Blackouts in a changed New York

This past Saturday I noticed a friend posting on social media from the dark interior of one of Hell’s Kitchen’s finer dive bars, Rudy’s.

“Uh-oh. Power’s out. Better drink all the beer before it gets warm.” That was the caption accompanying a photo of business as usual on a busy Saturday night at Rudy’s. There was never a lot of interior light there to begin with, so one had to take her word for it that there was a blackout.

A little while later, a message from work indicating a “Code Red” situation—the company’s building in Times Square was without power and this was a problem. I scrambled to join the emergency communications line, only to be told there were enough people working on this already, I could drop.

News reported that the West Side of Manhattan and a significant portion of midtown were dark. This was a major event though it was small potatoes compared to previous New York City blackouts. It was short-lived as well. By 10 p.m. power had been restored to much of the affected areas, and my employers’ building in midtown had power again but was still waiting for electricians to arrive to make sure everything was up and running.

The cause was not immediately known and Con Edison does not have a great track record of accountability when these things do happen. Several years ago, a significant portion of Astoria, Queens was out of power for an extended period of time. Sadly, an outage in Manhattan generates greater news coverage and more intense scrutiny.

New York City suffered a blackout exactly 42 years ago to the day of the one this past Saturday. On July 13, 1977 a blackout hit New York City and was the scene of widespread looting and arson.

Seventeen years ago this August marks the anniversary of the 2003 blackout that darkened a significant swath of the Northeastern United States. I was downtown getting ready for a late night of editing at work and wound up taking a 12-mile walk home over almost the entire length of Manhattan. Although incidents of looting were underreported, they were indeed rare and the peaceful evening rush hour and dark night was a testament to the transformation that had happened in the years since 1977.

Even after walking 12 miles to get home in crumbling shoes that blistered my feet, I walked around my neighborhood of Inwood in Manhattan, amazed at the peacefulness of the city at such a time. People played dominoes in the moonlight near the Dyckman Farmhouse, and the sound of steel drums and street parties filtered up from blocks away.

Power outages serve as a barometer of where New York resides along the lawlessness spectrum. Are we close to widespread chaos or will the line hold during a night in the total dark? The Manhattan blackout of July 2019 showed we are holding the line for now.

It was a relief to find that New York has not regressed to the point of making our blackouts more of the 1977 variety. But that question will always linger in the back of New Yorkers’ minds, and maybe we should get to a point that it shouldn’t be there at all. How much has to be done to create that city, that country, that world, and will we ever get there? And what is being done to make sure that we don’t lose power during critical summer months?

A relieved city needs those answers.

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