The New York City blackout of 1977 left most of the city without electricity, dark and powerless, from July 13–14. Some imagine the charge of tension that coursed through a city thrown into chaos with a bit of awe and wonder. For others, like third-generation New Yorker Arthur Nersesian, the blackout meant his father’s life was threatened. Its 40th anniversary in 2017 brings back memories of traumatic consequences and loss. On July 20, the author shared his experience of the 1977 blackout on his Facebook page, where he comments often on New York City’s present and past. Nersesian’s 11 novels, many of them set in New York City, have been translated into six languages. Learn more about Nersesian and his writing workshops, here.
Remembering the Blackout
Forty years and a week ago, I remember being in our apartment in Brooklyn Heights. My father, Arthur Nersesian Sr., had ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease] and was staying on 16th Street in Manhattan. I was in the shower when the lights in the bathroom went out. I thought he had forgotten to pay the electric bill. The phones were still working so I called him. My brother said the entire city had blacked out. Since my father was on a respirator on the 8th floor of a building this meant he was unable to breath. “GET OVER HERE! We gotta get him to a hospital, pronto!”
Soaking wet, unable to see, I fumbled through through a closet and all I could find was my father’s old suit. I remember putting it on the darkness, then pulling on a pair of shoes. No socks, shirt or underwear. I dashed down the stairs. It was only the first hour of the 1977 blackout. I was six during the 1965 blackout which passed quickly and uneventfully. This one was in the heat of summer and the city had bottomed out. Like the cage doors just popping open in a zoo, the animals hadn’t come out yet. I remember running through the Heights and over the Brooklyn Bridge. There were a few buildings with generators, but I’ll never forget how eerie it was. The bridge walkway was empty and seeing the entire city in darkness, it was like all of New York City had been evacuated.
I’ll never forget dashing through lower Manhattan and winding my way up Bowery. No street or traffic lights. Cars were sailing through intersections. Steadily the city began to unravel. By the time I reached 14th Street you could hear the shattering of glass all around. People were busting store windows: It was smash and grab time. By the time I made it to 16th Street and up the eight flights, I was exhausted, but we had to get him down a pitch black stairway. No emergency battery-back up lights back then. Aside from falling or dropping him, the muscles throughout his body had atrophied so if we moved too quickly we could snap his neck. We finally reached the ground floor and wheeled him to the old Beth Israel Hospital. They still had a generator. We were able to plug him in.
I remember catching some sleep with my legs in the stirrups of a hospital table and being awakened because a lady was about to give birth. For the next few days we were camped out in the hospital as electricity slowly returned. The city was going through a kind of peaceful civil war. Riots and mayhem but no gunfire, thank god. It had taken a toll on him, but we finally got him back to where he was staying, and an attendant to help look after him. I headed back to Brooklyn Heights to get my first full night sleep. When I returned, I spotted my brother on Third Avenue. He told me Dad had died. I was 18 years old. I was on my own from then on. That was 40 years ago today.
–Arthur Nersesian, July 20, 2017.
Watch American Experience: Blackout
The award-winning PBS series American Experience revisits the 1977 blackout in its documentary Blackout. Eight million people plunged into darkness in New York City and surrounding areas. By the time the power was fully restored more than a day later, more than 1,600 businesses had been looted, more than 3,000 people had been arrested, and firefighters had battled more than 1,000 fires. The affected neighborhoods would never be the same. First responders, journalists, shop owners, those inside the pressure-packed control center of Con Edison on West End Avenue, and other New Yorkers tell what happened when the lights went out on July 13, 1977. Members of THIRTEEN have extended access to this 2015 documentary through THIRTEEN Passport, which features on-demand library of quality public television programming. Join the PBS station THIRTEEN today, and stream American Experience: Blackout.