NYC: Front Line of Income Inequality

New York City faced a crisis four decades ago with a massive electrical failure and fear of crime. Now, it confronts another challenge, a vast gap between the super-rich and the rest, writes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

Forty years ago this summer, the lights went out. It was July 13, 1977, a hot, muggy night here in Manhattan. Lightning strikes set off a cascade of mechanical failures at Con Edison that plunged virtually the entire city into darkness.

Empire State Building in a view of New York City.

Nine million people were without power. Thousands had to be rescued from the subway tunnels. And there was looting — lots of looting. A thousand fires were set, 1,600 stores were ransacked and 3,400 were arrested. The total economic damage was estimated at more than $300 million — well over a billion in 2017 dollars.

I was having dinner at my then-girlfriend’s apartment when the lights went out. We tuned in a small, battery-powered radio and listened as news began spreading of trouble and violence around the city. The two of us stayed where we were and the next morning I walked back to my place a few blocks away. West 57th Street was almost empty; small groups of people gathered in front of their buildings talking about what had happened.

The power remained out and I climbed the 11 stories to my darkened studio apartment but the water was still pumping and I could shower and change. I worked at our public television station, WNET/Channel Thirteen, and the offices were closed. But their electricity already was back, so I went up to the local news department to see whether anyone was around. I was put to work writing news copy about the events of the night and advisories about closings that would be read on the air when the transmitter was up and running again.

That was one bizarre, long hot summer, 1977, and not simply because of the massive blackout. The city still was trying to pull itself from near-bankruptcy, just two years after the New York Daily News had reported the federal government’s refusal to help with the front page headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” (Not long after, Congress begrudgingly enacted and President…

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