Coronavirus is changing NYC’s soundscape

This photo is in the public domain

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition 

I have been writing about sound and noise for the past forty years but I never envisioned that a virus pandemic in New York City would elicit a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles focused on sounds and noise. One example is Lindsay Zoladz’s piece, “Learning to Listen to, and Beyond, the Siren Call.” She notes that although she has lived near a hospital for the past five years, she “moved through life with breezy ignorance of the nearest hospital’s location.” But now she is overwhelmed by the “howl, yelp and bleat at all hours” of ambulance sirens. “I feel their presence in my body as an ever-increasing tightness in my shoulders and neck.”

Zoladz tells us about the group of Morningside Heights community residents who, subjected to the constant barrage of ambulance sirens, have been advocating for years to alter the present siren level to a less offensive sound used in Europe. Yet, New York City continued to use the more intrusive siren. With the coronavirus bringing more New Yorkers to hospitals in ambulances, and more people hearing these sirens, possibly after the pandemic these “new listeners,” including Ms. Zoladz, will join the Morningside Heights residents in their quest for the European “hi-lo siren.”

Though Zoladz admits that she has now tuned in to the sounds of the city that she had formerly not been as attentive to, she says that she misses “the comfort of the noise.”

I very well understand this comment because the sounds to which she was tuned in to before the virus struck reflected a much more “normal New York” for Zoladz and her fellow New Yorkers. Yet, I have to point out that some of these sounds adversely impacted on our health and well-being: rail, road and aircraft noises and nearby loud bar music in the early morning hours. On the other hand, we enjoyed the roars at our New York sports arenas and the laughter of children playing in our city’s parks.

And every evening at 7:00 p.m., I join in with my fellow New Yorkers to cheer and thank our City’s health care workers who are risking their lives to tend to the needs of their fellow New Yorkers but, unlike Zoladz, I do not consider these sounds “noise.” Noise is traditionally described as unwanted, intrusive, disruptive sounds but the sounds I hear from my terrace at 7:00 p.m. are welcoming and pleasant. They are sounds of thankfulness and appreciation.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

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