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The Retail Boom

from the magazine

The Retail Boom

Spring 1996
Public safety
New York

The struggle to civilize Manhattan has another enemy—retail institutions that find it necessary to pipe music onto the streets. Saks regularly broadcasts such noise in a misguided effort to enhance Fifth Avenue's atmosphere of material abundance. “It’s not a campaign,” a spokeswoman for Saks unconvincingly claims. “Sometimes we have music.” Saks might very well want to discount its actions. The sound pressure level (SPL) of average street noise is already 70 SPL, with 45 to 85 SPL constituting the normal listening range. At what level must the sidewalk music be in order for it to be heard clearly above the average street discordance?

When Saks blares music onto the sidewalks, or when amplified billboard trucks blast music while cruising through the streets of midtown, hordes of pedestrians become involuntary customers. As Saks colonizes the pavement, it infringes on the liberty and privacy that public streets offer. New York offers its pedestrians vistas of pleasure where they can promenade, enjoying themselves for free. When the noncommercial urban landscape shrinks, the enjoyment of the street itself, the most basic urban amenity, also diminishes. Under the influence of Saks's music, determined pedestrians on the streets of New York City become passive shoppers in the mall of America. The theater of New York's streets becomes a stage-managed spectacle. Saks's musical revue intrudes on the real drama of our lives.

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