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"Riveting . . . An engrossing, street-level recounting and ambivalent ode to a great city."--Jamie Berger, San Francisco Chronicle

On July 13, 1977, there was a blackout in New York City. With the dark came excitement, adventure, and fright in subway tunnels, office towers, busy intersections, high-rise stairwells, hotel lobbies, elevators, and hospitals. There was revelry in bars and restaurants, music and dancing in the streets. On block after block, men and women proved themselves heroes by helping neighbors and strangers make it through the night.

Unfortunately, there was also widespread looting, vandalism, and arson. Even before police restored order, people began to ask and argue about why. Why did people do what they did when the lights went out? The argument raged for weeks but it was just like the night: lots of heat, little light-a shouting match between those who held fast to one explanation and those who held fast to another.

James Goodman cuts between accidents, encounters, conversations, exchanges, and arguments to re-create that night and its aftermath in a dizzying accumulation of detail. Rejecting simple dichotomies and one-dimensional explanations for why people act as they do in moments of conflict and crisis, Goodman illuminates attitudes, ideas, and experiences that have been lost in facile generalizations and analyses. Journalistic re-creation at its most exciting, Blackout provides a whirlwind tour of 1970s New York and a challenge to conventional thinking.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Praise for James Goodman's Stories of Scottsboro:

"Extraordinary . . . To do justice to the Scottsboro story a book would have to combine edge-of-the-seat reportage and epic narrative sweep. And it is just such a book that James Goodman has given us, a beautifully realized history . . . written with complete authority, tight emotional control, and brilliant use of archival material." -- Chicago Tribune

"Superb . . . Mr. Goodman breaks fresh ground . . . One cannot read [this] remarkable book without being moved." -- The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly
Fear and looting in New York. That's how many remember the 1977 blackout. While Son of Sam was still at large and unemployment was high, nine million people were suddenly plunged into darkness on a hot July evening. Unlike the comparative calm that characterized the 1965 and 2003 blackouts, in 1977 mobs went on a violent rampage. Adults, teens and children torched buildings, yanked protective metal grills off storefronts and smashed windows to fill their shopping carts with food, appliances, jewelry and clothing. These groups outnumbered police (only 14 officers were on duty in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that evening) and robbed more than 2,000 stores city-wide. By the time power was restored after 25 hours, damages from the devastation had climbed toward $61 million. Rutgers history professor Goodman, a Pulitzer finalist for his first book (Stories of Scottsboro), carries the reader beyond conventional journalism for a multidimensional, kaleidoscopic narrative history, covering the events and aftermath from all angles: "I tell my story in bursts, recreating incidents, deeds, accidents, encounters, conversations, exchanges, and arguments, trying to evoke mood and place and time." He recalls the 1977 blackout through personal accounts, studies, public reports and period articles from magazines (Time, Newsweek) and newspapers (the New York Times, Daily News, New York Post, Village Voice, Amsterdam News). While the more mundane tales of revelry and inconvenience will appear familiar to many readers after blackouts this past year in the U.S., Canada, England and Italy, Goodman reminds us that the excessive looting of 1977 is the looming dark side of power outages in the electrified world. (Dec. 9) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In contrast to New York City's unifying experiences in the 1965 and 2003 blackouts, the July 13, 1977, power failure provoked chaos, as many individuals took advantage of the cover of darkness to loot neighborhood stores and commit acts of vandalism and arson. Goodman (history, Rutgers Univ.; Stories of Scottsboro) here explores possible reasons for the electrical failure and the subsequent criminal behavior, which occurred during a dicey period when the city had barely escaped bankruptcy and jobs were scarce. The book's appearance is fortuitous, given last August's blackout, but the author's dreamy style of writing, attempting to re-create the mood of that long night, contributes to the story's vagueness and incoherence. He skims a broad, glassy surface of experience that includes myriad details and points of view, yet most of the characters involved in the action remain unrealized and nameless figures (e.g., "the electrical engineer," "the Transit Authority Supervisor," and "the Brownsville looter"). The unusual format leaves the general reader, especially one with little experience of New York City, with far too much to elucidate. For academic or specialized libraries only.-Elaine Machleder, Bronx, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Jazzy, cresendo-building portrait of the blackout that hit New York City in 1977, stitched together in a series of compressed bursts of imagery and critical readings and events. "I begin my story in the last hour of light," historian Goodman (Stories of Scottsboro, 1994) writes, showing folks going about their business on a hot July evening in a sorely tried New York City, wracked by fiscal crises, corruption, political incompetence, Son of Sam, and a rude patch of weather. Goodman proceeds into the night, through a collection of short, fragmented narratives and stunning word pictures culled from a variety of sources and impressively gelling into a panoptic view of the city, Bronx to Battery—and out there in Bensonhurst, too. It’s a fine piece of choreography, matching the color values of the scenes with musical tones of the chromatic scale. Characters and experiences emerge from the dark, take their place on the stage for a moment, then merge back into the night after performing acts of kindness, generosity, patience, and good humor—or mayhem and meanness. Looters explain their thefts, Mayor Beame postures, Con Ed dodges, Boz Scaggs has to cancel because he needs electricity for his guitar, and the Linden Woodwind Quintet also cancels because they need to read their sheet music, but Simon Hench plays on in Otherwise Engaged. The New York Times goes to bed, but the sheets are short; a thief feels his heart play the tango when he spies a police officer standing outside the window that the thief had just broken through. As day breaks, Goodman considers the city’s flammable social fabric, relates the insurance companies’ quibbles, profiles the looters, and gives a brilliantwalkthrough of the crisis in the electrical lines. An afterword relates details of the 2003 blackout that affected New York and many other parts of eastern North America. A layered dance of characters and events on shifting ground, handled by letting the seismic disturbances settle where they may for us to watch and wonder.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780865477155
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/5/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,202,441
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

James Goodman

James Goodman is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of Stories of Scottsboro, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Manhattan.

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Read an Excerpt


Afterward everyone wanted to know why.
There had to be a reason.
People wanted to know what it was.
Or they thought they knew what it was, and they wanted to say.
Either way, they talked about it, talked in English, Spanish, Russian, and Korean; in Japanese, French, and German; in Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese.
For weeks it seemed as if they talked about nothing else.
They talked about why, when the lights went out, people did the things that they did.

People also wanted to know why the lights went out in the first place.
Not everyone, but some:
Reporters. Mayor. Governor. City, state, and federal regulators. Certain customers. Even the president of the United States, who happened to have a keen interest in energy.
So they talked about it, and they asked Con Edison officials, who also wanted to know but would have preferred not to talk about it. They asked Con Edison to explain what went wrong.
There had to be a reason.
People wanted to know what it was.

Con Edison officials said it was lightning.
They hoped it was lightning.
Lightning is easy to explain, and there is no one, on earth, to blame.

Or they thought they knew what it was, and they wanted to say.
They thought there was a reason, one reason.
One reason for all the things those people did in the dark.
One reason for the things they do.

Electrical engineers said it was more complicated than that. Lightning may have played a role, but to say that lightning caused the blackout would be like saying the wind caused the capsizing of a poorly designed sailboat sailed by an inexperienced or even incompetent captain and crew.

Almost everyone agreed there was a reason.

There was lightning.
Not so much in the city, but just to the north, in the rocky rolling hills of Westchester County, the precious wedge of New York State that sits atop the Bronx. So much lightning that in Oradell, New Jersey, a budding scientist, nineteen years old, who climbed out on his roof after hearing severe storm warnings on the radio, could see it, great bolts in deep dark clouds. He stood thirty miles from the storm.

But people disagreed about what that reason was.

Half the city's power came through Westchester.
It traveled along conductors, thick transmission cables, each made up of many strands of wire hung on hundred-foot steel towers. The towers were laid out like a letter Y--albeit a Y drawn by a very young child. The top of the Y leaned so far to the left (which was west) that its right fork pointed due north.
The right fork brought power from upstate New York and New England. The left fork brought it from three power plants along the Hudson River: Roseton, an oil-burning plant in Newburgh; Bowline, another oil-burning plant, twenty-six miles to the south; and Indian Point, a nuclear power plant on the other side (the east side) of the river. Left and right forks met in Millwood, like busy lanes of southbound traffic, and merged into a congested corridor of towers, power lines, and substations in the west-central Westchester towns of Pleasantville, Eastview, Sprain Brook, and Dunwoodie. South of Sprain Brook and Dunwoodie, the lines went underground.

So they argued: raised their voices, shook their heads, waved their arms, pointed fingers, as if they were hammering invisible nails.
And argued.

It is not anyone's idea of a perfect system. If Con Edison had had more land at its disposal, it would have run its transmission lines over soil that was less rocky and therefore less resistant to electricity; it would have built more towers and put fewer circuits on each one. But Westchester is squeezed between the Hudson River, the southwest corner of Connecticut, and Long Island Sound. Land is expensive, wide-open space scarce. Rights-of-way are hard to come by.

They had strong feelings and opinions.
The stakes were high.

Lightning struck right in the middle of that corridor, at 8:37 in the evening, in the midst of a ferocious storm. It struck a tower carrying conductors between substations in Buchanan and Millwood, 345-kilovolt lines that supplied 1,200 megawatts of power from Roseton, Bowline, and Indian Point.


The arguments took some nasty turns.
It was New York.
It was July. It was 1977.
Many people were in sour moods to begin with.
Copyright © 2003 by James Goodman

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