John Dereszewski served as the District Manager of Bushwick’s Community Board 4 during the time of the 1977 blackout and has written and lectured extensively about Bushwick’s past and current history.
For those who only vaguely remember—as well as for those who were not even born at that time—1977 served as the culmination of one of New York City’s most critical periods.
It was a time during which the city nearly went bankrupt and the end of the crisis was nowhere in sight. It was also a time when, according to semi-official city policy, many of its most at-risk neighborhoods were considered basically beyond hope. Given the lack of funds to revive these neighborhoods, they were left to decline—and practically die—until new communities would ultimately revive them sometime in the very distant future. Bushwick was clearly one of these neighborhoods.
On the 40th anniversary of the July 13 blackout in Bushwick, we should reflect on the truly traumatic events that occurred on that date, including the all-hands fire that erupted in Bushwick only five days later.
Both events catapulted Bushwick into the public eye as a profoundly distressed community. Reflection provides an opportunity for us to consider just how bad things were at that time as we also consider a very different kind of issues that this “hot” neighborhood currently faces.
Long before the blackout, Bushwick had been suffering from the onslaught of elements of urban blight such as runaway crime, insurance redlining, arson, housing abandonment and the very steep decline in the delivery of basic city services. Yet, most New Yorkers didn’t have the slightest idea about the state of Bushwick as the press ignored the plight of the neighborhood. The blackout and the all-hands fire would soon change that.
The evening of July 13 was, as many of the previous evenings had been, absolutely sweltering. The oppressive heat fully matched the frustrations and despair that afflicted all too many poor New Yorkers. Thus, when the blackout hit at around 9 p.m., everything came to a boil as all too many people gave into their worst instincts and—rather foolishly—burned and looted the businesses that, often under difficult circumstances, had supported their community over the previous years. Even the neighborhood’s remaining movie house—the Loews Gates—would close that night and never re-open. This was a horribly destructive, though not entirely irrational, act committed in a very troubled time.
As a witness to the blackout’s devastation, I walked through Broadway on the following afternoon during what was basically the third phase of the looting. I still remember the horror of the destruction. Specifically, those stores that had not been burned were now an open target to whoever wanted to wrest whatever goods still remained on its shelves. It was all very ugly.
While the blackout and the resulting looting were major national news stories that highlighted the crisis that afflicted many of New York City’s poor neighborhoods, it was the all-hands fire, which occurred only five days after that really put Bushwick on the map.
Set accidentally by a few young people in an abandoned factory—now the site of the 83rd Precinct on Knickerbocker Avenue—the fire literally exploded and soon engulfed over twenty buildings situated on three separate blocks in a matter of minutes. Remarkably, this conflagration claimed no lives. The catastrophe, though, was page one news and focused national attention upon Bushwick’s plight.
The very next day, the Executive Editor of the New York Daily News contacted the Bushwick Community Board’s district office and asked to tour the area. This generated a series of detailed news stories written by such future stars as Martin Gottlieb and Sam Roberts that vividly told Bushwick’s story to a very wide public. This, in turn, made the future of Bushwick a major issue in the 1977 Mayoral race. It probably doomed Mayor Beame’s feckless re-election effort, and, in a meeting between the two mayoral finalists, Ed Koch, the ultimate victor, committed to making the revival of Bushwick a major priority.
Koch proved good to his word, and his administration strongly implemented such efforts as the demolition of literally hundreds of abandoned buildings that horribly blighted much of the area; the construction of the Hope Gardens public housing development—the last major such construction in NYC to date; the development of a huge number of Partnership Housing that made Bushwick an attractive community for many working class people who otherwise would have moved to other neighborhoods; and, as previously noted, the construction of a new 83rd Precinct that, at the insistence of the community board, rose phoenix-like over the ashes of the all-hands fire.
Even with all of these positive developments, the road to Bushwick’s recovery was still a very long one, and such serious problems as a continuing high crime rate and the awful impact of the crack epidemic significantly slowed progress.
It was not until the end of the last century that a new and revived Bushwick really began to emerge. One telling proof of this was that new housing developments, which previously required government subsidies to exist, now were built without any such support.
In 2007, the 30th anniversary of the blackout and Bushwick’s road to recovery were recognized by the Brooklyn Historical Society’s notable “Up From Flames” exhibition, which was organized by the superb Adam Schwartz. (The online version of this exhibit is still available and is certainly worth a visit.)
At that time, the celebration of Bushwick’s revival was tempered by the fear that the pendulum was now swinging in the direction of runaway gentrification and the resulting displacement of the neighborhood’s poorest residents. The events of the past decade have, if anything, further accelerated this trend.
As we take a big picture view of both the past event and future possibilities, a very ambivalent picture emerges. On the one hand, it would be foolish to deny the very significant improvements that have occurred in Bushwick as well as the valuable contributions its newer residents brought about.
In fact, some of the strongest advocates for the preservation of Bushwick’s still considerable rent stabilized housing resources and the implementation of much needed zoning reforms have been many of these new residents. But at the same time, the sheer force of the current economic trends does not bode well for those who will not benefit from gentrification, and continuing urban displacement looms as a continuing—if not inevitable—possibility.
Hopefully, this projection will prove to be overly bleak and policymakers will favor a more balanced approach. It will require the continuing efforts of all Bushwick residents—both new and old. How successful these efforts are will clearly emerge when we visit the blackout’s 50th anniversary.
All images courtesy of the FDNY via Up From Flames.