The last time I thought seriously about the blackout of 1977 was a few years ago when I saw the Spike Lee movie Summer of Sam. Though I wasn’t in New York during the blackout, but across the river in Newark, Lee’s movie—which chronicled the summer when both the killer Son of Sam spread terror and the lights went out—reminded me of what I had watched on TV that July night—gray, ghostly images of looters scampering wildly through the streets carting away televisions, furniture, clothes, and whatever else they could get their hands on.
The scenes during the blackout of 2003 couldn’t have been more different: New Yorkers out in the streets helping cops direct traffic, a pub owner hauling out a grill and providing free hot dogs to anyone who was hungry, workers waiting patiently for bus and train service to come back.
What was different this time? Why did New Yorkers’ respond with grace, coolness, perseverance, and respect for civil order? The most immediate explanation being proffered by the experts is that government’s preparedness for emergencies and its ability to mobilize have improved enormously since 9-11, and that those qualities helped preserve order in the city. But while I’ve no doubt that New York is better equipped than ever to handle emergencies of this sort, that explanation strikes me as superficial and off the mark, because no amount of government vigilance could stop citizens from running wild in the streets when the lights were out, if that’s what people wanted to do.
The real point, I think, is that New York is a markedly different city today than it was in 1977, a city that, even with the blows suffered from 9-11 and since, is filled with enormously more optimism, hope, and opportunity than the desperate city of July 1977. Especially in the last 10 years, New Yorkers have learned and helped teach the rest of the world extraordinary lessons about how to rebuild a city, how to recreate civic order, how to revive opportunity for those who would have it. Those lessons have replaced the rage that was so rampant in 1977.
The city was a far different place during the Summer of Sam. The blackout of 1977, though some would call it an ‘act of God,’ was more like a summation of all that had gone wrong in the city for nearly a decade. For eight long years leading up to the blackout, New York was in a recession—losing a staggering 610,000 jobs. Business were heading for the doors in record numbers. A million people were on welfare. The city had just been humiliated by a near brush with bankruptcy, punctuated by hostility from much of the rest of America, which largely opposed bailing out a spendthrift Gotham. Large swathes of the city were burned out or uninhabitable—inviting drug dealing and the civil disorder that goes with it. New York seemed to have worked hard to earn the title ‘the ungovernable city,’ so when the lights went out, no wonder that some neighborhoods erupted.
Today, a blackout—even one as wide reaching and lengthy as last Thursday’s—doesn’t seem quite so portentous. True, the last two years have been difficult for New York, and occasionally we see troubling echoes of the 1970s, most especially in the city’s deep fiscal problems. But New York regained its reputation as a city of opportunity and innovation in the 1990s, and today, 360,000 more people are employed than in July of 1977, while half a million fewer are on welfare. Whole neighborhoods once avoided, from Times Square to Downtown Brooklyn, are thriving.
Much of this was made possible by the extraordinary 75 percent reduction in crime in the last 10 years, which has helped restore order in so many neighborhoods. The city’s historic war against crime has shown New Yorkers that Gotham is not perched eternally on the precipice of chaos, just waiting for some act of God or a man-made catastrophe to pitch it over the edge. That’s a stark contrast to 1977, when the air was thick with foreboding and the potential for violence often seemed to be just barely below the surface waiting for something like a massive blackout to set it loose.
The city’s successful war on crime had one very practical effect during Thursday’s blackout: much of that war has been waged against the very small percentage of criminals who commit the majority of violent crimes, on the theory that taking those select few off the streets greatly reduces overall crime. So when the lights went out on Thursday, those tough guys who were most likely to send trash cans hurtling through store windows weren’t out and about, and without them leading everyone else the wrong way, the city stayed calm.
Summer of Sam? Today, New York is such a different place that the blackout of 2003 might some day be memorialized as part of the Summer of Sanity.