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Blackout 2003: The Debate We Won't Be Having This Time

On Tuesday November 9, 1965, at 5:30 p.m. New York City fell dark when the Northeast was hit with a massive power failure. Lights went out across 8 states. The blackout was triggered when a relay switch in Toronto failed. Four million homes in the metropolitan area were plunged into darkness. Although the disaster cost the economy of New York City tens of millions of dollars, it is remembered as the "good blackout." Only a small number of stores were looted. Crime in general declined. And New Yorkers celebrated the feeling of good will which pervaded the city. Sociologists afterward attributed the city's good fortune to three main factors. First, shop owners were able to protect their stores because the blackout began before they had closed up for the night. Second, in 1965 the city had not experienced a general blackout before. Most people expected the lights would come back on in a short period of time. Third, the blackout occurred on a cold November evening, the temperature hovering in the mid-forties.

An urban legend arose after the blackout of 1965. It was alleged that the "blackout was responsible for a bumper crop of babies nine months later." It was, according to a website devoted to urban legends, "debunked by J. Richard Udry in 1970, when he showed statistically that the birth rate for the period in question was completely unexceptional."

On July 13, 1977, at 9:35 p.m.--after most businesses had closed and their owners had gone home for the evening-- the lights went out again across New York City and the metropolitan area in a power blackout triggered by a lightning strike. The weather was hot and humid. This disaster would become known as the "bad blackout." While most people remained calm and orderly several communities saw massive looting. The cost in dollars and cents was later estimated at a minimum of $135 million. The psychological toll was far greater as the city wondered why the social order had collapsed. The op ed pages filled with explanations. While some argued that root causes of poverty were to blame, others contended that the "night of the animals," as Midge Decter put it, was a symptom of the general breakdown in law and order and the respect for authority. Most people seemed to share Diane Ravitch's view. She condemned the looters as plain thieves. A Ford Foundation study, Blackout Looting (1979), concluded:

[T]he main cause of the violence was the serious national economic decline that has created exceedingly high levels of unemployment and high prices for food and other necessary goods, and has substantially worsened the living standards of the poor. Prices of food, clothing and rent, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, rose 86 percent from 1967 to 1977. In 1977, the welfare allotment for a family of four in New York City was $129 every two weeks, a rent allowance of up to $218 a month plus food stamps. These figures were based on a standard of need stabilized in 1974. Added to inflation, the national unemployment rate for blacks in general doubled over the past ten-year period, from 7 percent to 14 percent. As a result, unemployment in minority areas skyrocketed. Businesses and manufacturers continued to leave the city; since 1969 the jobs lost amount[ed] to 650,000. In addition, in 1977 the city's Department of Employment estimated black teenage unemployment at almost 70 percent, and Hispanic unemployment at nearly 80 percent. The people arrested that night had unemployment rates far above those who were arrested during the 1960 riots: in some cases they were almost three times as high!

Historian Herbert Gutman compared the blackout looting of 1977 to the Kosher Riots of 1902. President Jimmy Carter opined that the looters were suffering from hunger. The Ford Foundation study emphasized that the looters were not hungry "in the sense that peasants were in the French Revolution.... In a welfare state where basic subsistence is provided to almost everyone, widespread hunger in the literal sense is no longer the issue."

But the Ford Foundation report charged that the looters were indeed suffering from "a more general, spiritual kind of hunger, deeply felt by citizens of the ghetto because they simply lack the goods, the material things, and the power to consume what is so thoroughly emphasized by the media in our society." The authors of the report ended on a grim note, emphasizing the breakdown of the social contract in impoverished communities. "The basic arrangement between society and the individual ... which calls for the individual to accept certain rules and obligations in return for society's protection and guarantees, has worn extremely thin among the poor in general." But they added: "To say [the looters] were simply hoodlums, however, ignores the social and economic realities of urban life which became startlingly visible in the darkness of the night of July 13, 1977."

On August 14, 2003, shortly after 4 p.m., the city was plunged once again into darkness. Eight states and part of Canada were affected by the blackout. There were no reports of mass looting. New York Mayor Bloomberg attributed the model behavior of most citizens to innate New York goodness. The blackout led immediately to questions about the state of the energy infrastructure in the Northeast in particular and in the country generally. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson blamed a handful of large Southern utilities for blocking needed improvements in the national transmission grid, arguing that they had put their private concerns ahead of the public welfare.

No one this time focused on social problems.

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