Noise returns to New York City

Photo credit: Chris Schippers from Pexels

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

When the pandemic hit New York City in full force in late March and then worked its way into April and May, city residents began to speak of a positive result of the lockdown—the city sounded quieter. There were far fewer construction sounds, car honks, and gatherings of people on corners. Instead of overhead jet blasts, people in Queens could hear birdsong. But the increased ambulance sirens were painful reminders that illness had befallen this city and cities around the world.

It is now August and the quiet has passed, according to this New York Magazine article by Justin Davidson. Davidson writes that New York City is getting loud again, and he welcomes the return of intrusive sounds because they indicate that people are now going back to work and construction and repairs of buildings are no longer on hold. Davidson believes the quiet that hovered over the city during lockdown wasn’t really pleasurable. The evening streets lacked sounds of laughter, music from nearby restaurants, and even disagreements between people passing by, Davidson writes, while acknowledging that there were loud sounds at 7:00 p.m. celebrating the wonderful hospital workers tending to the sick.

Now Davidson finds himself bothered by nearby generators and its pulsations, which he says are “nudging my heartbeat to accelerate, like an IV drip of bad news.” His article cites research that demonstrates that such noise can affect mental and physical well-being, and notes, citing Emily Thompson’s “The Soundscape of Modernity,” that noise was one of the outcomes of urbanization. Yet, he found that when he visited a rural area, he encountered a number of noises in that environment as well.

This article also presents the opinion of critic Kate Wagner, which appeared in The Atlantic, who believes responses to sound speak to our social and political views in that fights over noise may be fights over “power and control.” Newcomers to certain quieter communities may advocate for more night life in the area while others moving into the city from the suburbs want a quieter town. Wagner, according to Davidson, believes that attempts to “shush” a city amounts to the “imposition of suburban values on an urban context.”

Davidson concludes his article by aching for the return of the sounds that characterized New York City before the pandemic. Then, he says, we will know that the city has “healed.”

While I, too, want to hear the wonderful sounds of the city again—children laughing, baseball fans shouting, and sounds of crowds leaving theaters and waiting for autographs of their favorite actors—I also believe that we should continue to advocate for the lessening of the din, e.g. lower construction tool sounds, less car honking, and the like.

A less noisy New York City will still be an exciting, vibrant city and a healthier one as well.

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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