Lights Out New York: The 1959 Blackout

New York City Blackout 1959
Joe Scherschel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not originally published in LIFE. Scene in New York during 1959 summer blackout.

In the midst of the monumental clean-up and recovery after the biggest Atlantic storm in history, Hurricane Sandy, killed hundreds of people and left a path of destruction and grief from the Caribbean to Appalachia to New England, looks back at a far smaller disaster: a blackout in New York City in the summer of 1959.

In photos made in August that year, a significant area of the Big Apple eerily recalls recent scenes in downtown Manhattan and other parts of the city — as well as in hundreds of other towns and communities in a dozen states — in Sandy’s wake. Streets that are ordinarily bright with light and filled with people well into the night are, here, dark and largely deserted. The landscape holds patterns and shapes that look vaguely familiar, but that don’t cohere into anything that we really recognize.

The scale of the change from “normal” to “not normal” in these pictures is miniscule compared to the devastation left by a hurricane (13 hours of no power, compared to days and even weeks without electricity in the post-Sandy world). But there is nevertheless something disconcerting — even in scenes from a minor, long-forgotten blackout — that reminds us how tenuous the barrier sometimes is between light and dark, power and powerlessness.

For its part, LIFE described the blackout in its Aug. 31, 1959, issue this way:

In the heart of glittering Manhattan island, a 500-block area lay swathed in darkness. Street lamps were out and no light shone from the many-windowed apartment houses. In their blacked-out homes, a half million new Yorkers made do without radio or TV. Those who ventured out found cafeterias taking on the candlelit airs of tea shoppes and taverns offering unrefrigerated beer without the usual juke-box blare. In the streets, people enjoyed watching police trying to unsnarl the minor traffic jams that resulted from the lack of traffic lights. Or they simply gathered in little groups to savor the strange aura of a seemingly lifeless city.

A massive failure had cut off almost all electricity in the section that bounded Central Park and for almost 13 hours the area was without power. The huge use of air conditioners and refrigerators brought on by a heat wave might have been the basic cause of the failure. When the lights went on, the city congratulated itself that there had been no panic and little misbehavior. In an area where crime incidence is fairly high, police reported only a few misdemeanors and a couple of picked pockets.

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