborhoods like this on the agenda.

The day after the fire, I got a call from the executive editor of the Daily News, who was pretty much shaken and wanted to go and see for himself what was out there. We took a ride, and he ended up assigning people like Martin Gottlieb and Sam Roberts, who were both working for the News, to do articles.

It became an issue in the mayor’s race. The day or so after the fire, Beame, I think for the first time in three and a half years, visited Bushwick. And he was not well received.

Nieves: After all the burning of residential housing in Bushwick, you could see empty land for blocks. Koch came back in and built Hope Gardens and built all that public housing, and it helped revitalize the neighborhood. And Saint Barbara’s church played a big role in how the housing was built and where it was placed: It’s constructed to be only twelve families to a building, and not these Robert Moses buildings that have hundreds of families.

Dereszewski: This wasn’t the first blackout that we had — there was one in 1965. That occurred in the fall, on a cool evening, with a full moon, and the reaction there was very, very calm. And the blackout that occurred about fourteen years ago, it occurred in the summer, but it was late afternoon, and it was not a bad day, and the city responded very quickly.

By 2003, people saw New York City in a more positive turn: Crime had gone down, the city’s economy was expanding, there was areas of hope. Obviously it wasn’t spread around equally; there were certainly areas where there was still a considerable amount of despair. But around 2003, there was a feeling that the city basically had come back and was doing well. And that of course couldn’t be any more different from how things were in ’77.

Neugebauer: We moved out of the neighborhood two years after the blackout, after Saint Leonard’s church — that was the church we went to — closed down, and it would seem like every single house around ours burned down. My family moved to Ridgewood. We thought we were moving to this middle-class rich neighborhood! We gave our parents such a hard time for leaving Bushwick. They were like, “This is about you and about your safety! What, are you nuts?” But we were part of a real community. It was a shame.

Dereszewski: Having lived through it, I didn’t really see it as horrible times. But the blackout really did highlight how bad the situation had gotten in the city, economically, politically, psychologically. When you’re on the verge of bankruptcy where services are being curtailed, people are even talking about giving up on whole stretches of neighborhood because it’s not worth it — it kind of showed that.

Categories
NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Plight of the West Village Blackout Victim: West Villagers Sound Off

Yesterday, we published an article about a support group that has been set up by a West Village resident who claims he suffered “acute stress disorder” after he was left helpless and without power for five whole days following Hurricane Sandy.

This West Village victim — who apparently called into NY1 at the height of his trauma — compares his struggle to cope with the horrors of having no electricity for nearly a week with what people went through after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also thinks I’m an “asshole.”

Barry Drogin — whom I contacted yesterday to find out what, exactly, his support group entailed — never called me back. But he took to the comment section of the post we published yesterday to vent about his struggle with darkness. Some of his neighbors sounded off, too.

Drogin’s comment:

I was not traumatized by five whole days of no electricity, you assholes. If you know anything about real trauma, you know it is caused by a moment of supreme emotional distress caused by a single moment of witnessing or experiencing something traumatic. For me it occurred at around 10:30pm on Friday night, November 2, 6 hours before my neighborhood had power restored.

Your idiotic assumption, and the assumption of all the other assholes that have posted so far on your blog page, is that everyone in the Far West Village are rich Eurotrash or coop-owning hedge fund managers. Surprise, surprise, there are original tenants here who are not young, good-looking and rich, and who haven’t been pushed out yet.

After 9/11 I was mercilessly pilloried on-line by the “truth” movement.  I stood up to them and I’ll stand up to you.  Go ahead, tell me that the insomnia I have been experiencing for 10 days, the lack of appetite, the inability to remember what I was thinking 5 seconds ago, isn’t real. Call me a drama queen for seeking help for myself and others who have already contacted me. Tell me to see a psychiatrist as I wait for the $900 initial consultation that was “fit in” a week after I requested it.

Oh, and by the way, we don’t all own smartphones with data plans and instant messaging.

If you had one-tenth of the guts I had, you would publish your real names, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses like I did. My life is an open book. Forfend you should actually visit my website and learn about who I am before posting your garbage. It is so easy to be hard.

As to James King, who is too incompetent to even set up his answering machine, I had to take two days off from work to deal with my exhaustion from sleeplessness. On Monday I returned to work – sorry that your imagined story was too tempting to write without confirmation, and thanks for not providing an evening phone number to reach you, but I’m sure you were just trolling for more tidbits to sprinkle into your little laughfest. I’ve been reading The Village Voice cover to cover since 1978. Apparently the new staff of the “village” voice assumes that everyone in the original village is gone and been replaced by yuppies.

So here’s the challenge, you social media whores and gutless wonders. Don’t respond without ending the way I am now.

Barry Drogin

212-243-8784

Another West Village victim — this one anonymous — also chimed in:

In printing this mierda, the Village Voice has made itself suitable only for making cat litter. And to the people who commented here who are without empathy for the residents of the West Village, congratulations. You have revealed yourselves as sociopaths. Now everybody knows who you are.

As did a former West Villager, who thankfully was spared the hardship of five entire days without electricity:

have not lived in NYC since 1989, was born and raised there, just tells me the west village has not changed, only concerned about themselves and their little village world. Too bad!

But Cynthia Diaz summed it up the best:

White people.

As we mentioned yesterday, people in Staten Island, the Rockaways, New Jersey, and Long Island are currently living in what resembles a war zone. But who cares about them — let’s get these West Village heroes the help they desperately need.

Visit Drogin’s website, on which he has dedicated an entire section to the trauma of living without electricity for five whole days.

Categories
NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

West Villagers “Traumatized” by Five Whole Days of No Electricity Now Have a “Support Group”

While the vast majority of West Village residents had power restored last week after a harrowing five-day blackout following Hurricane Sandy, the trauma of being without power for a few days can have lingering effects.

Those trips to Trader Joe’s to replace the perishable gourmet foods that didn’t survive the blackout. Catching up on all the television missed during the brief stint without power. Where will West Villagers find the time? Or the energy? Or the strength?

Luckily, there is now a “support group” to help these victims recover from the trauma of not having electricity for five days.

]
I called Barry to get a sense of what this support group offers. I’ve yet to hear back.

I’m told by a West Village resident that during this horrific blackout, West Villagers were forced to attend bistros lit by candles, and cops patrolled the streets “every three minutes.” How these brave West Village heroes survived such an ordeal, we’ll never know.

I
live in Brooklyn, but hopefully Barry will make an exception and include me
in his support group to offer a little guidance as I work my way through my own personal hurricane trauma — I mean, I never lost power at my Crown Heights
apartment, but my HD channels were slightly less HD after the storm. The
horror.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “How did you
survive watching Monday Night Football in less than HD quality?” Well,
it was a struggle — but I endured. But I’ll never look at Drew Brees
the same.

Help me, Barry. Please?

Oh, by the way, people in Staten Island, the Rockaways, New Jersey, and Long Island are currently living in what resembles a war zone. But let’s spread the word and get these West Village heroes the help they desperately need.