The 1977 blackout that hit New York was a crisis that came amidst a sweltering heatwave, a financial downturn, rising poverty and inequality, and an atmosphere of gloom that had already settled on the city.
The 25-hour outage began around 9:30 p.m. on July 13th, after a bolt of lightning struck an electrical substation in Westchester. Not long after, another lightning strike took out two more power lines, and when the Ravenswood 3 power plant in Queens went down, the city fell dark.
Opportunistic thieves grabbed whatever they could get their hands on, from luxury cars to sink stoppers and clothespins, according to the New York Post. The sweltering streets became a battleground, where, per the Post, “even the looters were being mugged.”
Some pointed to the financial crisis as a root cause of the disorder; others noted the hot July weather, as the East Coast was in the middle of a brutal heatwave.
Still, others pointed out that the 1977 blackout came after businesses had closed and their owners had gone home. The 1977 looters continued their activities into the daylight hours, with police on alert.
Looting and vandalism were widespread, hitting 31 neighborhoods. Possibly the hardest hit were Crown Heights, where 75 stores on a five-block stretch were looted, and Bushwick, where arson was rampant, with some 25 fires still burning the next morning.
At one point, two blocks of Broadway, which separates Bushwick from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, were on fire. Thirty-five blocks of Broadway were destroyed: 134 stores looted, 45 of them set ablaze. Thieves stole 50 new Pontiacs from a Bronx car dealership.
In Brooklyn, youths were seen backing up cars to targeted stores, tying ropes around the stores’ grates, and using their cars to pull the grates away before looting the store. While 550 police officers were injured in the mayhem, 4,500 looters were arrested.
Power was slowly restored over the next day, with the entire city online by 10:39 p.m. In all, 1,616 stores were damaged in looting and rioting. A total of 1,037 fires were responded to, including 14 multiple-alarm fires. In the largest mass arrest in city history, 3,776 people were arrested.
Many had to be stuffed into overcrowded cells, precinct basements, and other makeshift holding pens. A congressional study estimated that the cost of damages amounted to a little over $300 million (equivalent to $1.2 billion in 2017).
(Photo credit: NY Daily News / Getty Images / Corbis / AP Photo / Museum of New York City).