Blackouts just don’t cause mass panic like they used to. Is it a symptom of the collective, let’s call it, ennui that has visited the population in the decades since New York’s most illustrious 1977 blackout? A sort of cud-chewing, eyes glazed over boredom with anything pertaining to “disaster.” It’s all happened–therefore all been witnessed–before, so why bother giving the universe the satisfaction of exhibiting a reaction? Yet at the same time, the more one ignores its fits and rages, its tempests and overheating, the more the globe wants to spin you on your ass as fast as its own speed at the equator–a thousand miles an hour. So it keeps finding little ways to jar, to disrupt. But it’s getting impossible to rattle the unrattleable. A society that has seen more than its fair share of incongruities take place over the years since it was once more prone to displaying hysteria and panic–or any trace of emotion at all, really.
In 1977, the blackout felt more urgent, preyed upon a moment of the public’s vulnerability and anger as they seized the chaos as an opportunity to take something back from the city that had been stolen from them in the form of a soul and a will to persist in the face of such slum-like conditions (for it was bankrupt, not the fat cat-feeding entity you see before you today). In the case of most black musicians, that something was DJ and music equipment (it’s no coincidence that the mostly black residents of the stretch along Broadway that separates Bed-Stuy from Bushwick were responsible for some of the most historic scenes of wreckage–how else were they going to spread the message of hip hop at a steady clip without a bit of free bounty to take their music to the next level?).
Yet in the latest edition of the blackout that came to visit NYC, the reaction felt more like an eye roll. Just another “minor” inconvenience that is merely part and parcel of living in “the greatest city in the world.” What’s more, it did not descend upon Brooklyn and just about every other corner of the city (save for certain pockets of Queens, the Rockaways and the Pratt Institute, which operated on its own generator). Instead it came to visit the rich on their Upper West Side perch and the open-mouthed tourists of Times Square and its neighboring Theater District. The geographical target appeared almost pointed, deliberate. Underscoring yet another difference between the blackout of now and the blackout of then: the assumption that any foul play could and should be linked to terrorism. Must be. How else could this plague upon Manhattan–affluent Manhattan–be explained? Blackouts were supposed to be of the sort of ills that only low-income residents suffered. Otherwise, surely such an affront to the wealthier sects of town had to be organized. Preordained by some black(out)hearted source. But no, it was all the fault of a substation with failed equipment on West 49th Street, that, in turn, triggered other substations in the area, so Con Edison said. One supposes it was better than them saying the outage was “an act of God,” as they had in the 70s. But then, New York was so much more sinful back then–could anyone blame ConE for thinking that maybe the lightning that struck the two circuit breakers in Buchanan, New York that would set off the entire chain of human resentment-packed events was God’s way of smiting?
And it was a resentment that was allowed to be unleashed in the manifestation of looting and setting ablaze the very city that had already turned into hell on earth anyway. So why not make it look as such full-stop?
Au présent, the NYC blackout is clean, orderly. There is no need to be alarmed, no cause for concern. It’s but an opportunity to document the telltale signs of imminent apocalypse on one’s Instagram. Isn’t cataclysm dope?
Rather than being presented with images of horror and destruction, we’ve been given scenes of Broadway theater casts turning lemons into lemonade by joyfully performing in the streets or images of a skateboarder blithely riding down the darkened pavement as though nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. Because any indication of the collapse of humanity is just, like, whatever.
But no, in the 70s, the outrage was palpable. New Yorkers weren’t going to take their blackout beating lying down. In fact, were going to beat it right back with ten times the force. This level of ferocity would be unthinkable now, in a period of “softening” by way of total emotional atrophy. A desensitization to much of anything, least of all being trapped in a subway or elevator for no viable reason. “Oh well, I’m sure it will fix itself soon.” There, too, is another aspect of why nonplussedness pervades all reactions to catastrophe. The assumption that some invisible force is working to fix it, and that you needn’t worry. We’ve grown complacent in the hands of our Big Brother, not minding that he watches us so long as he keeps the generators running while doing so. And unlike our 70s forebears, we don’t want to rock the boat too much lest we bite the hand that feeds us our electricity.
But a penchant for self-possession isn’t the only thing that separates New Yorkers in a blackout now from New Yorkers in a blackout then. It is the strange phenomenon of living in a “prosperous” (flush, shall we say) iteration of the city that makes its residents nonchalant about calamity. In a setting of destitution and scarcity, the aesthetics of a blackout induce the mass hysteria that made for such legendary vignettes of pandemonium. Plus, the city was already a cesspool as it was–adding to the appearance of unruliness wasn’t going to make that much of a difference. In contrast, when everything is “pretty,” people are less prone to defiling it (unless, of course, you’re Michael Jackson with a youth).
So no, blackouts just don’t cause mass panic like they used to. Whether that’s a sign of “progress” or apathy depends on who you shine the interrogation light on in the pit of blackness and muted despair called NYC (or J. Lo’s abandoned Madison Square Garden show).