New Yorkers on city summer moments they’ll never forget
Summer memories stay with us, individually and collectively. We asked 10 New Yorkers from all walks of life, including playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mets legend Dwight Gooden and author Suketu Mehta, for the formative moments they’ll never forget. From blackouts to strikeouts to stakeouts to trips to the library, here they are.
For those who lived through the New York City blackout of 1977, what probably stands out most is the looting and vandalism that ravaged the city that hot mid-July night. By most accounts, the NYPD made nearly 4,000 arrests, and the Fire Department responded to more than 1,000 fires. The resulting property damage from that night, in today’s dollars, was more than a billion dollars. It was also the summer of the “Son of Sam” shootings. So, all in all, July 1977 was not a time when most New Yorkers were feeling proud or optimistic about Gotham City.
For me, however, what stands out from that night is not the fear that gripped many parts of the city, but rather the sense of community and caring that came over my working-class, immigrant neighborhood in Astoria, Queens. I was 12 years old that summer, and my family and I had migrated from Cuba just several years earlier. We lived in a three-room railroad flat in a neighborhood filled with first-generation immigrants from all over the world. Astoria was, and still is today, a destination neighborhood for recently arrived immigrant families. Astoria was also home to Con Edison’s Ravenswood Generator (aka “Big Allis”), and, as such, it was ground zero during the blackout, because once Big Allis was shut down, the lights went out across the city.
As that happened shortly after 9 p.m., and our eyes adjusted to the total darkness that enveloped our apartment, my first memory from that night is noticing the four flickering specks of light coming from the gas pilots on our stovetop. At first, we had no idea what was going on, but we knew it couldn’t be good. Then, as folks started spilling out onto the street and the air was filled with the familiar sounds of our neighbors’ voices, I could feel a sense of calm coming over my parents. We hurried downstairs to listen to the news that was coming from car radios. Right away, people started organizing and making sure that anyone who needed help, like apartment-bound neighbors, was being helped; street corners were manned to control traffic because the traffic lights were out. While I would come to learn later that other parts of the city were in a state of chaos, for me, staying up well into the early morning hours sitting on my stoop with friends and neighbors, the blackout of 1977 is an indelible childhood memory, in no small measure because of the sense of community I felt that night.
-Hector Gonzalez is a U.S. district judge.
It was hot. It was sticky. You darted glances over your shoulder in fear of a mugger. And yet, when Meryl Streep’s graceful genius rang out across Central Park, you also knew that New York City was a magical place.
It was the bicentennial year of 1976, but neither America nor its largest city had much to celebrate. New York City’s unemployment rate was over 11%, and the number of murders in the city had tripled from 548 in 1963 to 1645 in 1976. On October 30, 1975, the New York Daily News ran its infamous “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline. It seemed as if history itself were leaving Gotham in the dust.
I was 9 in the summer of 1976 and sensed that the city around me seemed to be falling apart. At the same time, my family was facing illness and loss. For that reason, in early June, my parents sent me away to my grandfather’s, and I would spend my first, somewhat excruciating, summer at sleepaway camp. But for a few days, I was back in New York, and somehow, my mother had wrangled tickets to see Joseph Papp’s production of “Henry V” at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
It was luminous. In the shadow of Belvedere Castle, I felt transformed out of place and time. As the New York Times wrote in its review, “Henry” is both “a martial play, with battles and talks of battles, conquests, fights and other less bloody encounters” and “a picture of a young man growing up.” What could appeal more to a 9-year-old boy?
Paul Kenneth Rudd provided a stirring, if nuanced, King of England. There was coiled power in his response to the Dauphin’s belittling gift of tennis balls: “Tell this pleasant Prince, this mock of his hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance that shall fly with them.” The play delivered a fulsome dose of courage. I turned again to Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech before I gave my first scholarly talk in the spring of 1990.
Streep, who played Catherine of Valois, was at the dawn of her great career. The Times gave her only seven words: “a charming French princess, by the way.” New York City was blessed with an extraordinary wealth of thespian talent.
Shakespeare in the Park reflects three central facts about New York City that manifest themselves especially in the summer. First, the scale of the city enables us to collectively experience amazing cultural events because the costs can be shared amongst so many.
Second, the city is a hotbed of talented entrepreneurs, like Joseph Papp, some of whom sell bonds and some of whom start exuberant nonprofits. Sixty years ago, the economist Benjamin Chinitz wrote that the small-firm-dominated garment sector played an outsized role in creating its entrepreneurial culture, because you do not produce “as many entrepreneurs per capita in families allied with steel as you do in families allied with apparel.” Papp’s mother was a seamstress and his father made trunks.
Third, the city has tremendous physical assets, such as Central Park. New York’s master builder, the redoubtable Robert Moses, first claimed that “theatergoers trampled the grass and Papp needed to charge admission to pay for the replanting.” Papp fought back, and, “A few months later, Moses did a turnaround and requested $250,000 to build a permanent Shakespeare-style amphitheater in Central Park.” For all Moses’ flaws, I am grateful that he provided so much of the infrastructure of my youth.
In the difficult days of New York’s 1970s, Joseph Papp’s “Henry V” provided both me and the city with that most indispensable of all gifts: hope. Hope is the one thing that has always been part of New York’s DNA, and I pray that it always will be.
-Ed Glaeser is the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics and chair of the Department of Economics at Harvard University.
In the hot summer of 1977, in a city pummeled by fiscal crisis and economic malaise, I was a kid volunteer in Bella Abzug’s raucous mayoral campaign, doing whatever the adults asked me to. One day, two operatives gave me a package to deliver to a business on West 42nd Street. They said, “Be sure to take the elevator on the right,” and laughed uproariously.
I made my way to “the Deuce,” a street I had barely encountered despite growing up in Manhattan. I walked warily past the seedy old theaters whose sagging marquees sported removable black lettering trumpeting “XXX” porn movies for men in long raincoats, and slasher films for audiences who liked to be warned at key moments by their fellow cinephiles that “The bitch has a knife!” In the August heat, many people went just for the air conditioning. 42nd was eerily quiet, except for small gatherings of sex workers, some sporting then-fashionable platform shoes.
I soon found myself in front of a dilapidated building that screamed “stay away.” I walked into the small, dank lobby, which was barely illuminated by a weak ceiling lamp. At the far end were two ancient elevators. I veered sharply to the right but nervously looked left. I saw an elevator painted pink, though the painting had clearly occurred decades earlier, and above it, grime-covered pink lettering saying it was an express ride to the “Pink Pussycat Lounge.”
I pressed the call button and waited, not sure if I was more desperate for my elevator to come before the doors to the Pink Pussycat Lounge opened, or more curious about life on the left-hand side. My elevator came first, and I got off at a boring, colorless floor and handed my package to a gruff man.
When I returned to headquarters, the operatives asked if I had taken the elevator on the right and laughed uproariously all over again. I didn’t mind being the object of their little joke, and years later I am grateful for it. Whenever I walk through the Disneyfied, Madam Tussaud-ed, tourist-mobbed “Crossroads of the World,” I think back on the grimy lettering of the Pink Pussycat Lounge and my glimpse of a quiet, gritty Times Square of a lost time.
-Adam Cohen, former member of the New York Times editorial board, is the author of “Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America.”
One of my most memorable summer experiences in New York City happened in the summer of 2003 during the Northeast blackout. I was in Midtown rehearsing at the Peoples Improv Theater with Freestyle Love Supreme. It was the day before our first-ever performance. We were still figuring out what the show even was!
In the middle of rehearsal, the power goes out. At first, we thought it was just the breaks of working in an old building. But we soon realized that the problem was much larger and stretched across New York and beyond. This was only two years out from 9/11. There was initial anxiety that this could be some kind of terrorist attack. And this is happening before social media. It’s before iPhones. We had very little capacity to contact family. Subways are down. Having to trek all the way up to where I lived on 212th Street was more than I wanted to handle in the heat. I walked to a friend’s apartment on the Upper East Side instead.
As I walked across town, I saw people helping each other, boutique stores letting everybody in to use the bathrooms or offering water and snacks, anything so people were comfortable. It wasn’t chaos. All of New York City was in the same boat, and New Yorkers showed up as their kindest selves. The next day, the Peoples Improv Theater still didn’t have power, and Freestyle Love Supreme was supposed to perform. We decided to walk our 16 audience members over to the Drama Book Shop on 40th Street, where there was power, and had our first show there. Freestyle Love Supreme has continued to perform for 20 years, playing all over the world, including on Broadway. It started in the blackout! I think about the spirit of that day a lot: New Yorkers looking out for each other, trying to entertain each other, getting through the unexpected together.
-Lin-Manuel Miranda is a songwriter, actor, director and producer. He is the creator and original star of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.”
All summer, we surveyed the water from our lifeguard chairs while — per the job description — we waited for something to happen. On Staten Island’s sandy strip of city beach, we worked in the shadow of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, polishing our tans in our department-issued orange suits. It was 1989, and we plotted what we were going to buy with our first fat paycheck of the summer. After eight hours together, six days a week, we eventually ran low on conversation.
But one annual event always added excitement to our summers, and that was the New York City Lifeguard Olympics. Guards from all five boroughs gathered to compete in physical events meant to prove lifeguard mettle. There was a boardwalk run, an ocean swim, a simulated rescue with two guards and a volunteer victim, and a triathlon that was a swim, run and catamaran row. We were city kids, and it was the closest thing we had to feeling like our buff counterparts on “Baywatch.”
The competition rotated each year among the boroughs, and on this particular August day, it was at Rockaway Beach. The chiseled teams from Rockaway and Coney arrived on the sand ready to dominate. They shared the same goal: to beat each other for the top spot in the city. Orchard Beach was a small but mighty squad, their athleticism honed working the only public beach in the Bronx. Staten Island descended on the scene like the underdogs we were, a skeleton crew bearing a homemade team flag. Our hope was to eke out a win over Orchard Beach. Rounding out the competition were the pool guards from Manhattan, and no self-respecting beach guard wanted to lose to them.
Coming from the city’s smallest borough, we had nothing and everything to prove. We pretended to take the competition lightly. But combine youth, sand and ego, and something takes over. We wouldn’t win, but we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves either. We exhausted ourselves trying, and came away with a respectable third place.
At the day’s end, Connolly’s Bar in Rockaway, a lifeguard standby, awaited us to wash away our muscle aches. The bar’s walls were papered with faded group pictures of smiling city guards who came before us. They were a reminder that for today, win or lose, how lucky we all were to share one of the best jobs in the world: to be a lifeguard.
-Gail O’Connor is a writer and magazine editor. She was a lifeguard at South and Midland beaches in Staten Island from 1988 to 1992.
I had quite a bit of experience before joining New York City Transit — stints as a longshoreman, 16 years with Con Edison and seven years in the Navy. But none of that prepared me for the reality of life underground working as a power cable maintainer for New York City Transit.
Transit is unlike any other thing I’ve seen, because of being underground. Working for Con Ed, we used to dig up the street trenches with jackhammers, but you’re outside. You can just grab a bottle of water and sit out for a minute. We don’t have those opportunities in transit, because we’re in the darkness.
In transit, we work in manholes and tunnels. The air is depleted down there, and you have to wear masks because there’s so much dust. You have to shovel out dirt by hand, and it’s exhausting. We’re really deep down on 16-foot ladders, and there’s no visibility. Everything is pitch black, and you have to walk these long tunnels with tripping hazards. The only time you get any air is when a train passes by.
We have the difficult task of carrying equipment down into the tunnels. All the work that we have to do before we get to do the actual work can really exhaust you. You're sweating, and then you get to the place where you have to work. You’re spread out a couple of hundred feet from the next worker, and if one guy stops pulling cable, and he’s in a central location, everybody has to stop.
One summer, we were assigned to put in a section of cable, and it was an early shift, around 7 or 8 in the morning. One of my coworkers caught heat exhaustion. He’s pretty knowledgeable, but he’s an older guy, and by the time it caught up to him, he couldn’t do anything. He cramped up and they had to carry him out of the subway station. He was off for five days after, because they said he was severely dehydrated.
They don’t have somebody specifically designated to give you water. Instead, you have to get the water once you’ve completed your task. And it’s kind of hard to stop working. You have the trucks up top set up, you have guys on the bottom. If a guy stopped doing what he’s doing, you wonder what's going on. The guy could be passed out. You don’t know what’s going on.
-Greg Miller is a power cable maintainer with New York City Transit.
When I think of summer, I remember blackouts.
Lin-Manuel Miranda accurately captures my 1977 blackout experience in the song “Blackout” from his musical “In the Heights.” There is that moment when you realize the power is out — everywhere. There’s the concern for loved ones and a rush of irrational fears. My mother worked night shifts at a factory in New Jersey and was reliant on public transportation, so we wondered whether and how she would get home that night.
The 2003 blackout was different. I was the New York City commissioner of finance then, and perhaps since we had already survived 9/11, people were friendlier; there was a greater sense of community. I remember driving my city car and shuttling staff members to various places around the city. Local store owners shared frozen goods that would melt, especially ice cream.
I do not know what would happen if we had a blackout this year. Certainly, some of the precipitating factors that some say led to the unrest in 1977 are present now: the disproportionately high unemployment rates for Black New Yorkers, economic inequality, housing insecurity, racial tensions and strained police relations. The refrain from Miranda’s song — “We are powerless ... Look at the fireworks ... light up the night sky” — could tell us something about what might happen.
This summer, should we lose power, I hope we remember that darkness allows us to see the stars, and that when we see and try to address issues together, we will never be alone.
-Martha Stark, former New York City finance commissioner, teaches at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She grew up in NYCHA housing in Brownsville.
After I immigrated to Jackson Heights, Queens, in 1977, at age 14, I loved the advent of the spring — marked by the blossoms on the quiet streets lined with semi-detached Tudor Houses that I’d walk to school along — because it meant that summer was nigh, and the possibility that I could soon go back to my lost friends in Bombay. I marked down the days left of the school year on a calendar, like a prisoner marking time in his cell till his release.
But my parents couldn’t afford to send me back, and so my best friend Ashish and I would instead take the 7 train to the end of the line in Flushing, then a bus along Northern Boulevard to the YMCA, to another kind of Asia — full of Koreans and Chinese. There we played ping-pong and learned to swim. Or we played cricket in Flushing Meadows Park, where the commonwealth regathered. The smell of yams and cumin chicken being barbecued perfumed the vacant, languid summer afternoons in the park.
Famished from a day of cricket, I took Ashish, who was raised in the nonviolent Jain faith, to Burger King, where he had his first Whopper. It was a transgressive summer.
There were girls at the YMCA, as there were not in the all-boys Catholic school we went to. When we weren’t at the Y, we were at the Queens Public Library on 82nd Street in Jackson Heights. There were girls there too, studying for the SATs. Jagruti promised she would go ice skating with Ashish at the public rink in Flushing Meadows, but never did. A pretty Polish girl named Marie entertained offers for who would be her first; a handsome Italian boy from my school won. The library was where immigrant nerds hung out and shyly asked each other out to the Jahn’s Since 1987 ice cream parlor on 37th Avenue, where, you promised the object of your affection, the “kitchen sink sundae” was bigger than your head.
It wasn’t a summer in Bombay with my childhood friends, but it was all right; I was on my way to making new friends in the country that was warming to me.
-Suketu Mehta is author of “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” and “This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.”
In the summer of 1997, I was on the team representing the government in a four-week criminal trial of a particularly unique New Yorker, Vincent Gigante, accused of crimes related to his work as the boss of the most powerful of the five New York mafia families, the Genovese. The press had given him the moniker “the Odd Father” due to his penchant for walking around Greenwich Village in pajamas and a threadbare cotton bathrobe.
Before Gigante could face a jury, however, we had to prove that he was competent to stand trial. The competency hearings took months, with Gigante presenting evidence from various doctors of questionable pedigree that he had basically been almost catatonic for decades. The doctors told the court, without prompting, that Gigante’s condition had remained in a semi-vegetative state, not getting better or worse, for over a dozen years. He could not write, read, count or converse in any meaningful way, they advised.
We had an ace up our sleeve in the form of New York FBI Special Agent Charles Beaudoin. Several years prior, Charlie had spent a grueling summer doing surveillance. The FBI was interested in bugging a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and first, it needed probable cause that a crime was being committed there.
This was not just any townhouse; it was provided by Gigante to his girlfriend, Olympia. Gigante was seen frequenting it often, when he was not staying with his wife and children. Charlie’s assignment was to position himself night after night on the roof of a school across the building’s backyard, observe what was going on inside, and dutifully record in his notebook what he had seen.
When I had first met Charlie to go over this evidence prior to the hearing, he was somewhat perplexed as to its relevance. He sheepishly said that the whole thing was kind of a black eye for the Bureau, because although a court ultimately gave them permission to place a bug in the townhouse, the team in charge of inserting the listening device drilled through a Venetian plaster bathroom wall and made a complete mess. Understandably, from that moment on, the townhouse curtains were shut at all hours of the day and night to keep out prying eyes. The investigation was closed, as a swing and a miss.
What Charlie lacked in specific incriminating evidence, however, he made up for in proof of competency. His contemporaneous notes captured Gigante reading the newspaper, counting money, and chatting with his girlfriend and others. My favorite vignette was Charlie noting that while he had seen Gigante wearing his tattered robe on the street, when leaving the shower, he donned a white, fluffy, “Brooks Brothers type” terrycloth robe — an image that helped carry the day with the judge (who found him competent) and then a jury (which convicted him on all counts).
-Andrew Weissmann, a professor at NYU School of Law and co-host of the podcast "Prosecuting Donald Trump," is a former assistant U.S. attorney.
Because I was born and raised in Florida, people always thought I enjoyed pitching in the summer heat at Shea. Nothing could be further from the truth. I always felt the sun sapped my energy. I always sweated a lot and never really got comfortable in the heat. I wore long sleeves even when it was 90 degrees because I felt the sleeves helped keep my arm in tighter and I could control my curve better.
I liked night games way more than day games. I remember one particular night game at Shea during the Cy Young year in 1985. It was Tuesday, August 20, against the San Francisco Giants. I felt good warming up, and I thought it would be a special night. It was. I struck out 16, allowed seven hits with three walks and pitched a 3-0 complete-game shutout.
Then and always, I gave so much credit to my catcher Gary Carter. Kid’s goals for me before each start were always the same, pitch a complete game and get to 10 strikeouts. Gary never cared if he got a hit; he only cared if we won.
I want to be honest about something else. When I was pitching, I said I never looked at the K Korner in left field which kept track of my strikeouts. Well, the truth is I looked at it all the time. I always wanted to get to double figures in strikeouts. That made the fans happy, and if I got to 10 strikeouts, I knew I had a good night.
-Dwight Gooden pitched for the Mets.
GIFs by Arthur Mount.