NEW YORK – No wonder they call New York the city that never sleeps. Who can get any shuteye with all the noise?!
Screeching subway trains, honking cars, roaring planes, barking dogs and boisterous people make noise the Big Apple’s No. 1 quality-of-life complaint. A city hotline got more than 260,000 noise complaints last year.
Silence, it seems, is the one thing in this city of more than 8 million that’s almost impossible to find, despite a major crackdown on excessive noise.
One of the lesser-known legacies of the recently ended 12-year tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg was one of the nation’s toughest noise codes. Under it, every construction site must post a noise mitigation plan, while excessive noise from restaurants, sidewalks, even garbage trucks is illegal.
Tickets range from $70 for a barking dog to $350 for honking your horn to as much as $8,000 for a nightclub playing loud music.
But despite thousands of violation notices filed with the city last year, health officials warn there are still plenty of places where decibels top 85, a level that can cause hearing damage with prolonged exposure. Some parts of the city frequently exceed 100 decibels — especially where planes swoop a few hundred feet over rooftops.
While there is no comprehensive list, the city says these are frequent sources of complaints for life-altering noise:
TIMES SQUARE TRAFFIC
“This is the noisiest place in New York City!” declares Jesse Davis, who stands in the heart of Times Square handing out leaflets for psychic readings. “It’s toot, toot, toot, toot all day.”
For two decades, the 57-year-old has done this kind of work, handing out promotional materials for businesses, surrounded by a sea of cabs, cars and trucks, their drivers often laying on the horn to get pedestrians to move.
Davis tries to drown out the noise with music from his ear buds.
“This is New York, and this whole city is noisy,” he says. “But you get used to it — business is business.”
On a concrete island in the middle of the square is a shipping container-turned-gourmet food cart called the SnackBox, where clerk Eduardo Zevallos spends his days amid the cacophony “trying to tune it out.”
The worst noise? When an ambulance gets stuck in traffic just feet behind him on Broadway. “So for maybe five minutes, you have to listen to a drowning ambulance sound.”
At P.S. 85 in Queens’ Astoria neighborhood, children and their teachers have a signal system: Touching a forefinger to the lips while lifting two fingers in the air.
That means stop everything because the overwhelming noise outside from the screeching elevated subway trains drowns out any kind of speech.
“It’s really loud, and our teacher has to stop every two minutes, or three, when the train comes,” says 8-year-old Nepheli Motamed, whose third-grade classroom is at the mercy of the trains.
Parents recently held a news conference to protest the noise, and they were interrupted 16 times in a half-hour by train squeals.
“This is attention deficit disorder forced on the kids because every few minutes they’re distracted and they have to constantly refocus,” says Evie Hantzopoulos, co-president of the school’s parent association.
City school officials say acoustic tiles have been installed in the classrooms facing the tracks.
But Nepheli says more still needs to be done. “It would be easier to learn without the noise,” she says.
Brooklyn’s DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is a former manufacturing district with lofty warehouses and sweeping Manhattan views that has become one of the city’s artsiest places.
But with the incessant bridge traffic and overhead subway lines, it’s also among the noisiest.
For Jada Williams, president of the Giant Noise publicity firm, noise is not just an ad concept.
“When clients call on my cellphone and I’m outside, it’s a pain to take a call because it’s impossible to hear,” Williams says. “And it’s hard to explain to them that I’m located in a very noisy neighborhood— so I don’t answer.”
Karen Johnson, who owns two bars in DUMBO, loves to sit in a park in sight of Manhattan.
“It’s so pretty — and then you try to talk to someone and the train thunders by,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve lost some hearing as a result of working and living here. It was too much.”
She moved to the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, which she says is almost suburban quiet by comparison.
On Manhattan’s East Side, residents of the Rivergate apartment building on 34th Street are subjected to a smorgasbord of sound: relentless whirring from helicopters at the East 34th Street Heliport, traffic whizzing by day and night on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and ambulances heading for New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
After years of complaints about 90-decibel noise levels in their apartments, Rivergate’s management installed sound-dampening panes.
Sheldon and Gloria Moline say that when they first moved into their 32nd-floor apartment five years ago, they had to wear earplugs in their living room with the windows closed. Now the only time they use them is when they venture out on the balcony.
“You can’t talk because there’s nothing between you and the helicopters except six lanes of traffic,” Sheldon Moline says. “There’s nothing you can do about it — it’s all legal. ... That’s living in the city.”
But the city did do something about the helipad, banning weekend flights and allowing weekday ones from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. only.
TAKEOFFS AND LANDINGS
Barbara Brown puts up with massive jets from John F. Kennedy airport flying full thrust as low as about 100 feet over her house in Queens’ Springfield Gardens neighborhood, at decibel levels topping 110.
Every few minutes, the roof rattles, the ceilings shake and at night, aircraft lights shine through windows.
“Whenever a plane is taking off or landing, it wakes you up,” says the retired elementary school principal. “If you’re talking on the phone, you have to stop. And you can’t hear the TV in your living room.”
A few years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration redesigned New York routes around Kennedy and LaGuardia airports after changing navigation from radar to satellite. The greater accuracy allows planes to fly closer together but concentrates the noise.
In Queens’ Jackson Heights, near LaGuardia, the planes and the bustling street noise is a combination that resident Nicole Citron called, “Crazy-making! You can’t hear conversation.”
Citron puts her 5-year-old and a toddler to bed in a room closest to the street because, oddly, it doesn’t seem to bother them.
“They’re used to the sounds since they were born,” she says.