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Meet the New Yorkers Fighting to Keep the City Quiet(er)

By Nicole Levy | September 27, 2016 8:30am

It’s 2 a.m. on a Friday night, and you can’t fall asleep because the dive bar around the corner is blasting Prince’s top hits. At 6 a.m. the next morning, you wake up to the sanitation workers banging trash cans outside your window.

Noise —  an "excessive and unreasonable" ambient sound level — is the single greatest quality-of-life issue for New Yorkers, according to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

To call it an annoyance is an understatement. The city has so far this year received more than 300,000 noise-related complaints about everything from "loud talking" to jack-hammering, open data records show.

Prolonged exposure to sounds above 85 dBA — that’s equivalent to the volume of a lawnmower — can permanently impair hearing, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns. The auditory sensory cells in our ears never regenerate once they’re gone, and they take some of our independence and social connectivity with them. 

Studies have also linked noise exposure to a string of diseases. Noise appears to trigger our bodies’ “fight or flight” response, increasing blood pressure and heart rate, constricting blood vessels and releasing stress hormones. Over long period of exposure, noise may cause changes to blood chemistry, leading to chronic high blood pressure, the hardening of blood vessels, and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

In children, noise exposure has a negative effect on learning and cognition. More than 20 studies have demonstrated that children whose classes are interrupted by aircraft, road traffic, or rail noise read at a lower level, struggle more with memorization and perform worse on standardized tests than children whose classrooms are quieter.

But noise appears to wreak the most havoc on our bodies and minds by disrupting the sleep we need to be alert during daylight hours. You’re less likely to sleep deeply through the sounds of your neighbor’s footsteps upstairs because it arouses your sympathetic nervous system. 

Meet three New Yorkers who say that noise produced by traffic, sirens, construction, planes and our neighbors is such a concern that it's an adversary worth fighting:

THE CRUSADER

Arline Bronzaft is the Peter Venkman of noise; you call her when your upstairs neighbor refuses to carpet his floors, and the landlord won't intervene. 

"I generally get the people who've tried everything else — they've tried the landlords and they've tried the council people. I get the hardest cases," said Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist who volunteers her time on behalf of the sustainability nonprofit GrowNYC.

First she calms the tenants down. 

"Even before I've solved the problem — and not always do I solve them — the person says, 'Thank God someone's listening.'"

Bronzaft then asks the complainant to list all the steps he has taken to mitigate the offending noise, and writes to the apartment's managing agent or landlord "on GrowNYC letterhead," she specified, presenting the case and inviting a discussion.

"I have a good record with getting the landlords or managing agent to look into the problem," said Bronzaft, who, on occasion, improvises the actual solution. 

They listen because if any name in the anti-noise movement carries clout in New York City, it's Arline Bronzaft.

arline

Arline Bronzaft has made a name for herself advocating for New Yorkers locked in noise-related battles. (Credit: Arline Bronzaft)

Bronzaft's career as a noise-buster began over four decades ago, when a student in her environmental psychology class at Lehman College asked for help with a real-world problem: noise from the elevated 1 train in Inwood was disrupting her child's classroom at P.S. 98.

Bronzaft went to the school to investigate. The result of her inquiry — a widely publicized and now widely cited 1975 study she co-authored with an associate — showed that children in classrooms facing the tracks were as much as a year behind in reading ability. Noise interruptions were cutting down on teaching time and distracting students.

City agencies took action four years later, installing rubber insulation on the rails and insulating classroom ceilings, and a follow-up study demonstrated that children in previously noisy classrooms were reading at similar levels as those in quiet ones.

From that research, Bronzaft went on to advise subway administrators and mayors on all matters of noise. She helped the city revise its noise code in 2007, which sets acceptable hours and volumes for sounds from construction, animals, cars, restaurants and air conditioners.

The updated code "recognized that when you talk about noise, it isn't always about decibel readings," Bronzaft said.

But enforcement of the code remains an issue for the limited staff of the city's Department of Environmental Protection and the NYPD, and a larger menace beyond their oversight still looms overhead: airplane noise.

THE WATCHDOG

Janet McEneaney woke up at 6 a.m. one morning in June 2012 to the sound of jets flying 2000 feet above her Bayside home every 60 seconds.

"I live seven miles from LaGuardia, and we had never had that before," said the now-president of an advocacy group against aviation noise and pollution, Queens Quiet Skies.

The noise, she later learned, was an unintended consequence of a new air traffic control system, The Next Generation Air Transportation System, which the Federal Aviation Administration began rolling out nationwide that year. 

"It's like having an earache or toothache," McEneaney said of the constant noise. "It never ends ... It makes you feel like you're going to tear your hair out. You can't sleep. We have people whose houses vibrate."

Four years ago, she organized Queens Quiet Skies. Alongside elected officials, the group pushes for greater community oversight, more noise monitors on airport runways, and new FAA environmental and noise studies in the neighborhoods around LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Airports.

Janet

New York State Senator Tony Avella recognizes McEneaney as a 2016 Women of Distinction Award honoree (Credit: New York State Senate)

But it wasn't until last year — at an academic presentation about the health hazards of jet fuel — that she realized the full scope of her noise problem.

"While I was sitting there, I thought to myself, this is a public health problem," McEneaney, who is also an attorney and community board member, recalled. "Why is the FAA in charge of it?"

Before the EPA phased out its funding in 1982, there was a federal agency dedicated to noise control, the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), McEneaney learned.

She took her research to U.S. congresswoman Grace Meng, whose staff drafted a bill that would re-establish ONAC. Meng introduced the "Quiet Communities Act of 2015" last fall, but it remains in subcommittee.

On the phone on a Monday evening, she told DNAinfo New York the planes were roaring over her neighborhood. 

"I'm sitting here and looking at the on-screen noise monitors in Queens right now, and seeing that every single damn plane flying over my house is, at minimum, 75 decibels."

THE INNOVATOR

The first year Tae Hong Park, an associate professor of music composition and technology at NYU, lived In New York City, he had trouble sleeping.

"For about a year, I could not sleep well. Every morning when the garbage truck guys came, they would always wake me up at 6 or so," said Park, who moved to Greenwich Village from New Orleans in 2012. "The funny thing is, after a year, I didn't wake up anymore. Your body adjusts, and that’s not a good thing."

Park had been mulling the idea for an audio version of Google maps since 2011, but the project that he calls Citygram took on new urgency in his new cacophonous city.

Noise is "kind of like global warming," Park said. "It’s not immediate, but it can kick you in the butt ten years later, and then it’s too late, because your hearing is gone and your body has adjusted and your stress levels go up and you wonder why people have heart attacks.”

Now that the first phase of the Citygram project — sound recording technology that runs on a web browser and that anyone with internet connection can use — is complete, he has begun to spread his gospel of noise awareness to the masses.

"This is a total community project," said Park. "Even one percent of the population can help us.”

Once Citygram has recruited enough participants, it begin phase two: gathering information and analyzing patterns. Phase three is automating the whole process, "so machines can tell us the answers to what sounds are the loudest, what sounds disturb or concern the public the most," Park explained.

Noise activists could present that data, the composer and music technologist argues, to government officials as undeniable evidence that the noise pollution wearing away at our health is continuously getting worse. 

The fight against noise isn't, however, always a bleak one. Lectures, hackathons, art installations and concerts drew attention to Park's cause last week at the first-ever five-day NoiseGate Festival, which he organized (and which ironically deprived him of more sleep than any garbage truck).

hackathon

Tae Hong Park (far right) looks on during a workshop of the Citygram program on Sunday, the last day of the NoiseGate festival. (Credit: Min-Joon Yoo)

Taking to the stage of Carnegie's Zankel Hall Wednesday night, Park himself performed an original composition that uses Citygram to stream noise from all over the world.

Playing "Bbb," Park said, "is like "jamming with Planet Earth in real time."