Emotions After Dark - a Sociological Impression of the 2003 New York Blackout
by Chris Yuill
The Robert Gordon University
Sociological Research Online, Volume 9, Issue 3,
Received: 8 Jan 2004 Accepted: 20 Jul 2004 Published: 31 Aug 2004
Sometimes an unexpected event or crisis can occur that is of sociological interest where for a period of time a particular society is faced with a number of challenges. This sociological impression will explore one such event, the New York blackout of 2003, by developing a 'street level snapshot' of the experiences of New Yorkers during the power outage. The majority of material for this impression was gathered by acting as sociological fl‚neur, guided by the ideas of Benjamin, Simmel, Parks, and Jacobs into understanding the experience of modernity and city life by taking to the streets and directly observing what transpires. Further material from the internet and the media is used to augment the personal observation. Finally, drawing on the sociology of emotions a speculative discussion attempts to make sense of what was observed particularly the strong upsurge in emotion and the passionate way in which New Yorkers kept their neighbourhoods and city functioning. Throughout the essay reflexive and reflective comments will be made concerning the sociologist carrying out 'spontaneous' research into temporary but significant events.
Keywords: Emotions, Fl‚nerie, Modernity, Reflexivity, New York, Urban Experience.
1.1 New York was one of the many places affected by the power outages of 2003 that disrupted North America on August 14th. The blackout extended from Ohio in the USA to Toronto and Ottawa in Canada denying power and other resources such as water to an estimated 50 million people (BBC News 2003a). Somewhere, yet to be fully identified at the time of writing, there was a critical failure at approximately 1600 hrs Eastern Standard Time in the electricity grid that supplies much of the eastern seaboard of the USA and Canada, which lasted between 14 and 24 or more hours.. The power outage or blackout is perhaps indicative of what happens when late-modernity steps into crisis, albeit temporarily in this instance. If we extend two widely employed metaphors of late modernity, then the blackout could represent what happens when we lose control of Gidden's (1990) juggernaut of modernity and it rides the sidewalk for a while, or when we experience a minor eruption on the slopes of Beck's (1992) volcano.
1.2 This essay will not concentrate on the wider issues of the blackout but will instead attempt to provide 'a passenger's' account of what happens when modernity's juggernaut loses power for a while and what it feels like to be on the slopes when the volcano has a tremor by trying to give a reflective and reflexive sociological impression or 'snapshot' of the 'street level' experiences of New Yorkers during the power outage. Based primarily on my personal observations, but also augmented with media reports and material from internet chat rooms, my intention here is to provide something of a 'sociological record' of this major event that took place in a post-9/11 New York. To add more sociological substance to this vignette there will be some speculative engagement with concepts and theories from the sociology of emotions. Central to this impressionistic account will be one of the most notable features that occurred during and around the blackout in New York: namely, the heightened sense of emotion co-present with a shared spirit of commonality and solidarity, which pervaded the city, resulting in low crime, and little loss of life (Borger and Teather, 2003).
1.3 This account is part of a tradition within sociology that attempts to unlock the complexities of urban life and living by walking the streets and directly observing all that unfolds. A summary will then be made of the four main observations: the heightened sense of being, the lack of panic, keeping things ticking over, and the presence of mutual aid, after which there will be some attempt to refract the material through a theoretical lens. Woven throughout all of the above will be various reflective and reflexive comments.
On observing a...
"I suspect that I have actually covered more ground, tramping about in cities in different parts of the world, than any other living man." (Park, 1950: viii)
"...please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also linger and think about what you see." (Jacobs, 1961: ii)
2.1 This essay is built on the chance of unexpectedly being in New York when the blackout occurred. Suddenly finding myself in these exceptional circumstances raised many interesting questions and challenges for me as a sociologist. Having an interest in both the 'emotional turn' in sociology and urban sociology generally, I was interested to see how ordinary New Yorkers in their everyday surroundings would react to the loss of electrical power, one of western modernity's necessities, and to observe what emotional states would be present on the city streets with so many of the taken for granted aspects of modern life suddenly gone. No computers, no mobile phones and more unnervingly no light. Importantly, I wanted to observe the various emotional states first hand, to gain an appreciation of emotions as they happened in the context of a highly unusual event. These were my motives for taking to the streets and for walking around for as long as I could.
2.2 However, this should not be regarded just as an aimless wander but rather an investigation informed by traditions within sociology (and beyond) that seek to analyse, understand and observe the city and all the experiences that cities have to offer by pounding the streets and systematically observing what is going on, as the participant observer. Often it is the fast challenging and changing hurly-burly of the city that is most explored. This intensity of urban life and the ever changing dynamic of emotional experience that it creates has been well and famously documented by the likes of Simmel (1950) on Berlin, Benjamin (1999a) on Paris and Joyce (1998) on Dublin (Keohane, 2002). Exploring how the urban presents a sensory overload Simmel (1971: 325) notes that 'with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic occupational and social life,' we encounter a vast panoply of new and novel experience that can be both potentially threatening and overwhelming as well as creative. We respond to this by adopting a defensive blas» attitude that attempts to filter out this potentially identity dissolving onslaught of experience. Through dialectical images and dreams Benjamin attempted to unlock the 'prehistory of modernity' (Frisby, 1985) and discover emotional relationships with individual buildings and how we encounter and experience a city on a daily basis. It is the fl'neur, the disengaged street stroller, for Benjamin (1999b), who, walking around the streets and arcades of a city, is best placed to sift through and analyse the density of images, memories and experiences of the urban landscape.
2.3 It is the street for Berman (1984) too with its maelstrom of emotional activity that represents the rapid flux of modernity and its constant melting of existing forms of life that appear and vanish with every footfall. In the chaos of the street we may find all sorts of alternative selves. Jacobs (1961), a passionate commentator on New York, also brings our attention to the turmoil and hurly-burly of the constantly fleeting and varying worlds and interactions of the pavement and sidewalk channelled and corralled by the 'public characters' of shopkeepers and neighbourhood leaders who assist in the connection and resourcing of people and ideas. More recently Bauman (1992: 155) also has argued that strolling is still the best way to experience life and get one's 'teeth into some quite real bread' as opposed to passively 'munching images' as advocated by Baudrillard (1989) who opted for experiencing America behind the proxy TV screen of his car's window.
2.4 To a certain extent this exploration of the blackout approaches Simmel's 'method' of fl'nerie and taking 'snapshots' of modernity as being a way to try and gain some intellectual purchase on the rapid ever changing moments of modernity and by capturing them, trying to gain an insight into the larger concerns that frame those moments. The very form of a blackout, its fleeting contingent character, with no fixed or bounded temporal margins lends itself to Simmel's style of personal observation and essayism. I should also note that referring back to the likes of Park or Jacobs their insights into city life were based on extended, in Jacobs' case a lifetime of, observation. Here my time was restricted to five hours which limits how far I can push my observations into making any grand claims.
2.5 In terms of a method to gather data from the blackout, that too echoed the spontaneous nature of the power outage. It was very much the case that to investigate the emotional ramifications of the blackout I had to use whatever research resources I had at hand at the time as it was not clear why the blackout had occurred, or how long it would last. Gone were the usual 'props' and conventions of research: the planning, the developing or even pre-formulating research questions but rather prompt improvised action was required to explore this 'moment' before it disappeared. In this case, a subway map of New York to provide some orientation around the city, a level of fitness to walk several hours in quite high temperatures and my skills at talking or interviewing people were the research tools. I also set out to try and cover as much distance as possible and to cover a diversity of neighbourhoods and therefore social classes and ethnicities.
2.6 Most of my observations on and impressions of what happen were formed mainly in the Brooklyn borough of New York in a five-hour period. It may have been more informative to have continued beyond the five hour period to gain further impressions and observations, but in the height and humidity I was quite dehydrated and exhausted. My observations began in the Carroll Gardens area, a mainly upper-working class Italian American neighbourhood with low levels of noticeable crime and many visible examples of civic life and pride in the neighbourhood, mainly manifested in elaborate garden displays of Marian shrines. I then headed up to Williamsburg going past the Navy Yard along Flushing Avenue. Williamsburg is currently regarded as a 'cool' area (Shepherd, 2003) with a high presence of young people very much in the mould of Florida's (2002) 'creative class'. Most of the coffee shops, such as the Verb Caf», on the main street of Bedford Avenue are full of young people frantically working away on their I-Books pursuing various creative projects. After leaving Williamsburg I made my way back to Carroll Street along Nostrand Avenue, a mainly poorer African-American neighbourhood with more noticeable instances of vacant lots and urban deprivation before walking most of the length of Atlantic Avenue, a normally busy dual carriageway. It should also be noted that two of the areas, Carroll Gardens and Williamsburg are reasonably well known to me making it possible to appreciate the differences that the power outage made.
2.7 I also visited various side streets in order to interact with groups of people who were congregating on the street. In doing so a wide cross section of ages, ethnicities and social classes were encountered. Attempts to cross into Manhattan were thwarted by the tens of thousands of people streaming across Brooklyn Bridge, which made progress possible but very slow.
New York in a blackout: the observations...
3.1 In the five hour observation period a great deal of experiences and impressions were gathered that could be grouped into four distinct areas that will developed in greater depth below: the heightened sense of being, the lack of panic, keeping things ticking over, and mutual aid.. To try to mitigate some of the pitfalls that personal observation or anecdote can have as reliable data, further evidence from newspaper articles and web based chat rooms has been included in an attempt to triangulate my comments. For example, walking down a different street or through a different part of New York may have led to an entirely different set of observations; though I would add that none of the media reportage or chat room based material indicate that what I did encounter was radically different from what I may have observed otherwise.
A heightened sense of being...
4.1 This observation is hard to summarise as it was not so much something that was always visible and discernible in the movements and interactions of New Yorkers, but something that was felt, amenable primarily as sensation, a very powerful sense of heightened awareness and excitement. Life felt very different, sharper and much more urgent. This was not always apparent in how people moved, as most appeared outwardly very calm, but on talking and conversing one could detect that different state. The following extracts of comments by New Yorkers posted on a BBC News Website (2003b) convey well this heightened emotionality:
"It was glorious..."
"The sense of community amongst all of us "bridge walkers" was amazing..."
"Though it may not have been for those stuck in the city, I thought the power blackout was wonderful... Have to say, I had a great time: sat outside a deli in Brooklyn playing guitar and singing, drinking beer until three in the morning.... Seriously, the friendliness and willingness to help of the people of New York was truly moving..."
4.2 Further references to this emotional content can be found in the media, for example Westcott (2003) commenting on the 'New York spirit', but next day talking to people on the street or in shops the same range of descriptions as above of the blackout were repeated. Many shared the view that it was somehow a truly unique and special event often using the currently fashionable superlative of 'awesome' to summarise how they had felt during the blackout.
The lack of panic...
5.1 Even in the initial stages of the blackout there was little fear and at no point was there any 'mass hysteria'. There was concern and questioning but no outright panic. One response that did seem prevalent on this occasion was more of an enthusiastic acceptance by New Yorkers of what was happening with a will or determination to overcome and transcend problems created by the loss of power. One of the most interesting examples of this lack of panic and lack of fear was the way in which thousands of people left work early and made their way home, in a massive movement of thousands of people from Manhattan into Brooklyn. Given that the subway, New Yorkers' favoured transport, was out of use people had to walk resulting in the streets, sidewalks and pavements being considerably more packed than normal - in some places so densely that pedestrians were spilling out onto the road. Around certain key nodal points (Atlantic and Henry, or the access routes to Brooklyn Bridge) there were sizeable and almost overwhelming concentrations of people. The normally quiet pedestrian footpath over Brooklyn Bridge was almost solid with tens of thousands of Brooklynites returning from Manhattan - a very strong and powerful experience. The qualitative disposition of these vast numbers of people was one of calm and resolve, with many acts of spontaneous humanity: examples including, sharing water, assisting people over barriers and generally behaving in a friendly and courteous way.
Keeping things ticking over...
6.1 This aspect of the blackout was mainly visible in people spontaneously taking on traffic control responsibilities. Within minutes, most crossing points and junctions were staffed by local citizens directing and controlling traffic, some even appearing in luminous tabards similar to those worn by cyclists and construction workers. Notably, those who stepped forward to assist traffic flow gave the impression of being from a wide cross-section of ages, ethnicities, and social classes. The first instance of this spontaneous traffic control that I encountered was on Court Street where a middle-aged white woman and a young Latino male, whose appearance gave the impression of him being a construction worker, were making sure vehicles were moving smoothly through a busy junction. At all the various places where similar acts as this were occurring, drivers did not object to the presence and interventions of ordinary citizens assuming these roles, with directions and instructions being courteously obeyed. This was something particularly notable in the Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn, where virtually all roads from the beginning of the blackout until well after nightfall had people maintaining traffic flow, irrespective of this being main streets such as Court Street or Smith or the more minor streets such as in and around Summit Street. Spontaneous traffic control was widespread across the city with numerous other examples and instances noted in the media (for more accounts see, McCourt, 2003; Scott, 2003a). All of this happened without the assistance of the normal control culture; the police were notably absent for long periods of the blackout. It was only after nightfall that the police assumed a greater presence and even then this was largely restricted to major roads.
7.1 The normal blas» attitude of New Yorkers (see Stearns, 1994, for further discussion on the 'emotional style' of American urban life) and some of the defensiveness that one finds in most major metropolises was on hold during the outage. It became very easy to approach anyone and engage them in conversation. In the first hour news gleaned from battery-powered radios spread quickly that it was a breakdown rather than the actions of terrorists (McIntire, 2003). This is something in which I participated. Walking past people gathered on their stoops or at street corners, I encountered no problem in passing on and receiving information. The normal hesitance or reluctance to talk to comparative strangers on the street was notably absent. Numerous other examples of mutual aid were either reported in the mainstream media (see Greenfield, 2003, for further examples, though just about every media account testifies to this widespread generosity) or experienced by myself. For example, when I reached Nostrand Avenue it was after dark and I was looking particularly lost, a young African-American woman walked me down ten or so blocks to make sure I found the turning onto Atlantic Avenue. On Atlantic Avenue, a dual carriageway with little else except for a sidewalk, a van pulled up to check directions. The three twenty-something occupants (two men, one African-American, the other Italian and a European woman) offered me a lift near to the Fulton Mall, taking me considerably closer to where I was staying. I offered ten dollars for the ride, but the driver, looking embarrassed, agreed on two dollars. A notable point since tipping is the medium trough which one indicates gratitude in New York, but here in this situation this particular social norm appeared to be suspended.
General discussion- a case of collective effervescence?
8.1 Since this essay is based on my sociological impressions of what transpired during the blackout as I walked through Brooklyn in addition to gather some form of 'data', albeit in this case observation and impression, certain theoretical questions and issues also came to mind at the time. To what extent was what I was seeing reflections or examples of concerns within sociological theory? The two main and interweaving observations of heightened emotions and rational activity were reminiscent of Durkheim's ideas on how emotion underpins society and the non-rational basis of western societies. As Shilling and Mellor (2001: 41) remind us: 'Durkheim (1912) suggests that every aspect of our lives - from the most institutional to the most intimate - is motivated by the sacred, emotional, collective effervescence of group existence.' It is this collective/ emotional effervescence that was potentially at play during the blackout, an effervescence and collectivity that bound people together and motivated them to act in certain ways. Here, I wish to deploy a loose reading of his concept of 'collective effervescence', the emotional state excited by ritual. A loose reading in the sense that for Durkheim some form of set ritual, a special or unique event that shifts attention away from the profane and onto a more sacred place, is required to effuse emotions. Here I am suggesting that uniqueness of the blackout could have a similar role in exciting passions that contribute to a renewed vigour for the society in which people live. Therefore, what was happening on the streets of New York may provide an indication of this interweaving of collective effervescence, emotion and rational activity and I would like to speculatively proceed in this vein to see what sociological mileage can be gained.
8.2 The sudden and dramatic loss of power triggered an effervescence of emotion, and a sudden well-spring of feeling, but as noted before, the emotions in question did not include that of panic but of concern and resolve as well as excitement. There was a passionate rush by many New Yorkers to maintain the function and cohesion of the city, a strong august sentiment of care, concern and mutual aid, bubbling up in conversations with strangers, taking to the streets to keep the traffic flowing, calling on neighbours, offering someone water and informing others of what accurate news you knew and a myriad of other instances. There was evident a strong and visceral intention to keep both the city in general and one's neighbourhood in particular functioning and as free from trouble and problems as possible. Also the reverse is important to note, that for those New Yorkers who engaged in a more playful response to the power outage, that playfulness was only made possible by the passionate rational action of others who 'kept things ticking over' making sure roads were safe to cross, for example. It should also be noted that those who partied did not do so in a completely abandoned hedonistic manner. The activities in many of the bars and pubs mirrored the wider instances of heightened emotion already outlined. People in the bars were more friendly and open than I had previously encountered in New York bars, with the frequent free offers of cigarettes to anyone who asked for one being an indicator of this general mutuality. There was also a sense of 'looking out for others'. The non-existence of air-conditioning resulted in many drinkers stepping out into the marginally cooler night air, where they kept an eye out for people wanting to pass through, as well as exchanging banter with people gathered on their stoops and other passer-bys.
8.3 Some examples may be useful here to further illustrate the points raised above. On several occasions I became lost, particularly in the, for me, unfamiliar neighbourhoods of Williamsburg. One survival technique in most large metropolitan areas is not to appear lost and always look purposeful, components of Simmel's blas» attitude. During the outage, this was unnecessary as whenever I appeared unsure of where I was, someone asked if I was okay, and could they help. Normally, offers of help are best avoided as they could be part of an attempted hustle, where the unsuspecting find themselves as a result of a random street encounter being verbally coerced into purchasing something that they otherwise would not, but on no occasion did anyone ask for money or cigarettes or any form of return. Assistance was unconditionally forthcoming, in fact many people were emphatic in their desire to help, going beyond just simple directions: on two occasions people I asked for directions offered me their cell/ mobile phones to use, so as I could contact friends to alert them that I was okay. There were also no barriers such as ethnicity, gender or social class. A useful example of this was when I was lost trying to make my way from Williamsburg to Atlantic Avenue and asked a late middle-aged Latina woman I met on the outskirts of an area of social/ project housing if the buses were running and where I could get one that would take me closer to Carroll Gardens. We both had a basic grasp of each other's language and in broken English and Spanish she informed me that there were buses but they were running very late and it was difficult to find one that was not already full up. Underlying this vignette is the point as to how easy it was to initiate the conversation. Normally, white tourists like me are advised against going anywhere near such areas of social/ project housing due to perceived problems with high crime. Earlier in the day I had been warned against walking through a similar area near the Navy Yard, but there too I had only met helpful friendly people making an effort to offer guidance and generally just being interactive. Also, given the height differential and that night was falling the woman could have been apprehensive of a taller young male (myself) approaching her, but again she indicated no fear and was quite happy to talk and interact. Prior to the meeting with the Latina woman, I had been consulting a poorly detailed map of New York trying to orientate myself and a south Asian man made the effort to come across and ask if I was okay and where I needed to go. Minutes later while following his instructions a mixed group of male and female college students offered similar assistance.
8.4 It felt as if there was some collective will to assist and guide anyone who required help and those points were the most tangible in terms of experiencing effervescence that heightened sense of being where there was something above and beyond oneself, generated from the emotional confluence of all the other people one encountered. This 'exalted' sense of being felt quite intense, as Durkheim would maintain collective effervescence should. The following day the absence of that passion was highly noticeable, the world felt mundane and dull, almost hollow and false in comparison (see Scott, 2003b, for other examples of the blackout's 'highs and lows'). Durkheim describes something similar:
"Within a crowd moved by a common passion, we become susceptible to feelings and actions of which we are incapable of our own. And when the crowd is dissolved, when we find ourselves alone again and fall back to our usual level, we can then measure how far we were raised above ourselves." (Durkheim, 2001 : 157)
8.5 What may have happened here is that the power outage allowed for the experiencing of emotions that may normally be out of reach or submerged beneath the normally prevailing urban blas» attitude. The stumble in modernity caused by the absence of electricity meant that those otherwise buried emotions could become sensually and somatically experienced. This effervescence of emotion though, was not directionless but rather energised many New Yorkers to take control of their surroundings and maintain the function of the city.
9.1 What happened in the New York blackout of 2003 may be unique and not seen again if the power were to fail at some other time in the future. However, such unique, rapid and contingent experiences constitute modernity. Sociology as a discipline tries to capture and make sense of much of the disparate and fracturing nature of modernity and this essay has attempted to provide something of a sociological impression of what occurred during this falter in modernity. Whether it did successfully or not may be up to question, but the ideas put forward perhaps serve to illustrate some of the problems and possibilities of 'spontaneous' research into a social phenomenon that passes quickly but in its passing reveals and excites otherwise unseen aspects of a particular society. In this case of New York in the blackout the main themes under discussion - the heightened emotion, the mutual aid and the city ticking over- give a positive indication of what can happen, that the juggernaut may not crash or we do not all get consumed when the volcano erupts. What maybe of some future interest or of use is for other speculative 'impressionistic' accounts of atypical events to be gathered. This may provide insights into what a society was like during a crisis and further augment more traditional empirical retrospective studies.
AcknowledgementsAs with so much academically I would be lost without the invaluable input and assistance of Phil Sutton and Stephen Vertigans and, on this occasion, the helpful comments of the three anonymous referees. Also, I would like to thank Habiba, Aram and Fiona for making this whole project possible in the fist place!
Notes1 A power outage is the more common expression in the US while in the UK the term blackout is favoured when referring to a lengthy loss of electrical power. By way of some rapprochement to the two nations being separated by a common language I will, as much as possible, attempt to use both expressions interchangeably!
2 The blackout did affect more than New York as indicated in the introduction and there have been several other major blackouts (1965, 1977), which have also had a dramatic impact upon the city; however, these fall out of the scope of this paper. More information on the previous blackouts can be found at 'The Blackout History Project, <http://www.blackout.gmu.edu/transition.html>.
3 There are some methodological problems when analysing and trying to empirically 'quantify' emotions that I both witnessed and experienced in this situation. Is it possible to record and communicate the intensities of these heightened feelings using the normal conventions of academic prose style, which often suffers from, one could argue, the cool rational hand of Apollo seeking sobriety and formality? If we are to discuss and study emotions may there be other forms that the discourse could take? Reading over my paper the one thing that I consider is absent and lacking is a real communication of what it actually felt like to be in such a strange and unique situation. I suspect this may run the risk of reducing this analysis to a rather prosaic 'you had to be there' level.
4 This can be contrasted with a similar but smaller power outage the preceding year when a power station on Avenue C blew a transformer, which I also witnessed. There panic and a sense of fear pervading for the first hour or so as it was widely surmised that the loss of power was due to terrorist activity. The situation was exacerbated by a thick pall of smoke hanging over the Avenue C with rumours rapidly circulating that people had actually seen an aeroplane crash into the power station. The fear and panic was further heightened by three US military fighter jets, possibly F16s, flying down the avenue before circling overhead.
5 There was one occasion when someone did try to seek recompense for advice. A young woman asked if I wanted to buy one of her demo CD's after she had given me quite full directions on how to return to Carroll Gardens. This is quite common occurrence in New York, a city full of musicians, writers etc, and aspiring artists often attempt to sell their output on the street. I told her I did not have the five dollars she was asking, any other times this would have ended the interaction, but given the exceptionalism of what was happening she let me have the CD for free. Yet another example of the mutual aid!
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