Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Remembering When the Lights Went Out in 1977

Last week, on the 38th anniversary of the infamous 1977 New York City Blackout, the PBS series The American Experience aired a new episode about that event, complete with archival footage and photos, as well as interviews with some of those who experienced it firsthand. (Particularly poignant was seeing all those shots of the Twin Towers and Windows on the World.)

In my lifetime, New York City has experienced three such major electrical blackouts - in November 1965, July 1977, and August 2003. In our electricity-dependent technological society, any interruption of service, let alone a major night-long blackout, is a serious disruption, life-threatening for some, a major inconvenience for many. That said, the 1965 Blackout was widely looked back upon after the fact as a somewhat positive communal experience in which the city pulled together and citizens helped one another. In contrast, the 1977 Blackout is widely remembered mainly for the looting and criminal behavior it inspired. If the first Blackout was somewhat symbolic of New York's still strong and vibrant post-war communal culture, the second served as an apt symbol for the city's apparently complete collapse in the 1970s.

Full disclosure: I myself missed the Blackout. In July 1977, I had just recently finished my Ph.D. at Princeton University and was still living in Princeton, preparing for my imminent move to Milwaukee to start my first full-time teaching job at Marquette University that fall. I was excited and hopeful about the future, but I was more focused primarily at that moment on the complex emotional experience of leaving a graduate student community I had happily been a part of for 5 years, leaving behind (in that pre-Facebook world) a group of friends I very much much valued - for what would inevitably be a much lonelier life in the future. 

But, while I did not experience the 1977 Blackout directly, I did get to see some of its catastrophic consequences. Shortly after, in preparation for my move to Milwaukee I went to stay briefly with my parents, who had three years earlier moved out of the city to Mount Vernon, just north of the Bronx. At some point during that brief interlude, we took a drive through the Bronx to visit the "old neighborhood" and saw first-hand the destruction visited upon the once beautiful Bronx by the events of that tragic Blackout night. For years after, whenever the decline of the Bronx came up in conversation, I would always cite the aftermath of the Blackout as the decisive turning point, when people (particularly small businesses), that had been struggling to hold on through the city's 1970s collapse, finally just gave up and left.

The American Experience program on the Blackout highlighted two contrasts - between the way the city as a whole experienced the 1965 blackout and how it experienced 1977, and between how different neighborhoods experienced the same event in 1977. In fact, not every neighborhood was destroyed during that infamous night. For the more well off citizens in safer sections, the event was much less traumatic and resembled much more the experience of 1965. Both contrasts are important, but the second contrast highlights how the city had changed in a way which best explains the first contrast.

The American Experience show did a very good job in illustrating and explaining the radical and rather rapid decline of the city in the early-mid 1970s - the change from the functioning urban economic community of the 1960s (with its strong manufacturing base) and the city's strong social  network (with effective and well funded public services, not least of them a free city university, of which I myself had been a beneficiary). 

The 1970s had brought a traumatic dislocation in the American post-war economy, which cities in particular seemed to suffer especially vividly. No doubt some long-term trends, such as suburbanization, had been evident for some time. Still, at the time of the 1965 Blackout hardly anyone would have been able to anticipate how frayed the city's social fabric would quickly become. (Certainly John Lindsay, elected Mayor the day before the 1965 Blackout, epitomized post-war urban optimism and the experience of social solidarity. His disastrous tenure as Mayor reflected how much and how quickly that old optimism and the social solidarity it was based on would deteriorate.)

By way of background to what happened the night of the Blackout, the American Experience show traces the imposition of austerity policies in the mid-60s and the consequent evisceration of the public services that fundamentally make urban life. The result was a spreading sense of social breakdown, which the looting and criminality of the 1977 Blackout expressed rather than caused.

In just a few more years, with the disastrous presidential election of 1980, the entire country would take a dramatic turn to heightened class divisions, rejecting as obsolete the social solidarity that had been the underpinning of post-war prosperity and the post-war political consensus. The 1977 Blackout became thus a prophetic image of the America the 1980 election and subsequent political divisions would institutionalize.

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