New York in particular was in bad shape, struggling to climb out of bankruptcy. Films such as The Warriors (1979) and Escape From New York (1981) captured the city's late '70s feeling of blight and despair. Among the many casualties of the hard times was the morale of the police department. At the time of the blackout, cops were rebelling against the mayor's plan to put only one officer in every patrol car, and on the fateful night, only 8,000 of the city's 25,000-person force reported for duty, while some who showed up stood by passively as looters rampaged.
Racial problems in Northern and Midwestern cities had also become inflamed. The riots of the late 1960s had tapered off, but among many urban blacks, resentment remained high, fueling the nighttime looting. "Being that the lights are out and the niggers are going hungry," a black New York teenager told Newsweek, "we're going to take what we want, and what we want is what we need." Of course, in 1977 the vast majority of New Yorkers of all groups obeyed the law. But the high number of African-Americans among the looters indicated that racial tensions were a key part of the equation.
Not only were all these problems severe in 1977, but they seemed to be getting worse. The nighttime disorder seemed almost unsurprising—a culmination of long-festering frustrations. In contrast, as any casual subway rider can tell you, today things seem to be on the upswing, even with the city's latest economic woes. The reasons for the recent turnaround remain contested, but they include the general prosperity of the 1990s, new and more effective policing strategies, and demographic trends (there are now fewer young men and teenagers in the age brackets most likely to commit violent crimes).
Perhaps most important, New Yorkers (and other city dwellers) have a greater sense of investment in their metropolis. Large numbers of immigrants, who have a stake in their businesses and communities, have changed the face of the city's neighborhoods. And while inequities still burden poor black neighborhoods, the deep sense of grievance that once gripped them has abated. A virtuous cycle has taken hold, in which civic pride has led all manner of New Yorkers to care more about their city.
George Will notwithstanding, the crown jewel of the Empire State—for now, at least—has neither declined nor fallen.
Thanks to Professor Kenneth T. Jackson of ColumbiaUniversity and Professor Vincent Cannato of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.