archive / 1977 blackout

Genevie, Louis et. al. April 1987. "Predictors of Looting in Selected Neighborhoods of New York City During the Blackout of 1977." Sociology and Social Research 71, #3: 228-231.


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Louis Genevie, Seymour R. Kaplan, Harris Peck
New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University

Elmer L. Struening, June E. Kallos, Gregory L. Muhlin
Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Arthur Richardson
State University of New York at Albany

This paper identifies characteristics of urban areas which predicted variation in the looting of neighborhood stores during the blackout of 1977 in New York City. The extent of social and economic problems in the neighborhoods including unemployment, violent crime, burglary of residences and underground economic activity was strongly associated with the amount of looting. Fear of going out after dark, a negative evaluation of the police and a critical view of the justice system were all positively associated with the extent of looting. The approval of stealing, especially under conditions of the blackout, was strongly related with the degree of looting. Neighborhood cohesion and social support were inversely related to the amount of looting.

Introduction. On a hot, mid-July evening in 1977, lightning struck two high-voltage power lines just north of New York City. This initiated a series of events that, within one hour, terminated electric service to more than eight million people in the New York metropolitan area for up to twenty-five hours (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 1978). Aside from emergency generators and automobile headlights, New York City was in total darkness.

Minutes after the Blackout began, men in trucks equipped with chains and hooks were being paid by crowds to rip off the iron gates and fences that protected neighborhood stores. Within fifteen minutes, stolen goods were being offered to neighborhood residents who were on the streets or stranded in apartment buildings without elevator service.

Although much of the looting was started by people who made their living selling drugs and stolen goods, young people were quick to join them and soon a carnival-like atmosphere pervaded the city (Curvin and Porter, 1979). Within two hours it became apparent that the situation was not going to end quickly, and thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens joined in what was to become the largest collective theft in history (New York City Criminal Justice Agency, 1977). The event, which lasted until late the following afternoon, was the most costly in New York City's history with property damage and theft in the hundreds of millions of dollars (New York City Department of Planning, 1977).

Several studies were conducted after the looting (Curvin and Porter, 1978; New York City Criminal Justice Agency, 1977; New York City Department of Planning, 1977). Only one, however, (Muhlin,, Cohen, Struening, Genevie, Kaplan and Peck, 1981) systematically explored the social dynamics of the event. Using census data, moderate relationships were found between the neighborhood's ethnic composition, poverty and social disorganization and the extent of looting among census tracts. The purpose of this paper was to infer the causes of looting by identifying characteristics of neighborhoods that were positively and negatively associated with variation in the extent of looting among neighborhoods.

Methodology. Area Selection. Data for this study were collected in two stages. First, 10 looted and 10 non-looted areas were selected based on the socio-economic characteristics of the area and of the number of stores that had been looted. This estimate was based on store owners' requests for assistance from the Emergency Planning Commission, an agency set up to help victims. Since only 20 areas could be included in the survey, efforts were made to insure adequate variability in terms of socio-economic composition, the level of commercial activity and geographic location of the areas within the city.

The neighborhoods selected for the survey represent the four major boroughs of the city and considerable hetrogeneity with respect to socio-economic characteristics. About half of the areas selected experienced little or no looting while the looted neighborhoods represented a wide range of looting activity.

Selection of Individuals within Neighborhoods. The survey was carried out in June and July of 1979. Approximately 30 individuals were selected within each target area, for a total of 602 respondents. Within each household, individuals to be interviewed were selected by quotas calling for an equal number of men and women, for ethnic proportions that reflected the neighborhood population at the time of the survey, and for equal numbers of individuals over and under 32 years of age.

To minimize sampling biases, interviewers canvassed only after 4 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends, when most people were at home.

The responses of the 535 individuals actually residing in the city when the blackout occurred provide the data base for the study.

Survey Questions. Respondents were asked a series of questions that focused on key aspects

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jts{27 June 2000}