The Night the Lights Went Out: New York City, 1977
No Electricity, No Subways, Crowds Begin the Trek Home (Broadway)
With No Power, Twilight Presents a Surreal Veneer
Night Falls and Darkness Swallows Manhattan
A Dusky Dawn in the City of Darkness
Slideshow: The Night the Lights Went Out
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The Bronx is Burning: Bushwick Then and Now
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When the lights went out in New York City at 9:34 p.m. on July 13, 1977, it set off a night of rioting, looting and general mayhem in neighborhoods across the city. New York Times reporter Robert McFadden reminisces about what it was like watching the darkness swallow Manhattan:
“The city was magical that night. From my rooftop on the Upper West Side, the skyline of Manhattan glittered like a wedge of stars across the intergalactic gulf: the Upper East Side, the towers of Midtown, Broadway, all ablaze — every point of light a story of ambition, murder, love. I flipped sizzling hamburgers on a grill, sipped a beer and listened to the music drifting from the doorway.
Somewhere in the distance, lightning danced and summer thunder rumbled. A weather story? Perhaps for someone else. It was my night off, an unchoreographed evening away from the Times newsroom, away from the pounding typewriters and the relentless deadlines.
It happened in stages. The Upper East and West Sides disappeared first — blink, blink, blink, 20 or 30 blocks at a time, like dominoes falling split-seconds apart, the darkness moving south with incredible speed as I watched in disbelief, swallowing Broadway, Midtown, Chelsea. The Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn were gone too. The great city of millions had vanished into inky blackness. I looked around in amazement — and, oddly, found New Jersey blithely aglow. It was not the end of the world.
Cars were honking below, as if a celebration had begun. I looked over the parapet and saw rivers of light in the streets — vehicles moving slowly, or halted altogether. I stepped back into my apartment. The air-conditioner was dead, and it was sweltering. I picked up the phone and was surprised to get a dial tone. The city was down and out, but the phones still worked. I called the Metropolitan desk and was told to get to work, fast. I kissed my wife, Judy, and 2-year-old son, Nolan, goodbye, as if for the last time, and went out into the chiaroscuro madness.
The elevator was out, of course, so I walked down a pitch-black stairway, feeling my way blindly along the walls, trying to remember how many floors I had passed and where the door to the lobby came out. The streets were chaotic but illuminated by the headlights of marauding vehicles. At Broadway and 72nd Street, a big traffic jam was developing. Stop lights were out. People were stepping out of trapped cabs and buses, pouring out of restaurants and bars, ambling out of apartment buildings as if looking for an explanation.
The subways were not running. I began walking south on Broadway, heading for Times Square, my route marked by streaming headlights and blaring horns. Outside Lincoln Center, New York’s performing arts mecca, huge crowds of displaced patrons were milling about. Twenty blocks farther, the eerie glow of taxicab lights enveloped Times Square, normally a circus of glaring, moving neon lights. The crowds that had spilled out of the Broadway theaters were enormous, people robbed of their last act and stumbling into the streets to compete with the traffic and jostle with pickpockets.
At the offices of The Times on West 43rd Street, the stairways were already lighted by candles, and in the third-floor newsroom, editors and reporters were clustered and conferring by candlelight at the Metro Desk, poring over notes and assignment lists. Down the blocklong newsroom, candles glowed softly at the reporters’ ranks of steel desks. The wire room — the nerve center of teletype and Telex communications where a million words a day clattered into the newsroom from Times correspondents across the nation and around the world — was as silent as a tomb.
An army of reporters was being called in for a long night. Many had already been dispatched into the chaotic city, where the looting had begun in earnest and countless fires had been set by arsonists, where motorists had blundered into accidents and people trapped in elevators and subway tunnels were waiting to be rescued by an overwhelmed police force. Lucky, indeed, about those phones still working.
Lucky, too, that reporters were still a couple of years away from turning in trusty Smith-Corona and Royal typewriters for newfangled computers and other electronic marvels useless in a power failure. But how was the paper to be printed? Articles could be written and edited, but there was no power for the Mergenthaler Linotypes where printers set articles into hot type, or for the gargantuan high-speed presses that shook the building foundations when they rolled, printing a half-million newspapers an hour.
But a solution had already been devised. The Jersey Journal would print the edition for us. The newspaper would look a bit odd, with headlines in an unfamiliar type face, but the articles, the thoroughness and ingenuity of the reporting, the quality of the editing, would be thoroughly Timesean.
My assignment was to write the lead of the paper — taking notes from reporters in the field and writing a comprehensive account of all major aspects of the blackout: the disruption of nine million lives, the wide looting and vandalism, the arrests and rescues, the stranded trains, wailing sirens in crowded streets, the closed airports, the hospital emergencies, Con Edison’s explanations, and the countless ways New Yorkers coped: civilians with flashlights pitching in to direct traffic, strangers helping strangers.
For me, it was the beginning of a hard but satisfying week that included four follow-up articles — on the restoration of power and the examination of what went wrong, the gradual resumption of normal life in the city, the legal processes for thousands arrested on criminal charges, the woes of looted shop owners and the political fallout for city and utility officials. But those stories did not have to be written by candlelight.”
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