When the Lights Go Down
New Yorkers share their memories of the blackouts that shut down the city in 1965, 1977 and 2003, and how it felt to find themselves in the dark.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.
ED: Hey, guys.
BRIAN: We’re going to start off today in the Bronx.
PAUL ZUCCONI: I was a sophomore in high school and part of the basketball program.
PETER: This is Paul Zucconi. Like many of his fellow athletes– members of the St Helena High junior varsity team– he practiced in the gym in the evenings. But this wasn’t the normal evening. This was November 9, 1965, and darkness was about to descend on their world.
PAUL ZUCCONI: One of the players on the team had brought along with him a transistor radio. And he had it on playing “The Taste of Honey,” Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
PAUL ZUCCONI: You could hear the thing start to warble and warp. It came down the court one last time. Somebody threw the ball up, and that was it. Nobody ever saw it come down.
PETER: Paul and his teammates were caught in the middle of one of New York’s first great blackouts.
ANNOUNCER: Good evening. The Northeastern United States tonight suffered its worst electric power failure in history. Just before 5:30 tonight, at 5:28 in New York, at the height of a rush hour, the lights went out.
BRIAN: The 1965 blackout affected some 30 million people throughout the Northeast. It was later attributed to an incorrectly installed relay, and it inspired new metering and monitoring procedures to try and prevent something like it from happening in the future.
But then, in July of 1977, it happened again. This time, the blackout was triggered by a series of lightning strikes on electrical equipment and was limited to the New York City metropolitan area.
ANNOUNCER: At 9:34 last night, the Statue of Liberty and the rest of New York were brightly lighted as usual. A moment later, only Liberty and her lamp were there.
PETER: Unlike the 1965 blackout, which was notable for the pronounced drop in criminal activity during the darkness, the 1977 blackout is famous for the arson and looting that ensued in many of the city’s neighborhoods. Once again, new measures were taken to protect the electrical system from another failure, and, once again, those measures worked for only so long.
ANNOUNCER: Good evening from our NBC News headquarters in midtown Manhattan, where we are in the midst of what appears to be a colossal and history-making blackout.
BRIAN: This news report is from August, 2003, when a software bug in Ohio triggered another massive power failure, stretching as far west as Detroit and as far north as Montreal. Some 55 million people were affected, almost twice as many as in 1965, and that included everybody in the Big Apple.
We called up a few New Yorkers with memories of these blackouts. Their experiences varied by location and by year, but one thing was constant– they all remembered exactly where they were when the lights went out.
FLORENCE EIDMAN: In 1965, I was teaching in Harlem.
RAY ELLEN: During the 2003 blackout, I was in the kitchen, where I don’t usually spend time.
ELLEN MUSICANT: When the lights went out in 1977, I was with my boyfriend at the time at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
TOBIA PELL: And as I’m walking through Macy’s, the lights are flickering. You know, like on and off, on and off. And I said to myself, something’s going to happen.
ANTONIO ROSARIO: There was something in the rhythm of the cars, or something that changed, that caught my ear. And so it’s more like I more was listening and hearing the blackout start.
PETER: That was Florence Eidman, Ray Ellen, Ellen Musicant, Tobia Pell, and Antonio Rosario. We spoke to others too and were struck by the fact that out of all of them, only one– Ray Ellen– could remember the moment when the lights came back on. He was standing in an empty street in Greenwich Village, the day after that 2003 blackout.
RAY ELLEN: I just– I saw, like all of a sudden, it was just all the street lights came on, one after the other. It was like, you know, boom. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Like it just took me a second. I’m like, oh, the power’s back on.
BRIAN: We couldn’t help wondering– is there a reason that so many people remember the electricity going out, but they don’t remember it coming back on? I mean, after all those hours without air conditioning– or in 1965, without heat– you might think it would be just the opposite, that the moment when physical comfort was restored, that would be the moment that was etched in people’s minds forever.
PETER: On the other hand, perhaps it’s not all that surprising. The systems that provide us with electricity and, for that matter, phone signals and clean water and air traffic control– well, you name it– they may be getting more complex all the time. And yet, it’s only when those systems break that we seem to really notice them. The rest of the time, we’re just like Antonio Rosario, who admits that he takes the system for granted.
ANTONIO ROSARIO: You know, I’m not thinking when I’m plugging stuff in. I’m just assuming I’m going to always have that there. And so something like the grid, or a water line, and all that stuff just sort of recedes in the background.
BRIAN: Now, this basic truth of American life– that we take our infrastructure for granted until it fails– has been on our minds a lot lately. We first started thinking about it this spring, as Congress attempted– and failed– to renew its long-term funding for federal highway projects. More recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the sorry state of America’s rail system. That, of course, triggered by May’s tragic Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.
PETER: Why is it, commentators wonder, that the world’s largest economy can’t get it together to pay for the physical systems that keep life running smoothly here? The share of our GDP allocated to transport and water projects is half what it was 50 years ago, and what it currently is in much of Europe. And it’s not for lack of need– the American Society of Civil Engineers says more than $3.5 trillion dollars are necessary to keep our public infrastructure in good working order.