Fires, Riots and Looting: Brooklyn During the 1977 Blackout

NYC Blackout 1977 Bed-Stuy Bushwick

The relatively peaceful blackout of 2003, which was 10 years ago today, was a markedly different experience from the last major New York power outage before it in 1977, when people famously looted, vandalized and committed arson. My mother was 22-years-old and newly married to my father when the electricity cut off; I asked her to tell me what it was like.

Where were you when the power went out?
In the dark! We went to a Richie Havens concert in Central Park, and we got on the train to go back home to Brooklyn, and the power went out. We were stuck on the train.

Between stations?
Yeah, which is like my worst nightmare! But the train pulled in. They got some kind of auxiliary power, and it pulled into the station. And they told everyone to stay in the station! And I was like, “ahhh! I’m getting out of here!” We actually had to run around the police officers to get out. And we go upstairs, and we’re like, “what are we gonna do?” We didn’t have any money or nothing. So we said, “we’ll walk home. We’ll just start walking home to Brooklyn.”

Where were you?
I don’t remember which stop it was. But we started walking and.. they used to have these Half Moon rides. It was a ride that would go up and down the streets and kids would pay a quarter or whatever to ride it. And it’s in the shape of a half-moon and it would swing back and forth. It’s like this ride is on the back of a truck, and it’s surrounded by a cyclone fence. So there was some guy screaming out the back, “we’re going to Brooklyn! Anybody need a ride?” And we’re like, “yeah! Yeah! We do!” So we jump inside this cage and the guy starts driving us to Brooklyn. He’s gonna park his truck in Downtown Brooklyn.

And we get to Downtown Brooklyn, and there’s riots going on! There’s fires everywhere; I saw some guy with a bloody head carrying a TV. I mean, it was terrifying. It was really scary. The noise… You know, people breaking windows. And I’m witnessing all of this from inside a cage, essentially. I’m driving through Downtown Brooklyn through this riot inside a cage. It was bizarre.

Blackout 1977 NYC Bushwick Brooklyn

Were there other people in the cage?
Yeah. Your father. And your aunt, who was only like 15 or 16. I had taken her with me; she was like a little kid. There were some other people. In fact, the people next to us that we’d been talking to knew somebody who was rioting and said, “ohhhh! Look, there’s Blahblahblah”—I don’t remember who it was—and jumped out of the ride. The guy who was driving came to the back and said, “I’m not leaving my truck down here; I’m taking it back home to Staten Island.” That’s where he lived. And we said, “oh, can you drop us off in Sunset Park?” Cuz that’s where we lived then. So he said, “yeah, yeah, ok,” and he stopped at like 55th and Third or something and let us out.

But even in Sunset Park there was stuff going on. There was somebody I knew, actually, ripping those, you know, those metal grates that cover the stores? Of a liquor store, like he had hooked up some chain to his car and was trying to rip it off. I mean, people went nuts! It was crazy. There were even fires in Sunset Park. It was nothing like Downtown Brooklyn, but it was really kinda scary. So we got out and ran up to Sixth Avenue.

What did you do during the blackout 10 years ago?
I don’t remember!

The other thing I remember [about the ’77 blackout] was that your father went to the park because you could see the stars, because all the lights were out. And everyone was giving away beer! Because, I don’t know, beer on tap, if it wasn’t kept cold, or… I don’t know how it worked. But I know that a lot of bars were giving out free beer. And everyone was drunk, and it was… What a scene! It was so crazy to be out in that.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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