On the night of July 13, 1977, a series of lightning strikes in Westchester County led to a Con Ed system failure that left much of New York City without power for 25 hours. New York had had a major blackout before in 1965, and would again in 2003 and 2012, but none of those managed to capture the public imagination the way the 1977 blackout did. “The mean-street memory of the 1970s adheres to the collective big-city conscious like Proustian poo,” Marc Jacobson wrote in 2015, and 1977 might have been the ‘70s-est year of all — the year of Studio 54, the Son of Sam, and downtown punk. The blackout, coming in the middle of the summer, was the high-water mark of the era’s mayhem; by the time it was over, the Times estimates, the city had seen 1,000 fires, 1,600 stores looted, and 3,700 arrests.
Those 25 hours have proven ripe for fictionalization; I like to imagine a whole Blackout Extended Universe, in which all the characters dreamed up by artists and authors are all running through the darkened city at the same time. For some of them, the blackout is a source of menace. For others, it’s a time of adventure — a gritty Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the city’s inhabitants can throw off their old identities and are reborn as something pure and true.
That’s the case with Netflix’s recent The Get Down, which devotes its third episode, “Darkness Is Your Candle,” to the blackout. After the power goes out, an aspiring singer and a washed-up producer throw out the terrible disco track they were working on and bond over a simple piano ballad. A middle-aged man finds the courage to tell his brother’s wife that he’s always loved her. And a group of young rappers takes advantage of the darkness to make off with armfuls of precious equipment from a music store. That last bit comes straight out of history, or at least, the version of history that’s been passed down through the years. As Grandmaster Caz recalled to Slate in 2014, “I went right to the place where I bought my first set of DJ equipment, and I went and got me a mixer out of there.” He credited the looting with spurring the development of hip-hop as an art form: “After the blackout, all this new wealth … was found by people and … opportunity sprang from that. And you could see the differences before the blackout and after.”
Fitting a Shakespearean play, the episode ends with a romantic consummation: After undergoing separate trials, Zeke (Justice Smith) and Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) reunite on a rooftop above the blacked-out skyline to lose their virginity. As Odie Henderson notes, according to the Trammps’ disco hit “The Night the Lights Went Out,” they were merely doing what everybody in the Naked City was up to: “Politicians said it was a pity, but that was the night they called it Love City.”
Over in Queens, something much less sexy was going on. In the opening of All in the Family’s blackout episode, “Archie and the KKK,” the Bunkers are huddled together in the dark, eating ice cream from the fridge before it melts. As things usually do on Norman Lear shows, the power outage provides an opportunity to debate the issues of the day: Archie castigates minorities for “rioting, burning, looting, running wild in the streets” during the blackout, while his son-in-law Mike takes the opposite side as usual. “It’s not their fault!” he argues. “They do it for environment and socioeconomic reasons!” Neither manages to convince the other, but Archie does get an ironic comeuppance: His barroom rants about “law and order” are overheard by two men who recruit him into their organization — which turns out to be the Ku Klux Klan. (The first half of a two-parter, the episode ends with Archie looking abashed as the men put on their hoods.)
Tribalism rules the day too in Spike Lee’s 1999 film Summer of Sam, where the power outage only intensifies the fear and paranoia that gripped the city in the summer of ‘77. In an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, white residents form vigilante groups to keep out outsiders, any one of whom they suspect could be the Son of Sam. A local mob boss (Ben Gazzara) throws a barbecue to keep residents safe, while men armed with baseball bats march to the neighborhood’s bridges and off-ramps like soldiers going off to war; all they accomplish is harassing a Hispanic man who’s trying to drive through.
The riots and fires show up through the filter of TV; Lee himself plays a newscaster covering the looting in Harlem. “The city that never sleeps has come to a standstill!” he yells, before departing for safer pastures.
A similar thought pops up in the climax of Garth Risk Hallberg’s sprawling 2015 novel, City on Fire, which devotes its final hundred-or-so pages to the blackout. As Hallberg’s free-indirect discourse says of one upper-class woman, “She’s been operating under the assumption that this organism, her city, is essentially benevolent, but now it is revealing its deeper chaos, its drift toward unmeaning.” Unlike Lee, who puts the blackout squarely in the middle of his story, Hallberg puts it an the end, which means that by the dawn, that chaos has generally resolved itself in narratively satisfying ways: a divorced couple stumbles towards rapprochement while searching for their missing kids, a son comes to terms with his ailing father, a lumbering detective and a teenage punk foil a terrorist plot.
Mercer Goodman, the gay black intellectual protagonist struggling with writer’s block, gives voice to what seems like Hallberg’s own thoughts on disorder. After looking in vain for his ex, Mercer makes his way towards Tompkins Square Park, where he joins a mass of protesters and looters — until they come upon the all-girls private school where Mercer once taught. As a group of skinheads prepare to throw a cinderblock through its windows, he finds himself defending the school, which the punks dub an “injustice factory.” Though Mercer agrees with the diagnosis, he can’t condone the school’s destruction: “Still, amid all the fucked-up ossifications of the whole concept of liberal Enlightenment, there is the human person. A soul you may not be able to save if you don’t destroy its body first, but that you almost certainly can’t save if you do.” He earns a beating for his trouble, but the school, and the old order, is saved.
Reno, the narrator of Rachel Kushner’s 2013 book, The Flamethrowers, spends the blackout a few neighborhoods away from Mercer, but the two of them might as well be arguing with each other. She’s fresh off a stint with Italian left-wing revolutionaries, and she sees views like Mercer’s as hopelessly naïve:
The city was in the process of being looted. Chain stores and mom-and-pop stores that owners, families, tried to defend with baseball bats, tire irons, shotguns. People said it was despicable that looters would turn on their own, and target struggling and honest neighborhood businesses. Their own. But they misunderstood. It didn’t matter whether looters hit a chain or the local jeweler. To expect that them to identify particular stores and enemies and others as friends was a confusion. We buy gold, any condition.
Looting wasn’t stealing, or shopping by other means. It was a dedication, one I understood, watching the juicer crash through the window: the system is in “off” mode. And in “off” mode, there was no private property, no difference between Burger King and Alvin’s Television Repair. Everything previously hoarded behind steel and glass was up for grabs.
While Reno understands the looting, she doesn’t take part. She floats among the rioters without becoming them; Kushner doesn’t place the blackout into any sort of narrative arc. Over in the West Village, though, the 16-year-old Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s 2013 short story, High Heat, ties up enough loose ends for multiple novels. Decades before becoming the vagabond hero of Child’s popular book series, the young Reacher spent the night of the blackout helping a beautiful FBI agent take down a gangster and calling in a tip that cracks the Son of Sam case. He even has time to get a blow job from a Sarah Lawrence student who had previously scolded him for “uncomfortably gender normative behavior.” Since Reacher wins every fight easily, the turmoil of the night is undercut some; the ever-present darkness is notable mostly for giving the teenage Reacher new and exciting opportunities to show off his combat prowess.
A slightly more realistic depiction of blackout adolescence comes from Dylan Ebdus, the white-boy protagonist 2003’s Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem. In it, Dylan’s father makes him leave the confines of not-yet-gentrified Brooklyn for a summer trip to Vermont: “Abraham’s hunch will seem brilliant after the July blackout, the subsequent looting and mayhem which comes as near as Ramirez’s bodega, whose sprays of smashed shop window will be kicked up and down Dean [Street]’s slate for days after, and the spree and capture of Berkowitz. These will give that season the air of disaster, and Dylan, safe in his idyll, will miss it.” In this, Dylan is a lot like those modern inhabitants of New York City constantly looking back to the bad old days: Even after hearing about the riots and the fires and the arrests, a small part of him is sad he wasn’t there to see it.