Forty years ago, in a thick summer heat, the creaking power grid that supplied electricity to New York City collapsed, leaving over 7 million residents in pitch darkness. It was not the first time in recent memory that Gotham’s lights went out, but unlike a citywide outage in 1965 and brownouts that befell select neighborhoods on a rolling basis, the blackout of 1977 provoked a calamitous affair.
Under cover of night, countless citizens - many of them residents of ghetto neighborhoods - initiated an orgy of looting and arson that left over 1,000 buildings partially or wholly laid to waste. They plundered more than 1,600 businesses. “The size of the store didn’t matter; who owned it didn’t matter,” explained the Westsider, a local community newspaper. Everything was fair game.
Rioters stripped clean a Pontiac dealership in the Bronx, driving 50 new automobiles straight off the lot. In Manhattan, they pillaged $40,000 worth of goods from a furniture store. “The restoration of power and the sunrise were the main elements in containing the emergency,” a police official claimed.
The great blackout of 1977 represented more than just the failure of Con Edison to keep the lights on. To many New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers, alike, it placed in sharp relief the failures of American liberalism. A once-great city, hailed as a shining example of what progressive government might accomplish, could no more uphold law and order than provide its citizens with so basic a service as electricity.
The blackout influenced a mayoral election later that year that witnessed white ethnic city residents - most of them stalwart Democrats - lurch sharply rightward and presaged both Ronald Reagan’s erosion of the New Deal coalition three years later and Bill Clinton’s winning formula for recapturing the White House for Democrats in 1992. In short, the aftershocks of the blackout foreshadowed the political transformation that saw the entire political spectrum move rightward for more than three decades.
Just as New York’s descent into darkness assumed thin political meaning at the time, its subsequent revival provides an equally useful guide to current politics on a national level. To understand why, it’s helpful to zoom out.
Between the 1930s and early 1970s, New York was a labor town where 40 percent of residents worked at blue-collar jobs, unions claimed high rates of membership and wielded considerable influence, and the city erected a social welfare state unlike anything else in America. Over 200,000 city residents attended City University of New York (CUNY), tuition-free. New York erected middle-class housing, operated municipal hospitals, imposed price controls on rent, staffed a world-class public school system, kept mass transit prices affordable for working-class residents, and offered municipal workers generous health and retirement benefits.
But by the early 1970s, it was bleeding manufacturing, shipping and construction jobs - one of scores of cities that suffered through a broader economic realignment, as industry moved south and overseas, and new technology propelled a service-driven information sector. In New York and elsewhere, economic growth slowed to a crawl, household income eroded, and popular enthusiasm for government spending - particularly on programs benefiting people of color - faded.
Everyday conditions told a grim story. In Gotham, welfare costs soared. Crime was also a mounting concern. It became axiomatic that entire parts of the city were off-limits to law-abiding citizens.
Even public transportation seemed increasingly dangerous. As early as 1965 the rate of “serious” crimes reported on the subways - robberies, muggings, armed assaults - increased by 52 percent, as the city reeled from one gruesome crime to another.
With its tax base dwindling, social welfare costs rising, drug culture proliferating and infrastructure crumbling, Gotham appeared to be the magnification of the country’s ills - and the very embodiment of liberalism’s failures. “The rest of the country looks upon New York like . . . we’re left-wing, Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers,” Woody Allen famously quipped in his film “Annie Hall,” which premiered three months before the blackout. “I think of us that way, sometimes, and I - I live here,” he wrote.
Allen wasn’t entirely wrong. After the blackout, the rest of the country expressed little sympathy for New York. On the contrary. The Washington Post decried the event as “an indictment of the state of the city, its government, and its people.” A writer for the New Yorker observed that “instead of comfort, what New York received in the first days after the disaster was often the punitive judgement that it had just got what it deserved, considering the kind of place that it was.”
Even many New Yorkers seemed to agree. That fall, voters chose Ed Koch, an obscure congressman from Greenwich Village, as their new mayor. A onetime reform Democrat and earnest liberal - staunch supporter of civil rights and opponent of the war in Vietnam - Koch perfected an instant pivot. He ran as a hard line, law-and-order candidate, regularly trumpeting his newfound support for capital punishment (a strictly symbolic pronouncement, given its irrelevance to the mayoralty) and railing against the “poverty pimps” and “poverticians” who turned hard-working New Yorkers into a cash machine for undeserving looters, drug pushers, and welfare recipients.
It was a surprising exercise in dog-whistle politics for a man who in 1964 volunteered with the ACLU to provide legal services to civil rights workers in Mississippi. But it resonated sharply in working-class, white ethnic communities where many Catholic and Jewish voters, particularly those in transitional neighborhoods, worried about crime, busing, and housing integration.
Three years later, many of Koch’s white ethnic supporters took their rebellion against liberalism a step further and embraced Ronald Reagan’s bid for the presidency. They believed that the Democratic Party had left them, not the reverse - that liberalism had come to mean the transfer of privilege from industrious white people to shiftless minorities. These were the “Reagan Democrats” - white ethnic, working-class, and onetime supporters of the New Deal order who revolted against busing, neighborhood integration, soaring welfare costs and crime, and affirmative action in hiring.
It was not only the Republicans who learned and applied these political lessons. In 1992, Clinton repackaged Koch’s hard-edge, urban political formula into a softer, New Democratic agenda: generous for the deserving poor but unforgiving of crime, demanding of personal responsibility, and limited in its vision of government’s proper scope and responsibility.
Forty years later, the physical wreckage of 1977 is but a memory. Neighborhoods that were particularly hard-hit are now overrun with millennial eateries, yoga studios and craft breweries. They’re bedroom communities for Manhattan’s revamped information economy. The political symbolism of the blackout no longer resonates.
In its place, a new divide has emerged: not between white ethnic backlash voters and their black and Latino neighbors, but between those who have benefited from the new economy - highly-educated workers in finance and technology - and those who struggle to make ends meet in a city with safe and clean streets but soaring rents and strained public services. Such was the backdrop of the 2013 mayoral race, in which Bill de Blasio, an unrepentant liberal, rode to victory on a “tale of two cities.”
New York is in no way a microcosm of the nation. But in 1977, its politics presaged what would later come to play on a broader, national stage.
The reclamation of neighborhoods that were ravaged on the night of the great blackout, and the heated debate about what they should look like, today finds meaning in the rise of populist movements on the right and left.
New York burned, and it meant something; it rebuilt, and it still means something.
Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of “Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image.” His forthcoming book, “Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House” will be released in February 2018.