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The night the lights went out in New York

The New York skyline, with no lights on, the morning after the blackout. Allan Tannenbaum/Getty

Just after 9.28pm on 13 July, 1977, say Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland on The Rest is History, an unfortunate series of lightning strikes led to the power going out across all five boroughs of New York. “Every light in the city flickered off.” Subway trains, lifts, air conditioning, televisions, refrigerators – “everything stopped”. The only lights that stayed on were the aircraft beacons at the top of two skyscrapers and the flame in the torch of the Statue of Liberty. In the more salubrious part of the city, it was “all very civilised”. The harpist at the Metropolitan Opera played Dancing in the Dark. Restaurants on the Upper East Side moved their tables into the streets and illuminated them with car headlights. It was the New York of “a Woody Allen comedy”.

Elsewhere, things were very different. Within minutes of the blackout starting, people in Alphabet City, downtown Manhattan, began “ransacking the shops, smashing the windows and grabbing stuff”. In the Bronx, 200 people broke into an Ace Pontiac showroom and drove off with 50 of the cars, “in single file, through the glass and out on to the street”. It wasn’t just the poor – “affluent shoppers” got caught up in the moment, too, with one woman spotted stuffing a bag of ice into her Louis Vuitton handbag. The power came back on the following day. But for many, the widespread scenes of lawlessness and violence – what the New York Post described as “24 Hours of Terror” – epitomised the decay of America’s biggest city in the 1970s. “We knew exactly what to expect from New York,” said an official in Miami, “and they didn’t let us down.”