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The Gotham Cacophony

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The Gotham Cacophony

More and more New Yorkers find noise a threat to livability. Autumn 2021
New York

New Yorkers complain—a lot. In 2019, the last year before Covid-19 hit, residents made nearly 2.4 million complaints or requests to 311, the city’s nonemergency help hotline and website. Concerns ranged from blocked fire hydrants and “rough, pitted or cracked roads” to “rat sighting” and “pests.” But the biggest category, by far, was noise. New Yorkers made 474,196 complaints about loud sounds, or 20 percent of 2019’s total 311 requests—double the number for the runner-up, lack of heat or hot water.

Over the past decade, complaints about noise grew faster than any other category, almost overwhelming the 311 system—the 2019 figure was more than double the 2010 total. In one pre-pandemic survey done by the city’s health department, 828,000 New Yorkers, or 10 percent of the population, “reported noise disruption seven or more times per week.” Twenty percent reported disruptive noise three or more times a week. These figures likely underestimate the scourge. “New Yorkers are desensitized to it,” says Carter Strickland, former commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which helps enforce the city’s noise code. “They probably have hearing loss.”

Lockdown came with an even more deafening soundtrack. During pandemic-struck 2020, noise complaints exploded, to 800,804, or 31 percent of all 311 calls. This figure, too, understates things. The biggest new sound menace, from Brooklyn to the Bronx, was fireworks—49,402 complaints in 2020, up from just 914 in 2019—and the city doesn’t even categorize them as noise. Total noise grievances are down from that peak, but not by much. During 2021, through mid-September, the city’s noise complaints totaled 571,360, or 29 percent of the 311 total, on track for 760,000 or so for the year (plus an additional 21,010 so far for the ongoing fireworks).

Noise isn’t just a nuisance. “It’s so important to public health,” says Strickland. Noise causes hearing loss. “Louder and longer is always worse for the inner ear,” says Sean O. McMenomey, otologist and neurotologist (ear and hearing doctor) at NYU Langone, as well as a professor in the field. And disruptive sound harms people beyond hearing loss, bad enough as such deprivation is. It is a “prevalent urban environmental hazard” associated with mental and physical problems such as “sleep disturbance, higher blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and impaired cognitive performance in children,” the health department reports. As the federal Environmental Protection Agency adds, the “inability to concentrate in a noisy environment can affect a child’s capacity to learn.” European researchers agree, and they have also linked urban noise to higher rates of adult dementia.

Noise is a significant threat to New York’s quality of life—and thus to its economic recovery from Covid. During the pandemic’s first year, 420,000 New Yorkers fled the city, or 5 percent of the total population, according to a New York Times analysis. Partly what these urban refugees, mostly wealthier residents, were seeking was peace and quiet. White-collar New Yorkers who have learned that they can work from anywhere, at least most of the time, now have a choice about whether to endure relentless nighttime construction or their neighbors’ parties. It’s time for the city to treat noise as it treats aggressive open-air drug use and speeding drivers—as a menace to public order.

New Yorkers have grumbled about noise for more than a century—and city government has tried, and mostly failed, to do much about it. In 1936, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia instituted the city’s first ordinance against “unnecessary noise,” notwithstanding one Brooklyn alderman, Donald O’Toole, who called it “a lot of political hokum.” The code banned “prolonged toots” of horns, as the Times described it, “loading or unloading vehicles in a noisy manner,” much “shouting,” and advertising via “drum, loudspeaker or other device.” It also banned “playing of radios . . . at loud volume,” “discharge of exhausts . . . except through a muffler,” and construction work at night and on Sundays, “except in emergencies.” Police would levy escalating fines, up to $10.

New York stayed cacophonous, though, and two later mayors would try again. In 1972, after a three-year study, Mayor John Lindsay updated the noise code. He tightened construction rules and added 32 new civilian technical staff to focus on enforcement, rather than leave the job solely up to the police, who, in an era of rising crime, had other concerns.

More than a generation later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced sympathy for still-noise-besieged New Yorkers. “Most complaints about noise are not frivolous,” Bloomberg said in 2004. In 2007, his own updated noise code took effect, and it still governs Gotham. Bloomberg’s noise policy has a simple goal: not total silence, which no urbanite expects, but livable levels of sound. “The making, creation or maintenance of excessive and unreasonable and prohibited noises within the city affects and is a menace to public health, comfort, convenience, safety, welfare and the prosperity of the people of the city,” the code states.

What is unreasonable? With few exceptions, noise from any one source cannot greatly exceed the existing background noise, as measured in decibels. (Because decibels are logarithmic, not linear, 30 decibels are thrice as loud as 20.) A conversation rates 50 to 65 decibels, depending on how loud you talk, according to the city’s guide. A vacuum cleaner a few feet away rates 70 decibels and can cause hearing loss over time; a motorcycle, 88. A jackhammer reaches 110 decibels and a turned-up stereo 110 or 120, risking permanent harm to the ears.

Generally speaking, if something is loud enough to be persistently annoying—whether a bar’s speaker emanating through the wall, a car outfitted to emit exhaust that sounds like gunfire, or a streetside construction-staging site—it probably violates the noise code, which gets stricter at night. Construction work, for example, can’t exceed 10 decibels over background noise and can’t take place after 6 PM. Construction firms must post “noise-mitigation” plans at job sites, erect sound-muffling barriers around jackhammers and other equipment, and handle heavy materials carefully on public streets. Restaurant and bar noise cannot exceed 42 decibels, and, after 10 PM, 7 decibels over ambient sound. Ice cream trucks can no longer blast their maddening repetitive jingles while parked.

Bloomberg promised strict enforcement. The Department of Environmental Protection and the police department would continue to share responsibility for noise violations, with cops shouldering the far larger share, including most personal interactions. The city outfitted every police precinct with a noise meter and trained officers to use them. The DEP armed up to 45 civilian noise technicians with decibel readers. The police and DEP can levy fines ranging from $250 for the simplest, one-time offenses (a loud radio) to $24,000 for multiple institutional offenses (a restaurant or bar repeatedly playing loud music, say). With the city’s then-new 311 call center equipped to handle reports of noise—and with enforcers empowered to act on the data—Bloomberg heralded an era of “well-deserved peace and quiet.”

“New Yorkers have grumbled about noise for more than a century—and the city has mostly failed to do much about it.”

The peace and quiet never came—and 2020, with its ear-splitting commotion, was the year the noise proved too loud to ignore. With the city on its way to 33,938 Covid deaths, with 892,000 jobs lost, and with the murder rate soaring, one might think that New Yorkers had more pressing things to worry about. Not so: cooped up in their apartments, New Yorkers grew even angrier at their speaker-blasting neighbors, the tourist helicopters thudding overhead, and other calm disrupters. “I’m getting calls, dirt bikes all the time, construction noise,” says Gale Brewer, Manhattan’s borough president. In 2020, New Yorkers made 510,454 complaints about loud parties, compared with 259,806 the previous year; this year, so far, it’s 343,245. Another new source of noise was car, motorcycle, and dirt-bike racers with no mufflers, often playing bone-shakingly loud music. Last year, 81,193 New Yorkers made complaints about such intrusions, up from 43,077 in 2019. For 2021, through early September, the total is 65,465, indicating no real letup. “When I walk down First Avenue, and I can hear the music that the car is playing two lanes over, all I think about is that the person driving that car is going to be a patient,” says McMenomey. “It’s a shame.” In 2020, New Yorkers made 10,359 complaints about helicopter noise, compared with 3,332 in 2019; the total for 2021 is 16,771. Few areas saw improvement. One was construction. New Yorkers complained 17,168 times about after-hours construction in 2020, down from 24,585 in 2019. In 2021, they have made 10,889 such complaints so far.

Notwithstanding a few exceptions—Queens’s bucolic Douglaston and Little Neck neighborhoods are particularly quiet, statistically speaking, while Washington Heights and Inwood are especially noisy—noise doesn’t discriminate much between rich and poor, black and white, Manhattan and the Bronx. This equality has long held. In 2019, denizens of semi-gentrified Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn made 14,950 complaints, not far from the 15,571 made by the residents of much poorer Melrose and Morrisania in the central-south Bronx. The wealthier residents of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and west midtown made 9,099 complaints, comparable with the 8,637 made by the middle-class residents of Ridgewood and Glendale in Queens. As the health department notes, one finds “no association between being disrupted by noise and place of birth, race [and] ethnicity, or education attainment.”

But differences became more noticeable in 2020 and 2021. Over the past summer, the residents living around Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park suffered nonstop noise torture, from dirt bikes ripping through the park (illegal at any decibel) to all-night amplified-music raves, in defiance of the park’s midnight closing time. Adele Montero, a commercial real-estate broker, has lived along the square for 30 years and grew up on nearby MacDougal Street, for decades a hangout for New York University students, as well as hippies and vagrants. “I’ve never seen it this bad,” she says. “There’s no rhyme or reason and no law and order.” She adds: “I don’t want to discount this by saying it is a quality-of-life issue. It is really about survival.” Throughout the summer, New York’s radicals tried to dismiss such concerns as racist or classist—the area’s residents presumptively rich and white, the noisemakers minority and poor. Montero will have none of this. Noting that she bought her apartment after years of saving, she says, “I should not be misjudged as rich or racist” for wanting park rules enforced.

In fact, residents of middle-class and poorer minority neighborhoods complain just as much about noise—and say that the city tends to ignore their grumbling because of their lower socioeconomic status. At one community-board meeting last summer in the Fordham Road area of the Bronx, “people were crying over the fact they couldn’t sleep due to the noise levels of music, unmuffled cars, and motorcycles,” says Wilma Alonso, director of the Fordham Road Business Improvement District.

The residents of the Bronx’s Norwood have the same complaints. In May, noise-enraged residents deluged their police–community council meeting. “Unacceptable levels of noise, noise and more noise have been the bane of many a Bronxite’s existence,” wrote the Norwood News, and “this year, complaints appear to be on steroids.” Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx has a 10 PM curfew, but people in the park or nearby unlawfully play music into the wee hours. “Sometimes I can’t even hear my TV,” one resident said at the meeting. “That’s how loud the music is.”

Outrage over New York’s din spans Manhattan’s socioeconomic and ethnic strata, too, far from Greenwich Village. Tanya Bonner, a resident of Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan, was “livid” last summer when Mayor de Blasio responded to the wealthier Upper West Side’s concerns about homeless hotels with a personal visit but “completely ignored” her own area’s noise complaints. “Our community is predominantly minority, immigrant,” she says. Some public officials even counseled residents to deal with the problem themselves. “It’s not the community’s job to enforce the noise code,” she says, pointing out that one such encounter in Brooklyn last year, over fireworks, ended in a murder. “It’s not something we recommend. That’s why we pay our elected officials.”

In the first half of 2021 alone, police confiscated 650 illegal—and loud—dirt bikes. (ROB KIM/GETTY IMAGES)

New Yorkers are rightly skeptical about the city’s concern. New York does very little with the information it gathers from 311, it turns out. In 2019, the NYPD handled 419,106 of the city’s 474,196 noise complaints, such as those concerning loud vehicles or parties. Yet from these leads, the NYPD issued just 765 summonses and made only 174 arrests. Last year was little different: of 747,054 complaints, the police issued 1,089 summonses, with 188 arrests. This year, out of 524,040 complaints, the numbers are 1,927 summonses and 195 arrests.

The DEP beats this less-than-half-a-percent yield, but not by much. In 2019, of 52,656 complaints routed by 311 to the DEP, the agency issued 897 violations, about 1.7 percent of requests. Last year, the figure was 445 out of 44,966, or about 1 percent; this year, it has issued 312 violations on 30,548 complaints, running about equal with last year. “They don’t give violations when they should, or they give violations when they shouldn’t,” says Alan Fierstein, founder and president of Acoustilog, a sound-consultant group. “That is a waste of everyone’s time.” Noise enforcement is “extremely ephemeral,” says Mike Flowers, Bloomberg-era chief analytics officer for New York.

That’s not to say that every complaint should result in a violation. In many cases, warnings, or even just the presence of officers or inspectors, might be a deterrent. But that’s clearly not happening enough. At community-board and block-association meetings, “call 311” has become something of a joke. One issue is timing. The DEP, with its 45 staffers, often working in pairs, must cover an enormous, 24-hour city. The agency takes more than three days to respond to a complaint, down from five in 2018, but still too long to catch a noisemaker in the act. Violators know this; a construction contractor can generate illegal volumes once or twice a week, aware that an inspector is unlikely to show up at the right time, no matter how specific the complaint. The NYPD, for its part, closes out hundreds of thousands of complaints without investigating them.

Other options exist. Neighbors of a noisy bar can call the fire department, which can inspect a property for the number of occupants; a bar that violates the noise code often runs afoul of the fire code. A vocal community board can protest to the state’s liquor authority, jeopardizing a loud restaurant’s liquor license. A victim of after-hours construction clamor can contact the buildings department. (Contractors violating the noise code often lie on the building permit about what kind of work they’re doing.)

As ever, the most media-savvy people usually get the grease. As Montero observes, after weeks of organized complaining before the community board, the police precinct, and the press, residents got police to act in Washington Square Park, if only to a limited degree, arresting the worst agitators and semi-enforcing the midnight curfew. “The police listened to us,” she says. “It is better, but better than what? It was nonstop chaos. The cops were abused beyond anybody’s expectations.” These interventions take political sophistication, time, and often, large numbers of people—conditions that favor the educated and well-organized. It’s exactly the opposite of the fair, transparent, data-based system that 311 once promised.

New Yorkers want action. Bonner, second vice chair of the community board in Washington Heights and Inwood, helped convene a meeting on noise in August 2020. “We had been working for a while on these issues,” she says, but last year, confronted with a plague of “fireworks, ATVs . . . loud, unauthorized, dirt bikes,” urgency was growing. Thus was born the WaHI-Inwood Task Force on Noise, which she chairs.

One of its goals is to make noise a bigger political issue. To that end, ahead of this year’s June mayoral primary, the group invited candidates for major offices to speak at a series of online forums. The events attracted top candidates for several offices, including eventual Democratic primary winner for comptroller Brad Lander and eventual Manhattan district attorney primary winner Alvin Bragg. (Eric Adams, the future Democratic mayoral nominee, didn’t participate, despite several invitations.)

Bonner is now working across neighborhoods. She has helped launch NYC United Against Noise, a coalition of groups including the WaHI-Inwood Task Force and its neighbor, Moving Forward Unidos. It spans the Cedar Avenue Block Association in the northwest Bronx, the Chinatown Core Block Association and Orchard Street Block Association in lower Manhattan, and Stop the Chop, an anti-helicopter group. Noise concerns differ by neighborhood—the Lower East Side is plagued by bar racket, waterfront and park areas by sightseeing helicopters—but “there is power in numbers,” she maintains. “If we join together, it will be harder to ignore some of our communities.”

What actions should elected officials and government agencies take? One of the first challenges in assessing noise is that nobody knows whether any of 311’s data compilation has had any impact. Neither the DEP nor the police department measures progress, if any, on cutting noise.

Indeed, by contrast with its information on murder rates or high school graduation rates, New York has no idea whether it is louder or quieter now than it was in 1936. In 1971, Lindsay-era technicians measured noise at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street at 85 decibels, which the city’s director of noise abatement pronounced “lousy” and potentially harmful. Five decades later, the city still measures “traffic noise” at 70 to 85 decibels, hardly quieter. If New York deployed acoustic sensors around the city, says Flowers, it would garner “significantly better intelligence” than that obtained by 311.

The noise code itself needs an update. The biggest advantage of the Bloomberg revamp, Acoustilog’s Fierstein says, “is that it got a lot of publicity. People became aware of the fact that there even was a noise law.” But the current code, he believes, “is a combination of specific and general regulations that people were and still are confused about.” For one thing, the law doesn’t enforce rules against low bass tones very well. “It should not be that they ignore bass rumbling sounds, the hardest sound to mask, the most penetrating.” Even with double-glazed windows closed, people hear—and feel—the bass.

The biggest issue by far is to improve enforcement, which “has been terrible forever,” says Fierstein. Even as the city has automated recognition of other civil violations—such as red-light-running and speeding—the noise code is still entirely enforced by humans, one plodding site visit after another. Ben Kallos, city council member for the Upper East Side, wants to see more automation. A usually mild-mannered liberal, he is angry at the “assholes—you can use that word”—who race around in unmuffled cars and motorcycles, waking up his toddler daughter. “Everyone hates the people making these noises.” Kallos wants the city council to pilot a system of sensor-based ticketing, similar to red-light cameras. An Austrian acoustical firm, AKUT, offers a “best-in-class technology” of both acoustical and visual sensors, which can pinpoint not just how loud a sound is compared with the ambient noise, but its specific source, down to the vehicle. The technology, Kallos says, is “not just a shot spotter,” the NYPD’s technology that picks up the rough location of gunshots from audio sensors. With a time-stamped visual and acoustical fingerprint, the city could automatically send a ticket to a car owner, for instance, whose vehicle’s tricked-out sound system shreds the noise code. “There are enforcement areas where you don’t need a police officer standing on the corner with a microphone,” says Kallos.

NYU’s Sounds of New York City project, conducted by the school’s engineering division, offers a hint of the automation possibilities. Over an 11-month period between 2016 and 2017, engineers used acoustical sensors in the Village to compare the evidence they collected with 311 complaints and with the city’s enforcement outcomes. Three-quarters of its sensors’ findings of excessive noise came from construction; more than half the complaints concerned after-hours construction, “highlighting how disruptive to the lives of ordinary citizens this particular category of noise can be,” the researchers suggested. Yet “for all [311] complaints in this study, 78 percent resulted in a ‘no violation could be observed’ ” outcome by the DEP, “and only 2 percent in a violation ticket being issued.”

The researchers speculate that the “significant gap” between complaints, objective evidence, and outcomes was “due in part to the delay in the city’s response to complaints, four to five days on average, which is too great for phenomena that are both transient and traceless.” Why not require construction sites, restaurants, and bars to mount noise sensors to monitor their own activity, automatically feeding data to human inspectors?

Fireworks complaints exploded from 914 in 2019 to 49,402 last year. (STEPHANIE KEITH/GETTY IMAGES)

Limited automation is much harder to deploy, though, against lawbreakers who drag industrial speakers onto Bronx sidewalks and boom away, or race around on illegal dirt bikes without license plates. Police have confiscated 650 dirt bikes this year, through late summer—but that’s labor-intensive work.

New York’s broad intolerance for noise clashes with its narrow, but vocal, intolerance for policing. It may be possible to convert some human enforcement to civilian inspectors. If the occupants of an apartment are holding a raucous all-night party every weekend, why not dispatch civilian inspectors during a weekday, accompanied by police backup nearby, to try to explain to them that their noise disrupts sleeping children?

In truth, though, most people persistently violating the noise code know what they’re doing—engaging in antisocial behavior. As NYPD deputy inspector Thomas Alps told the Norwood precinct, according to the Norwood News, “these stops are confrontational. They’re dangerous. We’re getting a lot of pushback, a lot of resistance.” It’s far too perilous for a civilian city worker to approach some young men blasting a streetside speaker, or to tell a large crowd holding a midnight barbecue to keep it down.

Politicians and aspiring leaders may complain about noise, but will they put up with more assertive police action? Even pre-Covid, the NYPD’s modest number of excessive-noise summonses had fallen from 1,785 in 2018 to 1,160 in 2019. Under political pressure, police had eased up on enforcing quality-of-life violations. In his e-forum with the WaHI-Inwood Task Force this summer, Brad Lander, the Democratic nominee for comptroller, focused meekly on “getting feedback” about noise. Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan DA nominee, said that he “would not arrest the little kid who is selling illegal fireworks. . . . It doesn’t work.” It was a strawman argument: no one was suggesting arresting kids. New York can’t enforce its noise code without some level of interactive street-level policing. “The one missing brick, the one broken window, that’s what we have to go back to,” says Montero. It’s no coincidence that noise and violent crime rocketed upward at the same time in 2020 and haven’t fallen back to pre-Covid levels since.

Then there are the special interests. It’s hard not to see, in the cat-and-mouse system of cracking down on after-hours construction, a system designed to fail. Those lacking the patience or time to read building permits and make dozens of calls to 311 tend to give up. One sees something similar in New York’s approach toward helicopters. For more than a decade, elected officials have complained about them without doing anything—because the FAA regulates airspace. But all it would take is a congressional amendment to restrict the airspace in certain areas to emergency helicopters. Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have gotten it done; in the Senate, he once amended the Clean Air Act to outlaw tolls on the Brooklyn Bridge. If the city’s politicians can’t convince New York senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, to restrict the airspace above Central Park and other theoretically quiet urban oases, it’s because they’re unwilling, not unable.

Next year, New York will get a new city council and a new mayor. Brewer, leaving the Manhattan borough presidency for an Upper West Side council seat, would like to see noise abatement treated as a priority. To make that more likely, Bonner and NYC United Against Noise and others will have to demonstrate that New Yorkers are ready to vote on this issue.

Top Photo: City residents increasingly resent helicopter noise, especially in park and waterfront areas. (GARY HERSHORN/GETTY IMAGES)

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