It’s argued that New York is America’s greatest city. It hasn’t always been that way. 30 years ago this summer, they forgot to put tuppence in the meter, and a massive blackout plunged seven million people into an eerie darkness. Then a hellish nightmare began.
Is that enough drama for you? Well, you should be dripping at the thought of learning all about it, which you can do when BBC4 screens Nightmare in the City That Never Sleeps (9pm, Thursday) in what looks to be an incredible documentary about the blackest summer night of ’77.
Continuing BBC4′s New York season, the documentary looks at the 1977 blackout which left the Big Apple flailing and on its back. With power well and truly vanished, anarchy exploded on the streets with thousands of shops being looted, rioting and entire neighbourhoods being burned. The whole thing resembled something from a shocking B-Movie. Sadly for the citizens of New York, it was real and the feeling of apocalypse filled the air.
The events leading up to the blackout saw New York hit by freak lightning strikes which tripped circuit breakers and loose locking nuts combined with a tardy upgrade cycle ensured that the breaker was not able to reclose and allow power to flow again. These strikes left two other major transmission lines overloading their normal limits. A jump starting of the grid was tried, but with no-one manning a key station, the restart failed.
With various complications and oversights, the biggest generator in New York City, Ravenswood 3 (which is also known as Big Allis), shut down and so went the lights of all of New York City.
What makes a blackout like this worthy of a documentary is that the blackout came at a low point in the city’s history, with New York facing a severe financial crisis. With the poorer communities generally being, well, shat on, they went to fetch their piece of the pie. In the city’s Crown Heights district, a huge seventy-five stores on a five-block stretch were looted, and Bushwick saw rampant arson with 25 fires still burning the next morning. To give you a level of destruction, the fact make for sober reading. Thirty-five blocks of Broadway were destroyed: 134 stores looted, 45 of them torched.
In all, 1,616 stores were damaged in looting and rioting. 1,037 fires were responded to, including 14 multiple-alarm fires. It also saw the largest mass arrest in New York’s history with 3,776 people being chained. It was estimated that the blackout cost $300 million in damages.
Fact fans may be interested to know that, during the blackout, Superman: The Movie was being filmed in New York at the time and according to director Richard Donner, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth mistakenly believed that he had caused the blackout by plugging a powerful spotlight into a lamppost.
Not only was Superman powerless to help the city, but the air seemed to be filled with the sounds of squeaking bed springs with it widely rumored that the birth rate in New York City went up 35% nine months following the blackout in 1977. Do not miss this. [Mof Gimmers]