New York Times
By N. R. Kleinfield
Jesus Bulit, a banquet waiter, had a problem with noise down below. His apartment at 82d Street and Amsterdam Avenue rested atop a bar. The bar played rock music audible in Montana into the early morning hours. It pulsated through the floor and into Mr. Bulit's bed and into his ears and -- aagghh!
He showed the pills he was taking for his nerves. He showed the prescription sleeping pills. He didn't have to. It was enough to look at his quivery hands, the frazzle in his eyes. The weekend before, he had gathered up his garbage, dragged it downstairs and hurled it into the bar. He said he was contemplating drilling a hole through his floor, inserting a hose attached to his faucet and flooding the place. "I can't stand it! he said. "I need help!"
Adam Jackson and Ivan Barra, noise inspectors from the city's Department of Environmental Protection, enforcers of the city's noise code, had heard all this before. They had even met a woman who did flood a bar with a hose. Very messy situation. Mr. Barra used a hand-held noise meter to check the decibels. No question. Too loud. A summons would arrive in the mail. Meanwhile, though, the noise went on; Mr. Bulit's hands shook.
New York is bloated with sound. In what is probably the world's noisiest city, demonic noises of every schreeching, whining, chattering, grinding, whirring, rattling, barking, whooshing, booming variety ricochets, undulates, burrows, assails, aggravates, raising stress levels and lowering the quality of life. Researchers have linked a variety of physical grievances -- from hearing loss to elevated blood pressure -- to excessive noise. And every year the city sounds louder.
There are things that the noise aggrieved can do about this racket, but they don't often end the racket. The high decibels have even managed to spawn an exasperated breed of people -- the noise activists -- who are convinced that the problem is still too much on the periphery of attention. Indeed, it often seems as if the city is one huge drum and you are one huge ear pressed right against it. Somebody turn down the volume!
In late 1972, New York became the first city in the country to adopt a noise code. The code forbids things like air conditioners and fans that exceed 45 decibels when measured in a complainant's' apartment three feet from an open window or commercial music that when calculated anywhere in a residence is louder than 45 decibels (a quiet home is about 30 to 40 decibels, a subway train at top speed is 100, a rock-and-roll band is 110, a pneumatic chipper is 118). But only people who hear these noises from their homes can file complaints; business owners and office workers are out of luck.
The code also prohibits businesses from using loudspeakers that can be heard on the sidewalk, which is why the little screens showing previews outside movie theaters are silent. State law, meanwhile, outlaws car alarms that blare for more than three minutes and rolling boom boxes, those cars outfitted with ear-splitting stereo equipment. Any noise that an inspector considers "unreasonable", no matter what decibel -- the Polar Bear ride at Coney Island has been caught, as has a teenager pitching a baseball against the wall of his room -- can be deemed a violation.
The primary enforcer of offensive noise is the Department of Environmental Protection, the only agency with noise meters (though the police have some on order). The department tries to send inspectors within 60 days of a complaint, and usually it needs at least three or four weeks to respond. The agency usually has the police deal with car alarms as well as neighbor-to-neighbor complaints, because only a business is required to allow a department inspector in to determine if something inside is noisy. Sometimes the businesses aren't too pleased. A nursery owner once whacked a noise inspector on the head with a shovel.
The agency received 6,650 noise complaints in the last year, sent inspectors out on 3,454 and handed out 881 summonses, about the same as in recent years. Roughly a third of the complaints are in Manhattan, the city's noise center. Fines can range from $45 for unreasonable noise from an animal to as much as $8,000 for a club playing music. Repeated violations can lead the department to seal the source of the noise. It has sealed music equipment and sealed air conditioners. It has yet to seal a dog.
Man in Brooklyn Heights had a problem with a big fan on another building. Like most noise victims, he insisted on anonymity, fearing retaliation from the noisemaker. "All you hear is click, click, click, then an awful squeal", he said. "I have to leave the city for part of the year. It's affecting my heart." He lugged out some medical books, showed pictures of rabbit bones damaged by noise, eyes with pupils dilated by noise.
Jean Belzaire and Ron Novello, noise inspectors, used their noise meter. There was so much other noise it was impossible to isolate the fan. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway thundered below. Nothing much could be done here. No violation. The man gave a wounded glance.
Noise has been recognized as an irritant for a lot of years. In their training literature, noise inspectors are told that Julius Caesar banned chariots from the streets at night because the sound annoyed him. Studies of the physiological and psychological effects of noise are hardly definitive, but they suggest striking links. They indicate that protracted noise can impair one's hearing, dry the mouth, dilate pupils, raise cholesterol, elevate blood pressure, burden the heart. Constant noise can bring on irritability, depression, aggression. It can interfere with the learning ability of children.
Arline Bronzaft, a professor emeritus of environmental psychology at Lehman College did a study in 1974 of Public School 88 in Washington Heights. Half the classrooms faced elevated subway tracks; half did not. The reading scores of the children on the noisy side lagged behind the students on the quiet side by up to 11 months. In 1978, after parents complained, rubber padding was put on the tracks next to the school, and in 1979 the school added sound-absorbing ceilings in the noisiest rooms. The students were studied again; there was no gap in scores
"Noise is a risk for your overall stress level and your quality of life," said Janice Walker, acting head of the Speech and Hearing Department at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. "There's an interesting experiment we do in the department from time-to-time. We stick some earplugs in our ears when we get on the subway and then take them off when we get to our destination. You find you feel relaxed rather than that New York wound-up state you normally feel. It's just that wonderful absence of noise."
Palmirita Toy Store in Jackson Heights, Queens, had music playing from an outdoor speaker. Gregory Ostrowski and Ahmed Soloki, noise inspectors driving by, heard it. A definite violation. "I'm here eight years; nobody ever told me," the store owner protested. Mr. Ostrowski replied: "You were lucky for eight years. Now you're not."
The noise patrol hands out a summons only once every four calls. Part of the problem is the noise may be absent when the inspectors arrive a month or so later. Often they get air conditioner complaints but by the time they call snow is in the air.
Inspectors say they are short-handed. The department makes do with 36 inspectors working in teams of two (since one must go to the source of the noise and one to the complainant's apartment): a mere four work on the night squad. No one works on Sunday. The department is now currying the support of community boards to lobby for five more inspectors. Acoustics experts suggest hundreds, if not thousands, of noise inspectors might quiet the city.
As it is, according to Jerome Ross, the department's acting assistant commissioner for air and noise enforcement, inspectors rarely respond to "low priority complaints" (owners of barking dogs, for instance, merely get notices asking them to quiet the pet). Since the code specifies that noise readings must be taken from a residence, inspectors hardly ever visit a business complaining about noise. The department has no authority over the subway (the Transit Authority must be consulted) or airplanes (the Federal Aviation Administration is in charge.)
Over at the Police Department, Capt. Jay Kopstein said community pressure had prodded the police to begin to take more notice of noise. For the first time, the department is getting noise meters. About two years ago, in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Protection), it began "Operation Soundtrap" to seize cars with booming stereos. A month ago, it did an operation to Greenwich Village to catch motorcycles with inadequate mufflers. Some changes in the law may help. The allowable time for a car alarm to wake up the neighbors has been shortened to three minutes, and the police have been authorized to leave a ticket on a car rather than having to find the owner.
Captain Kopstein acknowledged that noise problems can be elusive. There's no catching most of the motorists who honk their horns just to get traffic to move, especially since judges will often dismiss a summons unless an officer can testify that he saw that individual motorist's hands on the horn. Offenders often contest tickets, arguing that it was another bar making the racket or that an airplane happened to be passing by when the sound level was checked. And what is reasonable noise to one person is unreasonable to another. "I have a 15 year-old daughter," Captain Kopstein said, "and she'll put music on and no matter how low it is, it's unreasonable to me.
People try to pitch in with evidence. Quite a number tape the offending sounds. When inspectors arrive, they sit and listen to tapes of air conditioners thrumming. One woman showed a videotape of an apartment entrance door opening and slamming shut.
Alas, the tapes are useless. The inspectors have to hear the noise themselves. Some elderly people call in noise complaints, but actually have a lack-of-noise complaint. They are lonely. They yearn for someone to visit and talk to them. The noise inspectors visit. They talk to them.
Man in midtown Manhattan loft had a problem with a sound studio above him. "The music affects my mind," the man said. "The worst thing is when you hear the exact same thing for three consecutive days. The exact same thing." The problem, he said, has persisted for six years. The studio has been given four summonses but continues undeterred. The owner of the studio, the man said, suggested he check into a motel. He takes ulcer pills and sleeping pills. He wears the sort of ear phones designed for someone doing target practice with a gun. The noise inspectors took readings for an hour, but they were too low. They said they would put the man on the emergency list; when the noise was loud, call and inspectors would try to come quickly. The man stared dolefully. He said he was grateful.
Whispering, Humming. Whooshing...
New York is bloated with sound. Here are some examples from the gentle to the deafening, in decibels, which measure the relative loudness of what you hear.
50 decibels loud enough to interfere with sleep
70 decibels at 10 feet (annoying)
80 decibels at 3 feet
Source: New York City Department of Environmental Protection
HOW TO COMPLAIN
When informal negotiating has failed, you can take other steps to rid your life of extraneous noise. Here are some options:
Where to Complain
Note: contact information below is likely out-of-date
Loud parties, late-night construction and other neighbor-to-neighbor noise complaints, as well as car alarms and cars with huge boom boxes: call the local police precinct.
Other complaints about noise heard within a residence, especially noise emanating from a business: the City Department of Environmental Protection (718)699-9811 [note: this may be an old number]
Airplane noise: Federal Aviation Administration Complaint Line (718)553-1022.
Subway noise: Transit Authority Customer Service (718)330-3322.
If That Doesn't Work
File a complaint with the Department of Environmental Protection: 69-17 Junction Boulevard, Corona, NY 11368.
Consult a lawyer, then seek an injunction against the noisemaker in New York State Supreme Court. (212)374-8522.
If the noisy party lives in your building, ask your landlord to bring a "nuisance action" against him or her in the New York City Housing Court, (212)374-8416.
Set up an anti-noise group, with advice from the Council on the Environment of New York City, (212)788-7900.