‘American Experience: Blackout’ recalls dark night in NYC

In the big cities, we live with noise pollution and light pollution. The industrial noise air conditioners, cars and stereos prevents us from hearing the sounds of nature. The light pollution prevents us from seeing the stars. Being plunged into total darkness, without the aid of electricity can be alarming and during the summer of 1977, on 13 July, a blackout in New York City became “an orgy of violence, arson and insanity.” Director Callie T. Wiser takes us back to that hot and humid night in the “American Experience” episode, “Blackout.”

Living in Southern California, I’ve lived through a few brown outs and even one black out, but usually it isn’t a whole city affected. And New York City has had a blackout before 1977. However, the 1965 NYC blackout was in November. The temperature was 43-45º and the shop keepers were just about closing up at 5:30 p.m. It was something out of the ordinary, but not scary one person recalls.

The blackout of 1977 was different because the city was different. Crime was high. Unemployment was high. Police and firefighters had been laid off. The city was about to declare bankruptcy. A serial killer dubbed Son of Sam was terrorizing the people. When the lights went out, it was late in the evening. The wine steward at the tony Windows on the World restaurant on the 107th floor of One World Trade Center recalls seeing the boroughs disappear, one by one before Manhattan was plunged into darkness. On a clear day, you could see 90 miles from the restaurant. At night, you could see lights on forever in the city that never sleeps.

The city didn’t sleep that night either. While the male guests at the Windows on the World restaurant were allowed first to take their jackets off and then their ties, elsewhere things were less than civilized. The restaurant guests were drinking free champagne and elsewhere block parties broke out, but in the poorer areas, looting began with things as big and expensive as washing machines and refrigerators being stolen. At the end of the 24 hours, 3,700 people had been arrested and firefighters had put out about 1,000 fires.

Wiser combines archival footage and contemporary interviews with people from all walks of life–a firefighter, a police officer, a reporter who covered the blackout, a man who grew up to be a novelist and had been playing handball at the time, an electronics store owner, the owner of a sports and trophy store,  a medical students and a graffiti artist. Also included are people who wrote about the blackout: professor of history, Joshua Freeman (“Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II”), the New York Times writer Jonathan Mahler (“Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City”) and Bruce Porter (“Blackout Looting!: New York City, July 13, 1977”).

Caused by a lightening strike, the blackout was also the result of poor planning. Chief System Operator for Con Edison in July 1977 Charlie Durkin is also interviewed and recalls seeing the sky made bright by constant lightening strikes and then scrambling to help reinstate power with an emergency plan that dated back to the 1960s.

“Blackout” reminds us how dependent we were on electricity and should make us think how much more dependent we have become in the ensuing decades. The distance between the haves and have-nots may be economically long but physically short. In the end, we can’t ignore the rumble of poverty’s disquiet because the civility society requires can be easily destroyed in just a frightening night.

“Blackout” premiered on 14 July 2015 on PBS American Experience and is currently available VoD.

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