New York Noise
On July 1, 2007, New York City enacted the first major revision since 1972 of its municipal noise code, an exquisitely detailed, 25-page document that describes what, when, and where a given sound can or cannot be made, with substantial fines for transgression. Depending on the character of enforcement, the changes may have far-reaching consequences for many sectors of the city, including construction, transportation and, perhaps more than anything else, bars and music venues. Performance spaces, and their patrons, may feel the effects of stronger noise ordinances in ways that are difficult to measure.
New York's noise code was once unique in the world, but it is now clear that its adoption in the early '70s was on the cutting edge of the modern era of metropolitan administration, in which "quality-of-life" measurements are crucial indicators that a city is on the right or wrong track. So intricately tied is quotidian comfort to health, productivity, and the elusive notion of happiness that mayors have staked their political lives on giving it their attention. Such choices were once radical and controversial, as when Rudy Giuliani expelled the pornographers and squeegee men from Times Square, but by now are almost certainly a matter of course. Scores of cities, for instance, have followed Michael Bloomberg's example by installing smoking bans, and the creation of a quality-of-life hotline, 311, is a centerpiece of his resume, evidence that under him the city has been made livable. The aphorism that all politics is local here comes full circle, as the health and spiritual wealth of the individual is increasingly seen as the motor that drives a high-functioning city. Now, as in the era of Henry Ford, happiness is not an end in itself, but a means by which commerce and development are served.
So goes the political rationale, such governance-as-customer-service benefits everyone, from process to outcome. With respect to sound, the website of a New York-based tenant services group offers a typical justification:
The body reacts to unwelcome noise of any intensity indirectly as it does to other intrusive stressful stimuli: elevated blood pressure, excessive secretion of hormones, changes in the rhythm of the heart. There is a growing body of literature that suggests that these physiological responses may lead to actual bodily damage in adults and in children
Thus noise abatement is demonstrably good for human health, and of course by extension the economy, a much more familiar concern of development. The new code is indeed notable for its attention to human scale and ears. Sound is divided into two categories, stable (for construction crews, bars, and other sources that stay in one place) and intermittent (for car stereos, screeching brakes, and other things that move), with enforcement procedures designed to match. For example, whereas a complaint about stable noise will bring an agent from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to your house, armed with a sound meter to take a precise measurement of the difference between the ambient decibel level and the offending sound, a complaint about an intermittent noise requires merely for a cop to agree with you that the cabbie sitting on his horn is being a jerk and deserves to be ticketed.
By all appearances, the new code is a boon to the city's residents, who invariably have stories about bizarre and aggravating noises with which they have had to cope. To cite my own best example, I used to live next door to a family who owned a rooster that crowed mostly in the late afternoon, though I could also mention the mobile Hasidic and Pentecostal preaching vans that drive up and down Ocean Avenue blaring sermons through busted speakers, or the kids who perform choreographed dance routines in my lobby. City dwellers lack that modern suburban amenity, space, that could insulate us from our (numerous) neighbors' voices. It should come as no surprise, then, that cities are the emblematic locales of iPod use; we use personal audio devices only partly as entertainment, and much more so as coping mechanisms – to block out that guy on the subway, to alter the repetition of a commute, to strut rather than walk from the train to the office because the new Eccentric Soul comp is playing, in place of horns and Midtown's inane chatter.
The new noise code is the political equivalent of the iPod – a technology that brokers civil peace by defining the right and delimiting the field of a person' sensory autonomy. Our need for peace is probably partly physiological, but also partly a consequence of becoming accustomed to other "ownership society" technologies – cars, cubicles, McMansions – that have made it harder and harder to share.
Meanwhile, there is a remainder in all of this that the DEP acknowledges by nodding to that cliché, "the city that never sleeps," without really giving much thought to what it means or why it might be appealing. Heather Millstone, owner of the bar Heather's in the East Village, was recently involved in a well-publicized dispute with her neighbor in the apartment above the bar. Millstone responded by installing extensive soundproofing, limiting the volume at which a DJ could play, and even hiring a professional audio engineer to help her configure a new speaker setup that would contain the bleed of ambient noise, including bass. After spending more than $10,000, and being assured by the engineer that the space was compliant, the neighbors continued to call 311 with frequency.
"We had times when we had cops barging into the bar," said Millstone, "with ten people playing board games and listening to Bob Dylan. And the cops were like, what's the problem?"
Without warning, the neighbors moved out in February of this year.
"After being the second-most 311-ed bar in the neighborhood, [we've had no calls] for five months."
If neighbors like these are extreme in their demands, they are nevertheless given outsized influence by legislation like the more comprehensive noise code, which gives them the power to wield public agencies in dealing with what has traditionally been an interpersonal sphere, the management of sound. Of course, before quality-of-life regulation existed, there was enforcement of a different kind:
"[The neighbors] on many different occasions publicly stated how much they liked [the bar] when it was a coke den," added Millstone. "This place was Brownie's, and Brownie actually kept it quiet. But Brownie was doing illegal things… You still have tenants getting up and screaming about the glory days, about how when the Lower East Side was ripe with gangs and drugs, but at least they were quiet. A gunshot only lasts a second."
Suddenly the debate over sound at a place like Heather's whisks us away to the entrenched problems of modern governance. Under New York's roof are, simultaneously, not only people who like a specific sound - the bass line of "Warm Leatherette" from the bar across the street reminding them that they live in a city with taste – or dislike it – I don't know it, it's noise, and it wasn't there when I moved in - but who like or dislike the presence of sound at all, who feel either that sonic anarchy is maddening or else a necessary part of any city with credibility, the byproduct of an atmosphere where surprises are possible. The potency of this debate is hardly lessened when the sounds in question are indexical of potentially grave social problems, and neither liberalism nor libertarianism can claim to satisfy both positions.
But the truly disappointing thing about the noise code is that it chops the problem into pieces rather than confronting it head-on, as quality-of-life policies tend to do. Otherwise it would be easy to root for this kind of regulation, but take a walk from Hell's Kitchen down to Penn Station at midnight if you've ever wondered where all of the homeless people and heroine addicts got off to once family friendliness was enforced in Midtown, ostensibly as the alternative to their existence. The new noise code is a similar strategy, an inexpensive band-aid that does little more than shift the problem – people still resent each other's differences - by deploying management tools that assume a common sensibility, calibrated according to the loudest complaint.
By Ben Tausig