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Last Updated: Friday, 15 August, 2003, 17:06 GMT 18:06 UK
New York's 'good and bad' blackouts
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Online

Blackouts have a particular place in the history of New York City. They are seen as defining moments, and for those old enough to remember, Thursday's power cut will bring back memories of the "good blackout" of 1965 which became an emblem of the civic responsibility and resilience.

commuters gather together
Information spread quickly by word of mouth during Thursday's blackout
Twelve years later, in 1977, there was what the New York Times also describes as the "bad blackout", which, until 11 September, was literally and metaphorically, one of the city's darkest hours.

The nation's largest city was powerless, lacking both electricity and the ability to stop widespread looting and arson.

Blackouts, or power outages as they are called in the United States, are unique in that they suspend time for a period long enough to allow society to reflect on itself.

The largest power cut in North American history on Thursday has prompted officials to praise the "New York spirit".

Citizens were applauded for their calm by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also appealed to the spirit of camaraderie that the city exhibited after the World Trade Center attacks.

Congressman Pete King said New York was dark, but no one was panicking. "Maybe it's because of 11 September, maybe it's the New York spirit, but there's been very little panic of excitement, people are coping with it."

'Civic feel'

There have been stories of New Yorkers taking the initiative, stepping into the breach to direct traffic and help the elderly, and of motorists parking their cars and turning up their radios so that those stranded in the city could quickly find out what was going on.

There was widespread looting during the last powercut
In 1977 shop owners stood guard with baseball bats during bouts of looting
Professor Jim Sparrow, director of the Blackout History Project at George Mason University, describes the power outages as pivotal times in New York City.

"The latest blackout is strikingly similar to that of 1965. People have not only been behaving in an orderly fashion but there is an almost civic feel to what has been happening," he told BBC News Online.

"It's something to do with the emergency context of war. The Cold War created a civic culture. By 1965 when the war was starting to get hot, there was a broad sensibility of a trust in authority.

"Initially, some people though the blackout was to do with Soviet sabotage, or even UFOs, but there was a general sense that the government had things in hand."

In a post-9/11 America, there is the same sense that crisis could break out at any minute.

Looking back

"There is a crisis mentality that could explain why people are behaving responsibly," says Professor Sparrow.

In 1965, when the electricity went on again after 13 hours, New Yorkers congratulated each other for the orderly, even jolly way they coped with the crisis. The feel-good factor was such that it went into folklore that nine months later the birth-rate spiked.

A poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Centre the following year found that during the blackout there was an absence of widespread fear, panic or disorder.

View of Manhatten
It was the largest power cut in North American history on Thursday
"The only contagion of emotions that we could detect in the present study was that individuals perceiving signs of mirth in the behaviour of others were themselves more likely to enjoy the blackout," the poll found.

Twelve years later, Time magazine described 13 July 1977 as a Night of Terror. The New York Blackout, which affected the metropolitan area, saw power go out for 25 hours.

Hundreds of fires were set in poor, mainly black and Hispanic, neighbourhoods in all five of New York's boroughs. Thousands of shops were looted, there were more than 3,800 arrests and damage estimated at more than $1bn.

Bad times

Professor Sparrow says it can only be understood in the context of the bad times of the late mid-70s.

The Bronx became an emblem of urban decay
The 1977 blackout put a spotlight on areas like the Bronx
"By then, New York had gone through the very worst of the urban crisis," he say.

"It was literally New York's darkest hour. It was going though a protracted fiscal crisis that was just squeezing the services out of the city. It was also a time when the industrial jobs that had been so important to the city's economy had just fled to the Sun Belt. New York was in an awful pinch and right at that moment, the lights went out."

The blackout brought national attention to New York and prompted President Jimmy Carter to make a surprise visit to the Bronx.

"Pictures of the president standing amid devastation of the sort most Americans associated with bombed European cities during World War II shocked people throughout the country and made the South Bronx the national emblem of urban collapse," writes Joshua B Freeman in his book Working-class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II.

There are, of course, also pragmatic reasons why New York has seen little civil disturbance this time around. Some 10,000 police were deployed onto the streets, the economy is in better shape and the lights went out during the late afternoon, so people had time to respond before being plunged into darkness.

But, no doubt, New Yorkers will be congratulating themselves for a similar display of resilience that characterised the last "good power cut".

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