NY Skyline August 14, 2003

On August 14th 2003, New York City lost power citywide for the first time since 1977. To everyone’s collective surprise, nothing happened. No looting, rioting, arson or massive destruction of private property. While it was extremely inconvenient for commuters, many people simply used the sudden loss of power as an excuse to get to know their neighbors, have a cook-out and eat frozen food before it went bad.

On July 13th 1977, a different story emerged in some of the poorer neighborhoods of Northern Manhattan, Bushwick in Brooklyn and scattered areas of Queens and the Bronx. Under cover of the sudden darkness, hundreds of people took it upon themselves to “get what they wanted but couldn’t afford” according to one looter. Why did the lights go out? Why did they loot? Why did they set buildings on fire? Why did they destroy their own neighborhoods? That’s what James Goodman seeks to bring to light in his recent (2003) book about the 1977 blackout, now available in paperback.

He recounts the small private moments that individuals experienced, what motivated their actions, as well as the more well known images of Con Edison officials guessing at the causes and of looters carrying away all manner of merchandise as quickly as they could.

Bushwick, Brooklyn: July 13th, 1977

Stylistically he keeps true to the pace of events as people experienced them – both the good and the bad that happened on the streets of New York. He exposes all the different prejudices and stereotypes that played into the interpretation of the events of that night in a way that shows the emotions of the day in full light without validating any one. Some said that it represented the end of liberal idealism about welfare, other blamed the decline in morals, still others brought up the rampant unemployment and lingering racism that still limited the opportunies of those in the poorer areas of the city, etc, etc. Goodman hints that all of the various explainations had some truth in them but no one reason could explain the entire sequence of events.

My reading in light of peak oil brought several key factors that all contributed to the civil disorder:

  1. The City’s fiscal crisis that had resulted in cutbacks in social programs and policing
  2. An economy that had stagnated as inflation grew dramatically
  3. A high concentration of extreme poverty in some areas
  4. A relatively weak mayor (Beame)
  5. Existing high rates of property crimes and theft
  6. A critical mass of inital unchecked looting that created an atmosphere that made ordinarily good law-abiding people feel that looting was acceptable. (important because in 2003 the police had 3 hours to prepare before sundown)

My basic conclusion was that the blackout was the lit match that in some neighborhoods ignited an inferno. Without the preconditions listed above, the spark has nothing to ignite. In 2003 most of these pre-conditions were not present, but after of few years of increasing oil prices we could start to see an erosion of the city’s financial stability, which could lead to a situation in which urban chaos will again be a definite risk.

Also keep in mind that when Con Ed lost control of the system in 1977, they had the ability to produce 2 times as much electricity as was being consumed at the time. That was a system error. What will happen when we actually start to have regular brownouts and rolling blackouts to help reduce demand?