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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Noise Off


On most mornings Christopher Saxe wakes before dawn to the sounds of men hauling trash from the alley beneath his window. He can hear the truck's engine roaring, its radio blasting, the shouts of the men. And when they raise the dumpster and drop it back to the ground, Saxe says, "It sounds like they're throwing air conditioners off the roof."

Saxe lives next to a movie theater in the East Village, and for the last four years he has battled with the company responsible for carting the theater's trash, which is called IESI. He has yelled out his window and called everyone he can think of to complain. The actions sometimes lead to temporary relief, but the problem keeps coming back.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of New Yorkers, confront similar cacophonies. So, last month Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated Operation Silent Night, the city's most aggressive attack on noise since 1994, when the police department focused on revelers in Greenwich Village. The initiative, which is designed to quiet unruly neighbors, curb drag racing on city streets and silence freaked-out car alarms, targets 24 neighborhoods considered to be among the city's noisiest.

This month, City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents lower Manhattan, announced plans to introduce a package of bills to reduce noise. The measures would allow police to confiscate motorcycles without mufflers, place further limits on construction work and restrict the city's raucous nightlife.

Operation Silent Night may not offer much help to Saxe, who does not live in one of the neighborhoods targeted by the program. Nor will it necessarily aid Queens residents afflicted by airplane noise, neighbors of the city's few heliports or those near large construction sites, like the Time Warner-AOL site on Columbus Circle or the Bloomberg LP site on the Upper East Side. In light of such shortcomings, some critics see the program as another way to get more revenues from city residents without raising taxes, and others say that, for all its pragmatism, the initiative barely scratches the surface of the city's noise pollution problems.

Silence Is Golden

New York already has a noise ordinance that, among other things, prohibits horn honking except in emergencies and restricts the hours for construction work. All car alarms must shut off automatically within three minutes or the owners face fines.

But the mayor's office clearly believes more is needed. Already, Operation Silent Night has intensified police scrutiny in the 24 neighborhoods -- several in each borough, and ranging in size from a single block to several square miles. According to the plan, noise complaints that come into the hotline, police precincts or the city Department of Environmental Protection will now be quickly sent on to each precinct's executive officer, who will work with city agencies to address the complaint. Police officers in the listed neighborhoods will have noise meters and the power to write more summonses levying heftier fines, tow more alarm-blaring cars that will now cost more for their owners to retrieve and, in extreme cases, make arrests.

No one has put a price tag on the program, but with the city facing billions of dollars in budget cuts, should the mayor allocate any money to relieve the stresses of noise?

How to Complain

The city government and the Council on Environment of New York City offer a list of places that handle noise complaints. and ways to complain about noise.

The Quality of Life hotline at 888-677-LIFE or 888-677-5433 handles a variety of noise complaints. But, depending upon the type of noise involved, it may be more effective to go to another city agency.

For construction, nightclubs, outside speakers, private carter's trucks, barking dog, air conditioners and manufacturing machinery, call the Department of Environmental Protection at 718 DEP-HELP (337-4357). If the noisy garbage truck belongs to the city, go to the Department of Sanitation at 212 219-8090.

If the problem arise from noisy neighbors, boom boxes, car alarms, loud passers-by, motorcycles, or noise outside a bar or nightclub, contact the local police precinct.

For persistent difficulties, contact your local Community Board.

If a metal plate in the street is the source of the disturbance, you must first determine who is doing the work -- a government agency, Con Ed, the phone company or Keyspan, to cite a few usual suspects. A nearby truck may offer a clue, as can the plate itself which may be marked.

Ill-fitting gratings or manhole covers should be reported to Department of Transportation at 212 CALL-DOT (225-5368).

In taking on the problem, says John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator at City Hall and one of the people in charge of implementing the initiative, Bloomberg is simply responding to his citizenry. Of the 97,000 complaints that come into the Quality of Life hotline each year, about 85 percent are about noise. Already this year, 93,000 people have called with complaints about noise [see box]. "Calls to the Quality of Life Hotline tell us that people in this city are concerned about noise," Feinblatt says. "Operation Silent Night is a response to those concerns."

Art Strickler, district manager of Community Board Two, which covers the West Village, said his office gets more complaints about excessive noise than any other problem. But he is less than totally sympathetic. "This is Greenwich Village," he said. "If they want peace and quiet, they should move to some bedroom community in Brooklyn."

Bloomberg's office has stated that getting tough on noise polluters is similar to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's cracking down on squeegee men, turnstile jumpers and other very small-time offenders, and the administration hopes that it will produce similar reductions in crime. However, neither the administration nor experts can point to any studies linking crime levels with noise, or criminals with loud behavior.


Others contend that noise poses a very real public health hazard. Most obviously it can affect hearing, causing something called Noise Induced Hearing Loss. But the World Health Organization has listed an array of other effects, including a higher risk of hypertension and some types of heart disease. Unwanted noise creates tiredness and exhaustion, which in turn results in a lack of productivity on the job and anti-social behavior. People afflicted by excessive exposure to loud noise can become withdrawn and sullen.

Studies have concluded that students in noisy classrooms, such as those near airports or trains, do not learn as well as those in quieter settings. As evidence of the seriousness of the noise problem, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has established guidelines for safe noise levels in the workplace.

Sound levels, are measured in decibels (dB), with a normal conversation usually registering at about 60 decibels. Health problems can result from noises registering above about 75 to 90 decibels. A noisy restaurant or a construction site can be about 90 decibels, while motorcycles, firecrackers and small arms fire may emit sounds from 120 to 140 decibels.

John Dallas has been working since 1994 with the Bronx Campaign for Peace and Quiet, which is affiliated with Christ the King Church, to educate the public about the benefits of peace and quiet and the dangers of noise. "In a lot of neighborhoods you hear music blasting out of apartments," Dallas says, "and then you realize there are kids in there. Their hearing is being impaired. Some people say it's culture, but those kids are being harmed."

The effects of noise pollution can ripple through a neighborhood. "Noise pollution, from our perspective, is connected with impoverishment," Dallas says. "When you foster peace and quiet, when you live in a way that respects other people, you improve community." Noise, he adds, "chases away the middle class. People who want to improve their lives and be creative move away. So noise does not only impair physical health but also economic, social and spiritual."


According to some people involved with noise issues, Operation Silent Night, though a positive first step, fails to address some major sources of noise pollution in the city.

The targeted neighborhoods were selected on the basis of the number and locations of calls to the Quality of Life Hotline, which only addresses certain kinds of common problems. "The mayor is touching the tip of the iceberg," says Arline Bronzaft, a member of the Council on the Environment of New York City and a nationally recognized expert on noise pollution. "You can't think that you just go and ticket cab drivers [for honking horns] and that that is going to solve the problem." Noise comes from many more sources in addition to those picked by the mayor's program and affects many more areas.

Bronzaft says that the mayor's initiative has left him with the responsibility for quieting the city. "He's going to have to make a difference and lessen the din," she says. But Bronzaft says that will be difficult and points to three major gaps.

First, the Department of Environmental Protection enforces a Noise Code that is 30 years old and no longer addresses the real sources of noise or the latest ways to quiet them. The result is that the department, which is generally regarded as highly responsive to complaints, issues violations in only one out of four responses. "That's a poor batting average," Bronzaft says.

In response, the department has hired the consulting firm of Alle, King, Rosen and Fleming to update the code. "Clearly, it's time," agrees Feinblatt of the mayor's office. The firm's recommendations will eventually be open to public comment and could make it before the City Council. So far, though, no one knows what changes the firm might suggest or when this might happen.

Second, Bronzaft says, noise violations issued by police officers are usually thrown out in court because they are improperly written. Police must state their case objectively and, more often than not, this is almost impossible where noise is concerned. It may be that the noise meters that officers will now carry will help solve some of that problem by quantifying noise levels, though it is unclear how courts will view that information.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, many agencies that receive complaints about noise are not a part of Operation Silent Night. Mediation boards, the Buildings Department, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transit Authority, as well as the Sanitation Department and the Trade Waste Commission, all get calls from New Yorkers fed up with some sound or another. Yet, the new program focuses only on complaints received by the Quality of Life Hotline.

And there is some dispute over whether the targeted neighborhoods are indeed the city's loudest. For example, people in downtown Brooklyn were upset that it was not included as one of the target areas, despite high noise levels and frequent complaints to the Department of Environmental Protection, while certain other areas in Brooklyn, with more complaints to the hotline but fewer to Environmental Protection, were. In Manhattan, according to the Mayor's Report Card, two of the areas with the most complaints are the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Not coincidentally, the City Council members from those districts had handed out brochures telling people to call the hotline. Yet, it would be hard to claim that those two neighborhoods have more noise problems than many other areas in the city.

The fact is that 93,000 does not represent anywhere near the total number of complaints about noise received by all city agencies. And, further, all the complaints made to every city agency probably do not represent anything approaching all the sleepless nights, interrupted conversations, lost thoughts and other problems created by a noisy city. For one thing, according to Bronzaft, "people in poor neighborhoods probably don't call because they don't think people will be responsive. But noise in this city is an equal opportunity offender."


While the mayor's office did not respond to requests for a numeric breakdown of complaints to the Quality of Life Hotline -- such numbers may not in fact exist -- the Department of Environmental Protection was able to show the most common complaints it received. According to its figures, air conditioners and ventilation equipment are the most frequent causes of noise complaints. Barking dogs, construction sites and loud music come next, followed by ice cream trucks and private carters. Amy Boyle, acting director of the Noise Center at the League for the Hard of Hearing says, "The problems [with noise] are as diverse as the people in the city, whether it's a person with neighbor noise or noisy motorcycles or cafes or elevated subways."

Or airplanes. Residents of neighborhoods around John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport are overwhelmed by noise from planes. At a press conference in Astoria, Bloomberg mistakenly responded to a question about airplane noise by stating that federal authorities have jurisdiction over the issue.

But Dr. A. Allen Greene, vice president of government affairs for the advocacy group Sane Aviation for Everyone (S.A.F.E.), says that is an easy out for politicians. "Politicians, every time there is an airport expansion plan, hop on the bandwagon," he says. "The city should take an active role in protecting citizens from aircraft noise. The city owns the airports. The Port Authority operates them. It's just not true to say that it's a federal issue."

The city does have the power to control another recurring nuisance: nightclubs. Interestingly, as the result of previous legal actions, New York takes a tougher stand against "unauthorized dancing" -- moving one's body to the beat in a bar or restaurant that does not have a cabaret license -- than it does toward excessive noise.

As part of his anti-noise agenda, Gerson wants the city to do just the opposite: relax the constraints on dancing in return for increased penalties on noise and enforcing soundproofing regulations. "If an establishment is appropriately soundproofed, government should not care if people inside dance. Otherwise, it is an impingement on personal expression," Gerson has said.

Operation Silent Night and Gerson's initiative seem to signal a newfound attention to a long-standing problem. "Consistently, across the board, we're being exposed to dangerously high levels of noise," says Boyle of the Noise Center. "There's a lot of noise out there, and whether or not it's louder than it was 30 years ago, it's too loud."



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