- Historic Sites
A never-before seen report shows just how fragile our great cities were—and are
February/March 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 1
Within three hours the professionals had joined in. On Thursday evening there were 45 bank holdups. Armed and unarmed robberies, assaults, burglaries, rapes, and other crimes against people and property increased to 12 times normal by nightfall.
After dark the real trouble began. The looters had filled their pockets and departed, and now the crimes of vengeance started. The daytime amateur thieves had been a good-natured mob, but darkness brought out old hatreds. Snipers appeared on rooftops, firing at real or fancied enemies. Business rivals tried to smash or burn their competitors. The poor and unemployed committed random vandalism against what they believed to be the property of the rich. Black and Hispanic militants roamed the streets in search of white people or property to hurt or destroy, and white hoodlums looked for minority individuals on whom to vent racial backlash vengeance.
A crowed gathered at Gracie Mansion and another at City Hall to “get the politicians” who, they believed, were responsible for the troubles. They were beaten back by armed guards, hired from a private agency, before they could ever enter the buildings.
The mayor was surprised by the intensity of the rioting and looting. Advisers had told him that the city police strike of 1971 had caused no increase in the crime rate. But they had overlooked the fact that the 1971 strike took place in winter during a period of bitter cold. Also, striking policemen had reported to their precincts although they refused all patrol assignments. Criminals and honest citizens alike knew that they were on hand for emergencies. But now the precinct houses were locked. Some striking office had disabled police cars before leaving. A few surviving patrol vehicles, driven by senior-ranking officers, had managed to struggle through the less congested streets, but the men were reluctant to approach the rioters and looters, who greatly outnumbered them.
Early in the day an average number of fires had been reported. Citizens were able to manage the small ones without help, although there were reports of interference or harassment by striking firemen. By nightfall the fires had increased, aggravated by incidents of arson. Hoodlums and militants set abandoned buildings afire, and a number of suspicious blazes broke out in business areas where insurance settlements might outweigh falling profits. Some fires spread to neighboring buildings unchecked by nonexistent preventive action.
Many small government agencies and a few of the larger ones had reported that they could carry out essential functions using only managerial or professional nonunion staff. However, by day’s end, nonstrikers had realized that Taylor Law (the state mandate that bars strikes by public employees under threat of heavy fines for both workers and unions) penalties were small compared with potential losses at home to looters, burglars, or fires. Many of them announced to their superiors that they would not return to work until the strike was settled, however long that might be. They preferred to remain barricaded in their homes with reserves of food, water, and fire extinguishers. Thus, contingency plans for maintaining essential city services were rendered partially ineffective. The mayor appealed to senior fire officers to report for duty to drive engines and respond to alarms, but they refused to do so. Even if they had not refused, equipment would have had a difficult if not impossible task trying to get through the jammed streets.
Excited by strike reports leaking through the grapevine, prisoners in the city detention centers in all boroughs rioted, smashing their toilet bowls and setting mattresses afire. The few remaining supervisory personnel in charge were forced to unlock cellblocks and watch helplessly while prisoners, including those in hospital psychiatric wards, ran into the streets and disappeared.
It was now reported that maintenance and repair mechanics had walked out at the watersupply pumping stations, sewage-treatment plants, and garbage incinerators. Supervisors took over but could do little other than maintain the security of the equipment. The chief engineer reported to the mayor that he could not be certain the pumping-station equipment had not been tampered with. Teenagers, helped by striking firemen, had opened fire hydrants throughout the boroughs, and water pressure had dropped alarmingly. Consolidated Edison reported that the pressure drop had forced the shutdown of four boilers at its Hell Gate plant and that more trouble was predicted unless action could be taken soon.
10,000 tons of garbage accumulated, drawing sewer rats into streets and parks.
The city’s 13 sewage-treatment plants shut down when their 8,000 workers departed. It was necessary to dump untreated sewage into local waterways. By nightfall of the first day 300 million gallons had been discharged. New Jersey closed 2,880 acres of Sandy Hook Bay and the mouth of the Navesink River to shellfishing, and Nassau County banned shellfishing west of Oyster Bay. The entire shellfishing industry of the metropolitan area was shut down. Citizens now began to fear epidemics as well as violence.
The absence of Department of Sanitation workers had little effect on the first day, but as the strike continued, more than 10,000 tons of garbage accumulated, attracting sewer rats into streets and parks. Heaps of garbage rotted in the July heat. Particularly unpleasant was hospital garbage, much of which was infectious. Restaurant garbage piled up in reeking mountains as private carters refused to cross lines without police protection.