Where were you during the 2003 blackout? New Yorkers share their stories

The blackout, which affected an estimated 50 million people, hit just after 4 p.m.

Dan Nguyen/Flickr

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Fourteen years ago today, New York City went dark along with a huge swath of the Eastern seaboard, thanks to the largest power outage in the nation's history. But unlike the city's other famous blackout in the summer of 1977, which resulted in rioting and arson and increased New York's already high levels of anxiety, this one inspired camaraderie, and a lot of cookouts. What a difference a couple of prosperous decades and a national tragedy makes. We asked people for their memories of the blackout of 2003—where were they, and how did they cope?—and this is what they told us. Common threads include how insufferably hot it was, obsolete technology (remember Friendster?), long walks over bridges, cheap sushi, and beer. 

Neighborhoods listed below are where our storytellers were living at the time.

“I went to [the bar Candela] on 16th Street right off of Union Square, and after a while I decided I had to get back to Brooklyn. I saw a guy with a bike that had an extra seat... and I asked if I could hitch a ride. I think he got me over the bridge. Or near it. I remember getting to the Brooklyn side and the Orthodox guys handing out bottled water. I got back to Park Slope and the Italian ice place on the corner of Union [Street] and Fifth [Avenue] was giving away ice cream so it wouldn't melt. And the only food was pizza, because they had gas-powered brick ovens. I loved it. NYC is at its best in a crisis.”—Amy Keyishian, Park Slope

“I was at work, f---ing around on Friendster. Friendster was still kind of rough and always crashed, and when I clicked on something, my computer went dead. I looked around the office and saw all the computers had gone dead. I thought it was because of my Friendster use, and I was sure I was going to get fired.”—Karen Ruttner, Union Square

“I walked from 57th [Street] and Fifth [Avenue] to Carroll Gardens in platform heels!”—Bonnie Cohen, Brooklyn

There were no traffic lights to speak of.

Denis Milam/Flickr

“I was at work in Midtown Manhattan. There was an initial panic because it was less than two years since 9-11 and many of us were still traumatized. I ran down 25 flights of office stairs in a panic as a precaution. But soon everyone realized that it wasn't another tragedy, which brought out an elation and camaraderie in everyone. I spent the rest of the day hanging out on the Upper West Side. As the day went on, Zabar's had to sell their products at a discount due to lack of refrigeration, and the discounted food got progressively more delicious and high-end, starting with ice cream, and moving into high-priced fish. We ate very well.”—Emily L., Upper West Side

“I left work at Chelsea Piers just as all the traffic lights went out. I got home to Riverdale in 15 minutes. I get home, and my dad tells me my mom is stranded in the city and I had to go back in to get her. I head back in and sit in 1 1/2 hours of traffic each way.”—Michael G., Midtown

“I was at work and my coworker and I decided to walk back to Brooklyn from the Upper East Side. It took us hours. I have zero sense of direction, so I was totally dependent on her. When we got to Greenpoint (where she lived), I had to fend for myself to get back to my mom's place near Brighton Beach... I got on an insanely packed bus after multiple, other packed buses passed me by, that got me somewhere in the vicinity of Ocean Parkway, and then had to figure out how to cross that crazy thing without any street lights. Cars were not stopping. A random woman— a complete stranger—grabbed me by the hand and she and I just decided to make a run for it... To this day, I am still amazed that I actually made it home.”—Leah H., Brighton Beach

“I was up at the AmEx publishing building for a meeting... I was wearing high heels and a skirt, lugging a heavy tote-bag, but I figured I'd walk down Sixth [Avenue] to 34th [Street] and hop the train there... Once I got there, I realized there were still definitely no trains, and now the sidewalks were really full of people... Eventually I got fed up with trying to navigate the sidewalk, so I took off my heels and walked down the middle of Sixth Avenue, between the cars in the street, back to 21st Street, barefoot...At the time, I still had a landline, so I called up my best friend who was living in the East Village. I walked across town to meet her and it was a party. Everyone was sitting on their steps and in a great mood... That night, I walked home from the East Village to Chelsea and it was so eerie: For starters, the city was completely silent. It was also so pitch black that you could not even see your hand in front of your face... And when I walked through Union Square, I was so shocked when I looked over the grass where every single square foot was taken up by people sleeping in their business attire.”—Kendra

"I had a job interview that day [at] a recording studio in Yonkers... On the way back I didn't have the toll cash at the Triborough [Bridge], but it didn't matter because the tollbooths had no power and people were just curiously ambling through, not sure what to do. The sun was setting and as we crossed over to Queens and then Brooklyn. I will never forget what Manhattan, that electric mountain, looked like without any of its lighted windows from across the river."—Spencer

"I was 24, and it was the first time I had ever been between jobs. I was living in a tiny two-bedroom walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen and it was steaming hot that day. I remember that because I was about to watch Oprah, and the blackout happened the same instant I turned my AC from low to high. My immediate thought was that I had blown a fuse in my apartment. I legit spent the first 10 minutes sure I had caused the whole floor, then building, then block  to blow. I realize how silly that was now. Because I had only $10 in cash, I went down to the corner bodega to get cigarettes and realized: no power, no ATM machine. The bodega owner had out a notepad and pen and was taking IOUs for the regulars on credit. It was magical. As the sun began to set, the building door guy got really scared and bailed to get to the Bronx with his family...

"A new neighbor girl and I decided to walk to Times Square...It was so dark. You could see whole constellations from the rooftops in Manhattan. It was like camping. As we walked the two avenues we could not see in front of our hands. Then suddenly we crossed Eighth Avenue and boom: there was what could only be described in scale as akin to the scene in Gone With The Wind when Scarlett walks into Atlanta and all the soldiers are on stretchers on the ground. Instead of wounded, they were tourists whose electronic key cards wouldn't work. The Times Square hotels had put them all out on the street like campers and there was one fire truck blasting a floodlight on 42nd [Street],  so all you could see were silhouettes of the people—thousands—laying on the ground.”—Angela

"I was about 9 or 10 years old. My mom and I were visiting some family in New York. We were in my grandpa's apartment in his nursing home in Queens when the power went out. I don't remember who was in there with us, but they were afraid to turn on the gas stove. I remember the adults debating whether it was worth the risk trying to light the burner to make dinner, when the risk was blowing up the building... At some point, we heard an ice cream truck downstairs. My mom and I had ice cream for dinner and when we were done eating, we went back downstairs and found the same truck further down the street and we had slushies for dessert. My 9-year-old self thought the blackout was the best thing ever."—Simone

"I was interning in SoHo and all of a sudden, my computer went kaput. Then I noticed the ones next to me—same thing... I poked my head out of the window. The lights were out on Canal Street….And then suddenly the streets filled with people. It was my first year living in New York, and I had no idea how to get to Bushwick. Nor was I wearing practical footwear. I took another intern with me and we decided to walk to my sister's place near the U.N. On the way, I saw sushi being practically given away it was so cheap, a woman hit by a cab, and people escaping through subway grates.

"Finally, we got to my sister's building and all the old timers are sitting outside talking about the blackout of '77. The doorman got beer for all of us and we got some relief. My sister and I decided to walk to Times Square. It was full of people drinking booze and one giant police spotlight, everything else was dark. The diamond district was full of security staff since the alarms weren't working.The next day, buses were free. I took a bus to somewhere in Queens and then had to walk back to Bushwick, before smartphones! When I got home, my roommates, who were in their 30s—I was just turning 20—had smoked all my cigarettes and weed because they didn't know when they could get more. What mooches!"—Jessica 

“I was in high school, and my best friend was on her way to stay with me for the weekend. As she is on the way, the blackout hits. I have no cellphone and I’m alone in this apartment waiting for her, and I have no idea where she is or how to get in touch with her. A phone in my apartment rings because my parents owned a rotary phone and [it’s my grandmother]. I had her call my best friend on her cellphone and get updates, and we did this back and forth for an hour.

"Ultimately, my friend walked from Port Authority to my place in the East 90s. We did what any high school kid would do. We went to the closest bodega and bought all the beer and Smirnoff Ice. And a lot of ice. And then walked up 12 flights of stairs with them.

"We proceeded to fill bathtubs in my apartment with ice and make them a fridge for our beverages and get drunk... We decided it would be a mistake to miss going out on the town because of a silly blackout, so we showered in the dark and got dressed up. We went to the fanciest sushi restaurant we could find on the Upper East Side and ate tons of sushi. I think the bill should’ve been upwards of $300 or $400, but instead it was about $20 per person because you can’t keep sushi overnight without electricity… it was an actual dream come true.

"We walked back home because you can’t hail cabs in the dark  very well. We stopped by a deli to get some waters with a friend who lived close by, and we saw a very shady man in there, got concerned and left. Not even an hour later, our friend texted to say that the store was robbed at gunpoint.

"Long story short, every time the lights go out suddenly, I want sushi and avoid bodegas. And I also call this same friend.”—Ariel

Some New Yorkers stayed close to home, others chose to explore the city in the dark. 

Dennis Milam/Flickr

“I was at The Angelika, seeing a movie to escape the heat. I had to walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of people, most of us singing and carrying on. I walked up Smith Street and one of the grocers was price gouging for water... I’ve never shopped there since!”—EJ

“[We] were on the last plane to land from Europe, and when we got to JFK it was havoc. Customs was nonexistent and baggage was a nightmare!”—Emily

“I was watching the Red Sox game in my apartment in Queens, wondering if I should take the train into Midtown to submit a freelance invoice... which I'm glad I didn't. My neighbor had a cookout's worth of meat and beer in his fridge which we cooked up that night. Then we all gazed at a sky full of stars from the backyard.”—Mark, Astoria

“My husband and I each walked home from the Columbus Circle area to Brooklyn. Neither knew where the other was, nor where our two young children were. We found them late at night at a neighbor’s house with a dozen other area children. Our dear neighbor had collected everyone's kids so their sitters could begin their long treks home. And he had collected all of the meat from everyone's freezer and cooked it over coals in his backyard so the kids could eat and the food would not rot. Every neighbor on my little street had candles out when we finally made it there.”—Erica

Crowds of people on foot heading across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Alex Lines/Flickr

“I was walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge and smelling this crazy stench, only to learn that the group behind me had been stuck on the A train, and emerged through a sewer grate near the (then) Broadway-Nassau stop. And I was totally jealous of those who chose to walk across the Manhattan Bridge, which was far less crowded. People literally were jumping down from the pedestrian walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge to avoid the crowds and walk along the road.”—Nick

“I was working at Reader's Digest in Chappaqua. No Metro-North. I accepted a ride to Manhattan from a complete stranger who dropped me on the Upper West Side, then had a terrible bus ride to Astoria, where I lived... The bus ride was scary. Tensions were high and people were desperate to get home, acting a little crazy and ready to fight.”—Leslie

“I was at my best friend’s mother’s wake. We had to keep it going because people were coming in from Italy. Someone found a flashlight in their car and we stuck it in the coffin so we could see the body.”—Allison, Bay Ridge

“It was my birthday. My anticipation of celebrating with my friends and my sister, who was coming in from Westchester, at a restaurant deep in the East Village was swiftly crushed.

"With some ladies from work, I  walked from our office on East 52nd between Second and Third to an apartment on West 16th between Sixth and Seventh. I had no way of calling my sister or friends to say that dinner was canceled, and, maybe for the last time in a long while, I let that assumed truth just exist rather than stressing about how to contact people. One woman was able to get through to her boyfriend that he should meet us. He showed up with his friend, who I thought was pretty cute... Of course drinks were poured. We listened to a wind-up Victrola for effect. Someone brought a wind-up radio they'd recently picked up at a thrift store, so we stayed informed that way. I don't exactly remember eating.

"As night was falling, we decided to venture out into the chaos and made our way to the Beauty Bar on 14th and Second. Along the way, we passed pockets of people hanging out on their stoop, or on chairs planted outside their door, candles lit, and lots of laughter and conversation. The Beauty Bar was totally aglow in candlelight. It was pretty magical and blurry.

"It turned out that the cute boy was staying pretty close to me in Carroll Gardens. So he and I decided to walk back to Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge was also magical. The moon was nearly full that night, so even though the lights on the bridge were out, we could still find our way. It was so, so hot that night, and we'd been walking for hours, that we both decided to take our shirts off. I mean, no one was going to see anything anyway! And then we went back to his place and had blackout sex. Oh, and I'm still friends with him.”—Abbey L., Carroll Gardens

“I was working for H.Stern Jewelers on Fifth Avenue [and made] the walk to collect my roommate who was working at Barney's uptown. We walked the whole way back to the East Village…[and] ended up spending the night bar hopping...shutting down St. Mark's Ale House where our friends were bartending (all while watching a priest direct traffic and a neon cowboy roller skate around St. Marks Place), hitting up the bonfires in Tompkins Square Park, sharing fire/candles with locals and grabbing beers at 7B along the way.

"The next day we had an awesome day dining al fresco at Via Della Pace, who'd shipped ice and fresh veggies in from Brooklyn to feed us lowly East Villagers... Other friends were rollerblading and riding the bus uptown to grab cash from ATMs and of course ice to keep our beers cold as we barbecued on the rooftop and watched/listened as other boroughs and neighborhoods got their power back. It was a most magical day and I wouldn't change a thing! I moved here in 2002 and this, this was what made me a New Yorker for life."—Katie


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