As I’ve watched the recent protests, riots, and looting that have swept the US and other parts of the world, I’ve been reminded of a piece I wrote a little while back about the summer of 1977 in New York, which saw people take to the streets (though not in exactly the same way and for the same reasons). Like the current unrest — which one could argue was set off by the trifecta of the George Floyd killing, the COVID outbreak, and the upcoming presidential election — multiple simultaneously-occurring factors sparked the anarchy of ’77 in the Big Apple. Both took place during the summer, as well, and New York features prominently in each.
Confronted with these striking similarities, I felt as though now was a timely moment to share this tale from the history books. So, without further adieu, let’s take a little trip back in time to the summer New York lost it…
New York City has seen its fair share of memorable summers. During the summer of 1967— christened “The Summer of Love” — thousands of bohemians and hippies invaded Greenwich Village in the Big Apple’s Lower West Side, bringing with them sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.¹ The summer of 1964 saw New York play host to the World’s Fair, an event which showcased American culture and technology, and drew people from all over the world.² But the summer of 1977 in New York was a particularly unique one.
Not because the heat wave that reached scorching temperatures of 104⁰F; not because the city-wide blackout that triggered rioting and looting of stores; not because a .44-caliber-revolver-wielding serial killer named David R. Berkowitz and self-dubbed “the Son of Sam” was on the loose — but because all this was happening at the exact same time.³⁻⁴⁻⁵ The restlessness and frustration due to the oppressive heat combined with the panic triggered by the power going out and the terrible fear of not knowing who, when, or where the Son of Sam was going to strike next, thrusting New York into an overwrought frenzy, the likes of which it had never seen before.
The city-wide blackout on July 13ᵗʰ, 1977 was when the sweltering heatwave and the Son of Sam collided — and the Big Apple reached its breaking point.⁴ This was not the first power outage in New York’s history. Twelve years earlier, in the winter of 1965, the entire city lost power for fifteen hours, leaving over 800,000 rush-hour commuters stranded in subway trains, roads clogged with cars, people trapped inside of elevators, and major airports JFK International and LaGuardia shut down.⁴⁻⁶ While they were both chaotic, the two blackouts a dozen years apart could not have been more different.
The power outage of 1965 saw New Yorkers band together, hand out candles to one another, direct traffic, and an atmosphere much like the 1968 comedy inspired by the blackout Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?⁶ In stark contrast, the blackout during the summer of 1977 was characterized by city-wide looting, vandalism and also arson. Hundreds of stores were broken into and ransacked.⁴ The fire department reported over a thousand blazes.⁶ More than 3600 people were arrested in the span of about a day.⁶ It got so bad that at one point “[t]he looters were looting other looters, and the fists and knives were coming out.”⁶ The cost of all this craziness— including everything from damaged stores and buildings, to stolen merchandise, to lost trading on Wall Street — was estimated at over 1 billion dollars, leading then mayor Abraham Beame to dub the blackout “the night of terror.”⁷
Kenneth T. Jackson, the former president of the New York Historical Society, witnessed both the 1965 and the 1977 blackouts. In a 2003 article in the New York Times titled “The Blackout of 2003” Jackson is quoted as saying, “I think the way that the ’65 blackout is remembered generally is as sort of an exciting challenge…it was recalled as a shared difficulty. In ’77, the riots and the arson and the looting were seemingly symptomatic of a city which was experiencing a very difficult time.”⁶
One element of that difficult time was the blistering heat wave in New York during the summer of 1977 — one of the longest and most brutal heat waves ever recorded. While temperatures were quite high throughout the summer, there was one nine-day stretch in particular from July 13ᵗʰ to July 21ˢᵗ where thermometers in New York reached 104⁰F (the hottest recorded temperature in the city’s history) and the average high was over 97⁰F (the hottest recorded average high for a heat wave in New York’s history). There were thousands of reports of deaths and injuries due to heatstroke and dehydration.⁸ And just as many of fire hydrants around the city being cracked open so that people could cool off for a little while.⁸
The city-wide blackout that sent New York into bedlam actually occurred on the first day of the nine-day heat wave, leaving citizens not only without air-conditioning (which not everybody had) but also with no fans. All the while, the terrorizing Son of Sam was still at large, having murdered his last victim less than a month earlier.
Before becoming the Son of Sam, David Richard Berkowitz was a letter sorter for the US Postal Service.⁹ He began his killing spree that would see six people dead and seven wounded in the middle of the summer of 1976, when he shot two female teenagers in a parked car late at night in the New York borough of the Bronx, killing one and severely injuring the other (authorities would later come to the realization that Berkowitz was specifically targeting female teens, especially those with long dark hair).¹⁰ By late 1976, Berkowitz had killed two more people (both female teens fitting his modus operandi), injured five more, and in a very real sense, taken the city of New York hostage.¹⁰
In a 2002 New York Times article titled “Summer of ‘77”, writer and reporter Johnathan Mahler recalls the atmosphere in the city with the Son of Sam on the loose when he visited from California during that fateful summer: “I was only eight, but it didn’t take long to figure out that this wasn’t the place I had imagined. When we climbed into a taxi my parents would roll up the windows and lock the doors. When we took the train to Yankee Stadium, my father kept a tight grip on my arm.”¹¹
As mid 1977 drew near, Berkowitz not only continued to terrorize and murder New Yorkers, but he managed to evade an unprecedented manhunt, and even left letters at the scenes of some of his crimes dubbing himself the Son of Sam and promising more murders — a promise he would follow through on.⁹
Jay Blaff, who was fifteen years old at the time and living in the New York City borough of Queens, remembers the effect that Berkowitz had on the city:¹²
He had been on the loose for a while and he had killed a number of people already — some in Bayside and Flushing, which are very near my area. Nobody knew who he was or what he looked like. It was a very scary time. Nobody wanted to go out at night…and they certainly didn’t want to go out alone. There was this collective feeling of dread and terror like, When’s he going to strike next?
That collective feeling of dread and terror was exacerbated by the oppressive heat wave. It made citizens, who were already feeling anxious and paranoid, on edge — especially in some of the poorer neighborhoods, where people had the added concern of making a living. Tensions in New York City were as high as they had ever been.
And then the power went out.
The blackout, which lasted for about twenty-five hours, pushed the city past its breaking point. It was the metaphorical straw that broke the camel’s back. People were already having to deal with a psychopath serial killer wandering the streets and a heat wave hotter than any in the city’s history. The addition of a city-wide power outage which essentially shut down New York was more than they could handle. Which begs the question: had it not been for the Son of Sam being on the loose and the cooking temperatures, would the blackout in the summer of 1977 have been more like the harmonious power outage of twelve years earlier?
No one can say for certain. But while the blackout was wild and chaotic, some New Yorkers actually look back on it with a strange sort of fondness. A twenty-year-old Seattle native living in an artist’s loft on Jay Street in Brooklyn during that crazy summer recalls: “What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting…[and] the Son of Sam roaming around, Blackout ’77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City.”¹³
Many others shared similar sentiments — like Jay Blaff, who perhaps summed up the sweltering, anarchic summer best: “If it had just been a hot summer or a summer [with a] blackout or one with a deranged killer on the loose, it still might have been memorable, but the fact that it was a summer of all of these things made it all the more memorable.”¹²
It made it New York’s unforgettable summer of 1977.
- Strausbaugh, John. The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2003. Print.
- Samuel, Lawrence R. The End of the Innocence: The 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007. Print.
- Greenberg, Miriam. Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.
- Frum, David. How We Got Here: The 70’s, the Decade That Brought You Modern Life (for Better or Worse). New York, NY: Basic, 2000. Print.
- Roberts, Sam. “Podcast: The Summer New York Went Nuts.” Audio blog post. The New York Times, 13 July 2007. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
- Gottlieb, Martin, and James Glanz. “The Blackout of 2003: the Past; The Blackouts of ’65 and ’77 Became Defining Moments in the City’s History.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2003. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
- Patterson, James T. Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
- Stark, Peter. Last Breath: The Limits of Adventure. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.
- Leyton, Elliott. Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. Print.
- Terry, Maury. The Ultimate Evil: An Investigation into a Dangerous Satanic Cult. New York: Bantam, 1989. Print.
- Mahler, Jonathan. “Summer of ‘77.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 June 2002. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
- Blaff, Reuben. “New York: The Summer of 77’.” Personal interview. 6 Feb. 2015.
- Chan, Sewell. “The Night the Lights Went Out.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 July 2007. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.