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'American Experience: Blackout' good, but incomplete

From "American Experience: Blackout" airing Tuesday at 9

From "American Experience: Blackout" airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13, the scene on 3rd Ave., corner of 58th St. in Manhattan, during "the blackout of '77." Credit: Bolivar Arellano

THE DOCUMENTARY "American Experience: Blackout"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT As a violent storm approached Westchester County on the night of July 13, 1977, a lightning strike took out a power station, which set off a chain reaction -- leading to a citywide blackout. By the time the sun came up the next morning, New York began to take stock -- 3,400 arrests, hundreds of stores in Brooklyn and the Bronx looted, a thousand major fires and a sickening sense that the city would never recover.

MY SAY Every New Yorker -- and every Long Islander (even if their power stayed on) -- of a certain age remembers at least one day from 1977, when the lights went out and hope seemed to go out with them. For years, "the blackout of '77" was essentially a code phrase for racial and social disintegration in the heart of a beset city.

But what's amazing about code phrases, this one in particular, is how they lose their meaning and power after the passage of so many years. New York has had a more traumatic day since then -- more traumatic by an order of magnitude. New York is also a young city. Many people probably don't even remember the blackout of 2003.

That's the value of this informative hour -- a collection of memories, facts and emotions all coalesced around one bleak 24-hour period. It's therapeutic to remember, so maybe this "American Experience" should be considered a form of therapy. But what's missing, glaringly so, is perspective. The story of New York since that time is actually more interesting . . . and ironic. "Blackout," for example, neglects to name one single neighborhood, leaving the impression that an entire city was looted and in flames. Of course that's not even remotely true: Worst hit were Crown Heights and Bushwick. No one needs to be told -- except maybe viewers from around the country where this will also be seen -- how much those neighborhoods and the rest of Brooklyn have recovered since then.

Another perspective that's missing here is one of the great truisms about this great city -- an almost magical ability to reinvent itself. New York certainly has since 1977, and the blackout was just one catalyzing event for that reinvention.


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