Thirty Years Ago: Lights Out in Harlem

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City Limits Magazine, Summer 1977, Vol. 2 No. 5

Blackout Illuminates Problems in City’s Neighborhoods: East Harlem

Bolts of lightning striking power lines plunged New York City into darkness July 13, but the blackout actually shed light on some serious problems such as unemployment and housing in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

Life in East Harlem is harder today that it was nearly 12 years ago when the first major blackout occurred, and there is a widespread feeling among the people that they are being cheated, according to community leaders.

While the leaders deplored the looting of furniture and clothing stores and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet along 20 blocks of Third Avenue, they said the instinct to grab was understandable.

“People don’t have enough,” said Maria Anglada, a job developer and counselor for the Renigades Housing Movement, a community organization that originated as an East Harlem street gang.

“People have no jobs and they’re desperate. The majority of people here are on welfare. They have so little money that all it took was a conductor to lead the tune and everyone else fell right in.”

Ynes Leom, housing director of the East Harlem Tenant’s Council said, “They think they deserve it because they are being cheated out of having a livelihood. In these communities, the city has been pulling away.”

Both women said that the general reaction to the looting among members of the community in East Harlem, perhaps the largest enclave of Hispanic residents in the entire city, was one of horror and disgust.

As if to verify their reports, Manuel Cirillo, who owns the Two Brothers Grocery store at 119th Street and Second Avenue said, “There was no reason for people to do that. No matter what people say, there was no way to justify the looting.”

Eulogio Cedeno, director of the Renigades said he was concerned the looting would scar the relationship between local merchants and local residents and Ms. Anglada said the destruction would hamper the positive efforts of the Renigades.

“Most of us are working hard toward change. Things like this set us back,” she said.

Unemployment, poor housing, problem family structures and loss of hope were cited as conditions that set the state for the outbreak of lawlessness.

“Everything starts with the home,” Ms. Leom said. “There is the family structure. Ninety per cent of households here are headed by women and that’s not healthy. Housing here…is among the oldest. We still have railroad flats without windows in some rooms, which is illegal.

“Landlords come here to make a buck. Con Ed pulls out the electricity because the landlord doesn’t pay the bills,” she added.

Others said that the neighborhood will suffer become some of the businesses will not reopen, removing an important stabilizing force on the block, making shopping harder and wiping out jobs to local residents.

“If we can’t get help from the government, we’re going to close up,” said Eugene Riback, manager of Great Union Furniture Co. at 2163 Third Avenue. The giant store, in business for 70 years, lost a large inventory of furniture, washing machines and refrigerators.

Community leaders said the violent response to the power failures should drive home an important message to elected officials.

“For our peers in decision making positions, maybe they will wake up a little and see how desperate things are here and come into the neighborhood, come directly out to the people and see what is really happening,” said Ms. Anglada.

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