With the New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Park season now behind us, it could seem like an interminable wait before the next season of free concerts, but fear not, because there is a public program that will continue to provide surround-sound music all year round: it’s the New York Cacophonic, brought to you by people like you.
From the 2 AM pub crawlers or jackhammering construction crew, to the steamrolling garbage trucks, shell-shocking sirens, rumbling subways, and jingling food carts, everyone, including the dog, is faithfully playing their part in the orchestra to maintain our world-class reputation as the “City that never sleeps,” a.k.a., the “City that never shuts up.”
Noise, especially when it’s coming from all directions, might seem like an impossible thing to calculate and control. But for the past few years the City of New York has attempted to do just that – preparing and publicizing records of the annual noise complaints waged, organized by location and type. The 20 megabyte excel file would have gone virtually unnoticed, however, were it not for a freelance graphic designer who specializes in mapping data.
Karl Sluis, who is based in Brooklyn, has taken the government’s information and mapped it onto a plan of the city, producing both a visually stunning cartogram and a tangible piece of evidence for uptowners to use against their Polar opposites. Thankfully, Sluis had more irenic intentions than creating a civil war in Manhattan.
“I had no agenda,” he said. “Having lived in New York for only three years, it was an opportunity to take a close look at the city’s different patterns and to make connections.”
The map shows that, while the noise in New York might seem as ubiquitous and constant as air (or rather, pollution), there are certain seasons and areas, where it swells the most. Summer, with its euphonious combination of “Mister Softee” trucks, whirring air conditioners, street fairs, outdoor dining, and tourist mobs, wins the cake for loudest season. The months from May to July consistently receive nearly double the number of noise complaints than the rest of the year. It seems noise is the only thing that doesn’t slow down in the summer. However, it does travel to popular destinations.
Downtown, with the possible exception of Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood near West 145th Street, has the noisiest spots in the city (wow, nobody saw that coming). More interestingly, thanks to the city’s detailed categorization of the noises and to Sluis’ expert visual encoding work, it is possible to see how Downtown’s noise compares to other regions: The Village is second to only Harlem in loud partying – a major complaint – but loud people and loud talking (a hazy distinction) are not as problematic if still most prominent there, especially near Wall Street and the Smith Houses, a public housing development on the Lower East Side.
Surprisingly, construction, even with the jackhammering, is not a huge source of complaint, perhaps because many New Yorkers assume it’s par for the course and inescapable wherever you go. However, the two major construction sites presently – the World Trade Center and the Second Avenue subway – do ruffle some feathers. Due to the latter penalty, the Upper East Side is no longer the chief oasis of peace and quiet, but a close second to the Upper West Side, whose only Achilles’ heel is Lincoln Center, not exactly an unpleasant sound-maker.
Overall, the 311 operator fielded over 40,000 noise complaints last year (roughly 100 a day). Believe it or not, that is low compared to past years. An average of nearly 1,000 calls a day were made in 2004, the year before the city passed the first comprehensive noise reform in 30 years, with the assistance – and insistence – of Mayor Bloomberg, then NYC Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Chris Ward and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Local Law 113, known as the Noise Control Code, requires that certain procedures be followed by construction (like muffling tools) and other industries to mitigate noise, and sets sound level standards for specific types of noise (For example, bar music may not exceed 42 decibels as measured from inside nearby residences). The law, commended by the national Centers for Disease Control, has become the global gold standard for noise control. Yet, noise continues to be the number one quality of life issue for New York residents, and the number one reason for calling the 311.
Some claim the still-high number of complaints is attributable to the ease and efficiency of using the 311 Citizen Service Center. Not only is it more user-friendly, but it is also more responsive. Local Law 113 stipulates that the NYPD may now be deployed to immediately inspect the source of the noise and that the DEP is reserved for more long-term investigations.
This suggests that the city officials, not so much the noise culprits, are more consciously adhering to the new standards. A downtown DJ at American Apparel, who could barely be heard above blasting music, said, “Technically we are not supposed to be playing without a permit. We had some trouble in the West Village, but that hasn’t stopped us…plus, we only do this once a month.” Of course, when all the major department stores downtown are doing it ‘only once a month,’ chaos quickly ensues.
Sara Providence, 19, a Harvard student who lived in New York University housing last summer, said, “It is just as loud as people claim, and maybe worse. I had never experienced that much noise at 3 AM before. It felt like every night there were drunk people yelling right outside my window. At me.” She continued, “That said, I didn’t care, I loved living in Union Square, and I would do it again…for the convenience.” Ah, the typical New York tradeoff.
Still, the upsides of living downtown—its centrality and affordability—will not last much longer. Just as young people rushed to the Village to seize on its local trendiness and prices, they may be moving out for the same reasons.
For, Eric Grayson, 26, the price for living off East Houston Street (only to land right by an intersection) is too much to pay. Putting it bluntly, he said, “I live on the 15th floor in one of the nicer apartment buildings…and I sleep with a white noise machine. I knew it would be bad, but not this bad.” His ideal place to relocate? The Upper West Side. “I realize I want something more residential after that.”
So, watch out Uptown, the party might be coming to you. If loudness is the effect of mere saturation of sounds, as the textbooks says, then consider stocking up on earplugs before Duane Reade runs out.
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