Just before ten o’clock on July 13, 1977 New York City plunged into darkness and chaos. The blackout, looting and arson that ensued left such a mark on the city that the event is still discussed today.
Citywide, the numbers were staggering: 3,800 arrests were made, $1 billion in damage was reported and 1,037 reported fires burned through the night—all this against the backdrop of the “Summer of Sam” murders and the worst fiscal crisis the city had ever seen.
In Inwood police and residents attempted to maintain order, but anarchy reigned until the power came back on the following morning.
Reports from the Heights-Inwood Newspaper painted a frightening scene.
Overnight the 34th Precinct made 15 arrests—mainly for burglary and criminal possession of stolen property. At 133 Dyckman Street three young men, one only 16-years-old, were arrested for looting an optometrist’s office. Other businesses on Dyckman Street including a television store, dress shop and shoe store were also hit. The list of looted locations grew throughout the night—a gas station on Nagle Avenue, a dry cleaner on Sherman Avenue and beer distributer on Ninth Avenue were but a few of the businesses affected.
“The atmosphere at the 34th Precinct,” wrote reporter Michael Rothenberg, “was tense, hectic and full of crisis followed by crisis.” (Heights-Inwood Newspaper, July 20, 1977)
Of an estimated eighty officers assigned to the precinct at least fifty were off-duty at the start of the blackout. By midnight some seventy-five officers, many from other precincts, patrolled the neighborhood.
“The feeling that North Manhattan was under siege from looters and vandals pervaded the air at the 34th Precinct,” Rothenberg reported.
The scene at the 34th was touch and go. A gas-powered generator kept the station house lit as Captain Eugene Biegel sent his troops off into the dangerous night.
“They’re setting Dyckman Street on fire,” said one officer.
The police captain would later recall that until the early morning people “were throwing garbage and rocks at radio cars—bombarding them from rooftops.”
The scene on the street was equally tense.
“There was a large crowd on the street and we heard glass breaking, alarms going off,” reported detective John Collich. “East from Sherman, on both sides of Dyckman, alarms were ringing. We grabbed the first two (looters) we saw, took them to the precinct and went right out again.”
Business owners, their shops in ruins, vented their frustration from the sidewalk.
“They destroyed everything,” said Dyckman Street optometrist Bernard Spanier. “Entire showcases of frames were taken or destroyed. Why did they do this? Who knows?”
City Councilwoman Arlene Stringer felt the extreme heat fueled the destruction on Dyckman Street. “It was so hot,” Stringer told the press, “it was an unbearable night. I think it was the heat that set it off.”
By daybreak, the violence having subsided, Inwood residents stepped outside to survey the damage.
“As the lights came on,” wrote the Heights-Inwood reporter, “and North Manhattan residents began to take toll, they found that pockets of the neighborhood had been ravaged, but most of the community saw the night through without serious calamity…In the morning hours, the lights went on for a few hours and traffic moved again in rhythm to red, yellow, and green and it looked like things would come back to normal.”