The New York Times
CITY ROOM blog
July 14, 2007
The ’77 Blackout: Citizens as Traffic Cops
By Chester Higgins Jr.
When all the lights gradually dimmed and then went out over the entire city, it felt unreal, gradually it grew to eerie, then it became surreal and finally it was downright scary. With neighborhoods lit by the headlamps of cars and flashlights and candles giving homes their only hope of light: it was an emotional roller coaster. I could appreciate the beauty of a pitch-dark night, which brought me back to my childhood, but in New York City, I was surrounded by a multitude of strangers, not the familiar faces of my small community in Alabama.
This was a brand new experience. The realization that everybody’s lights were out was shocking. Technology had failed us and we were left to our own devices. I remember checking in with the clocks along Broadway, but the hands had stopped moving — frozen minutes and perhaps hours ago. The electric traffic lights no longer blinked their predictable red, yellow and greens. The subway had stopped working: I remember thinking how lucky I was to be above ground and not trapped in a hot, sweltering tin box in a tunnel underneath one of the rivers surrounding Manhattan. But in my safety I still feared that someone I loved could be one of those. Fortunately, the telephones continued working — in an era before the high-tech phones we now use that require electricity to function. Because of the 1977 blackout, I keep one of these vintage phones around — just in case.
Having traveled a good bit, I knew power failures firsthand, but there is a predictability when they happen often. People know their roles and they know that power always returns within a matter of hours. But here in New York, we had no history to rely on.
At the time, I lived on Roosevelt Island and my young children went to school close to our apartment building, so I had a low level of anxiety about their safety. I called home for reassurance before going out to make photographs for the newspaper. Knowing my children were safe, I was able to set out with a sense of adventure, but nothing prepared me for the traffic jams — gird lock — caused by people panicked and unwilling or unable to be courteous and cooperative.
All intersections were jammed. Nobody would give way. In desperation, I got out of my car and became the traffic cop. As my efforts helped car after car, it dawned on me that my own was still trapped. I had to figure out how to extricate myself. Finally a grateful driver held the traffic with his car, so that I could go back, get into mine and drive through the intersection. I drove on reenacting this drama, sometimes with me as traffic cop, sometimes with others.
Navigating the darkened streets of the city, I was searching for the shot that showed how New Yorkers were coping. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the shot I wanted to make. Citizens as traffic cops, citizens picking up the slack. Here, was a hint of the spirit of other cities, I had experienced, coping without lights.
I brought my film back to The Times and then began to make my way toward the
Queensboro Bridge and Roosevelt Island, one traffic jam at a time.
Readers are invited to share their own memories of the 1977 blackout here.