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¡El Apagón! Puerto Ricans in the Wake of the 1977 New York City Blackout

by Carlos Vargas-Ramos

 

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a presentation made by Dr. Vargas-Ramos at the CUNY Graduate Center on July 13th, 2017, which marked the 40th anniversary of the blackout.


By the late 1970s, there was already a hefty literature on urban politics that described cities as ungovernable, and mayors specifically as incapable of managing the complexities of city life and its governance. Whether bogged down by an unwieldy and unresponsive municipal bureaucracy or done-in by the weather (e.g., Lindsay and the February, 1969 snowstorm), but assailed most saliently by crime and civil unrest, urban residents as well as those outside of cities perceived city governments as incapable of providing amenities or even respond to the basic needs of citizens.

The antipathy and disdain towards cities and their inhabitants was accompanied by material and cultural disinvestment, with growing economic and political resources designated for and allocated to the suburbs as they grew in size and influence, leaving cities with limited resources to attend to ever growing needs.

A great deal of the antipathy and disdain for cities has been historical, given the negative view of cities as dense concentration of the poor and uncouth working class, the foreign, and increasingly the non-white. When Puerto Ricans began to arrive in New York in large numbers after the World War Two, they were as a group overwhelmingly poor in relation to the city’s population as a whole, decidedly foreign (“in a domestic sense”) and largely viewed as not white. They would ultimately come to constitute an integral part of what in the 1980s would be known as the urban underclass.

The 1970s were a period of notable transformation for Puerto Ricans in the United States, and considering that up to that point the vast majority of Puerto Ricans in the United States resided in New York City, the changes taking place among Puerto Ricans in the United States were given by the transformation of Puerto Ricans in New York City. Perhaps the most notable change is the fact that during that decade most Puerto Ricans in the United States were no longer New York (City) Puerto Ricans.

Historically, New York City had been home to most Puerto Ricans in the United States, going back to the 1890s, but most certainly since the Second World War. However, between 1970 and 1980 there was a precipitous drop in the percentage of the U.S. Puerto Rican population residing in NYC. In 1970, 59% of Puerto Ricans in the country lived in NYC. By 1980, less than 43% did so; a drop of more than 16 percentage points, the most in any decade since World War Two.

What was happening with Puerto Ricans in NYC was not much different from what was happening to New Yorkers in general and to urban populations across the United States more broadly: those who could were abandoning cities. What was different for Puerto Ricans is that their migration and settlement patterns occurred at different speeds and at different moments from those of non-Hispanic whites who were driving the suburbanization process.

Puerto Ricans moved into NYC at a tremendous rate following the war, growing from less than one percent of the city’s population in 1940 to more than ten percent of the population in 1970, and twelve percent by 1980. While the city’s population growth stagnated during the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the flight to the suburbs, for Puerto Ricans its population growth continued at a rapid pace.  It only slowed in the 1980s to then decline precipitously in the 1990s. By that time, the city’s overall population had begun to grow again since its nadir in 1980, driven mostly by the foreign-born population.

For the Puerto Ricans who remained in New York City during the 1970s, conditions were grave. A report by the New York City Department of City Planning characterized their situation in this manner: “Few could envision the massive loss of manufacturing jobs which occurred [in the city] in the 1960s and 1970s. When coupled with the continued decline of the island economy, these changes proved to be very unfavorable for Puerto Ricans who had come to see migration to New York as a way of escaping the economic dislocation on the island economy… The result was a significant decline in labor force participation among the Puerto Rican population, particularly among women. Poverty levels increased dramatically in the 1960s and by 1970 Puerto Ricans were among the poorest city residents, many living in portions of the city which became national symbols of urban blight.” (p. 2)

Thus, poverty came to characterize New York City’s Puerto Rican population as a group, and poverty was a condition many Puerto Ricans came to endure.

These dire straits for Puerto Ricans in New York are captured by the following statistics. In 1979, one fifth of all city residents lived below the poverty level. For Puerto Ricans, the rate was 42.5%; twice the city’s rate of poverty. For Puerto Rican children, the proportion of those living below the poverty rate was 55.3%, compared to 32.2% of children overall. This was partly driven by the fact that fewer Puerto Rican households had earnings in 1979—61.8%—compared to 73% of all households in the city at that time. For Puerto Rican men, their labor force participation rate in 1980 was slightly lower (65.6%) than for NYC men overall (69.4%), while their unemployment rate was higher (11.6% vs. 7.6%). For Puerto Rican women, however, the labor force participation rate was notably lower (33.6%) compared to NYC women overall (47.1%), while their unemployment rate was higher (12.4% vs. 7.6%).  But even among those Puerto Rican households who did earn a living, their take-home pay was lower than for the population as a whole, even for the same class of occupation. For Puerto Rican men and women, whether they worked in blue-collar or white-collar occupations, their average annual earnings were lower across the board than for the population as a whole.

Thus, poverty came to characterize New York City’s Puerto Rican population as a group, and poverty was a condition many Puerto Ricans came to endure.

Puerto Ricans were poor, overwhelmingly poor. But they were not uniformly poor. The 1970s saw the makings of a fledgling white collar middle-class and skilled craft trades that supported a blue-collar middle class lifestyle. For instance, in 1980, among Puerto Ricans, 16 years of age and older, there was a professional/managerial class that represented 11% of those in the labor force and an additional 2% who worked as technicians. Furthermore, among males 14% of Puerto Rican workers were in precision production and in craft trades, while Puerto Rican women occupied 3.5% of this high-skilled blue collar sector, along with a strong clerical presence.

This incipient middle-class presence manifested itself in a bifurcated geographic distribution among Puerto Ricans. There was a small but noticeable shift of Puerto Ricans to the suburban areas of the city, specifically in Queens and Staten Island, so that by 1970 those two boroughs contained 5% of New York City Puerto Ricans and 10% in 1980. But the bulk of the Puerto Rican population, upwards of 70%, was increasingly concentrated in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. These were the boroughs that saw the fastest and biggest drops in population along with the biggest material disinvestment in the city.

Puerto Ricans, while a very poor segment of the city’s population, were not unrepresented politically. Their geographic concentration and population expansion, in the Bronx specifically, allowed them to elect political representatives at the city (i.e. Ramon Velez, Luis Olmedo), state (i.e Jose Serrano, Luis Nine, Victor Robles, Angelo del Toro, Israel Ruiz) and federal level; most visibly and most notably, Herman Badillo. Yet, their political representation and visibility were limited by the fact that their voter base was relatively small, and their representatives were not an integral part of the dominant governing coalition directing the destinies of New Yorkers.

In this context, the 1977 blackout was just an additional imposition that Puerto Ricans in poor communities had to endure, and it became further evidence of the general sense of abandonment they were experiencing.

In what follows I present some images collected from the leading Spanish language daily newspaper in New York City—El Diario La Prensa—around the time of the black out. What is reflected in the images, articles, editorials and letters to the editor during the weeks before and after the blackout was a simultaneous anxiety, frustration and fascination with crime, poverty, governmental and economic abandonment that affected disproportionately the communities these Puerto Ricans lived in. So the headlines news on July 1st about the death of the shopkeeper during a robbery is followed up with the news of a young man stabbed to death in a fight.

Click on the picture for additional images

 

Immediately after the blackout, the reporting focuses on the lawlessness and destruction as a result of the blackout, highlighting the law enforcement response (processing/booking thousands of looters), editorials criticizing governmental paralysis and demanding to know why the government and the electrical utility were not able to cope with its infrastructure in light of a previous experience 12 years before, and the governmental response to the havoc wreaked on small business owners.

Readers of the newspapers criticized the vandals and demanded a “mano dura” (a firm hand) against them, with others blaming Communists for organizing the looting; but also begging to attention for those left unemployed as a result of the loss of businesses in which they worked (We need help!).

The newspaper also featured prominently the type of governmental assistance that might be available to both address the destruction in the aftermath of the looting as well as to fund the employment of young people in the cleanup and repairs of the affected business districts.

But within a short few weeks, the coverage shifted markedly to the other leading story in New York City at the time, the Son of Sam, which captivated the attention of all New Yorkers. This attention included the fear that that “caliber 44,” as he was initially referred to, might target Hispanics, but also that the serial killer might himself be Hispanic (specifically of South American Andean origin).

Just as pressing was the other leading news of the moment within 3 weeks of the blackout: the bombing campaign by the Puerto Rican nationalist group the Armed Forces for National Liberation or FALN.

The blackout, therefore, was not the only dramatic event that capped that summer of 1977. It served nevertheless as a landmark event in a city that was hitting its nadir economically, socially, and civically. It exposed the enormity of the task to reinvest in cities in the United States at a time when there was hesitance and even reluctance to do so, when suburbs still offered brighter horizons. Yet it was also another element that spurred a call to action.


Photo credit of hero image to Bolivar Arellano.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices 02 August 2017.
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