A rat attack near City Hall in 1970s New York

AnnstreetsignThe number one nightmare scenario of every New Yorker: coming into close physical contact with rattus norvegicus, or the typical city street and sewer rat.

Now imagine being attacked by a horde of these greasy creatures. That’s what actually happened to one woman while heading to her car parked on a street near city hall, where an empty lot that once held a tavern was now home to hundreds of rats.

It happened in the summer of 1979, during a tugboat strike that left trash and garbage rotting on city streets.


At about 9 p.m., a woman described by witnesses as being in her 30s was walking on Ann Street near Theatre Alley (above), south of City Hall.

“Judging from the various accounts, she seems to have been approached by the rats as she was walking toward her car,” wrote Robert Sullivan in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

NYCgarbagestrike1981“She also seems to have noticed the rats coming near her, their paws skittering on the street. Witnesses said the rats swarmed around the woman. One climbed her leg and appeared to bite her.”

The woman understandably began screaming; a man tried to help her by waving his jacket in front of the rats, but unafraid, they simply climbed up the coat.

The hysterical woman finally made it to her car and closed the door, with the rats climbing all over it.

Theatrelley1999nyplWhen police arrived, “the rats were still there, scurrying through the streets and into Theatre Alley and into nests on a lot on Ann Street around the corner,” wrote Sullivan.

The unnamed victim of the rat attack was reported to city papers the next day. New Yorkers accustomed to living among rats shuddered.

Only the police doubted the story because nobody went to a hospital within 50 miles of the city for injuries consistent with a rat attack, wrote Jerry Langton in Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top. Sullivan’s book and newspaper accounts. however, take the story to be true.

[Third photo: garbage strike in a pre-gentrification New York City; NY Times; fourth photo: Theatre Alley in grittier days in 1999; NYPL/Dylan Stone]

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12 Responses to “A rat attack near City Hall in 1970s New York”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    During 2005 I was in NYC for a KENNEDY FAMILY Auction at Sotheby’s. As a country gal, I was feeling fiesty with excitement as all know, everything is better in the big city! My friend, the great collector Seth Poppel gave me an extended tour of ‘The Big Apple.’ This included a stop at the former apartment building of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As I took a snapshot of this 5th Ave., exclusive ‘n expensive location, I notice a bright yellow flyer attached to a corner utility pole. The City of New York was advising there was, ‘a RAT INFESTATION on the block.’
    That ‘Warning sign’ sure took the glamour ‘n glory out of the exclusive ‘n expensive – HA-ha-ha!

  2. Will Says:

    oh the good old days, where seeing a rat the size of a loaf of bread was a common daily occurrence. 🙂

    give me old NYC minus the many rats.

  3. aaaa Says:


  4. Untapped Staff Picks: Revived NYC Public Library Fountains, Natural History Museum Expansions | Untapped Cities Says:

    […] A Rat Attack Near City Hall in the 1970s New York [Ephemeral NY] […]

  5. Bella Stander Says:

    Thanks(?) for reminding me of this! I lived near there at the time, though thankfully didn’t see many rats. Except of course between the subway tracks, where they still thrive. UGH…

  6. josue Says:

    Really stupid post that doesn’t belong her. Please take it down.

  7. Becky Shaddix Says:

    Just came across your website and look forward to following your posts. I have a love affair with NYC and enjoy learning as much as I can about the City and it’s history – good and bad – but nothing says New York like the occasional rat (luckily I have only seen them near the subways in my journeys there).

  8. 1101. big apple dreamin’ (Hippo) | Randophonic Says:

    […] including this little love letter to NYC, which was no playground in the 1970s, unless you were a rat. No idea who or what Hippo is.” (Philip […]

  9. NYC (1975) to Athens (2016): an inspiration and a warning – Dateline: Atlantis Says:

    […] concrete routinely fell into the stands during games while long-suffering New Yorkers were being attacked by packs of rats within sight of City Hall. No one was thinking, much less talking, […]

  10. C Says:

    Found this post in 2021, after a rat (just one) attacked my leg while I was walking by on the sidewalk. Nasty.

  11. Ann Says:

    I moved to NYC in Hell’s Kitchen in August 1979. Wow, what a story connected to a street with my name. I can’t recall the garbage strike unless it was over by then but I imagine this might happen.

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