I was supposed to call Arline Bronzaft at 10:30 in the morning but somehow forgot. So when the phone rang at 10:45 with Bronzaft on the other line, I found myself apologizing profusely. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Is this the most important thing? No.” At 87, Bronzaft radiates a certain kind of patience, born of time and, perhaps more significant, spending more than half her life waging a campaign against an enemy she knows she’ll never fully defeat: noise.
Bronzaft is an environmental psychologist and professor emeritus at the City University of New York who has spent the past five decades researching the adverse health impacts of noise and trying to make New York City just a little quieter. She has advised multiple mayors and transit officials and helped shape the city’s noise code. If you’ve noticed that parked ice-cream trucks have grown silent or that buses are somehow a little less loud than they used to be, you likely have Bronzaft’s single-minded campaign to thank. Today, she continues to serve on the board of GrowNYC, an environmental nonprofit, where she helps litigate people’s personal noise complaints — including speaking with noisy neighbors directly. “People would ask me to come to their homes to listen to the noise overnight and sleep there,” Bronzaft told me. “My husband said that’s the one thing he did not want me to do.”
Bronzaft is the de facto noise queen of New York City. No noise dispute is too small or too large. (She has also had a hand in regulating aircraft noise, which she considers a menace.) We chatted about her work, how New Yorkers’ relationship to noise in the city has changed in the decades since she started, and some of the strangest noise disputes she’s found herself involved in.
Where do you live?
I live on the Upper East Side near the river — fortunately in an area that’s not that noisy. Well, a siren just went by …
Yeah, I can hear it. How did you get into noise?
I was a professor at Lehman College, and a student told me her child was in a classroom next to an elevated train that passed by every four and a half minutes. The noise was so loud that the children couldn’t learn and the teacher couldn’t teach. She said, “We’re gonna sue the City of New York.” So I said to her, “If you sue, you’re gonna have to prove that the children are adversely affected.” So I went to the school, and I asked to look at the reading scores of the children whose classes were next to the train and then the reading scores of children on the quiet side of the building. I found that by the sixth grade, the children were nearly a year behind on reading.
That’s a lot.
I went to the Transit Authority, and they were testing out a method to quiet noise on the tracks. I persuaded them to select the school to test out the method and then went to the Board of Education and had them put acoustical ceilings in the classroom. Now people say, “How did you get two agencies in New York City to cooperate like that?” I said it was a miracle, but I did have the press, parents, and public officials supporting me. And when I went back, guess what? The children on both sides of the building were reading at the same level. These studies are what got me started.
You’ve been doing this work for so long. Have you seen the city’s relationship to noise change over time?
The trains have gotten a little less noisy. The buses — we do have quieter buses now. We have a stronger noise code: It says that construction should be quieter; it suggests the use of quieter tools. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but you know I helped to write it. My children joke, “Mom, you’re still dealing with this. I guess not too many people listen to you.”
Wait — how do you make buses and trains quieter?
I’m gonna give you an example. The motor that the TA was buying for their trains was noisy. The tips of the fan that was cooling the motor were hitting the sides of the structure as the motor was going. And I just came up with a simple solution: “Why don’t you cut the tips of the fan? It won’t hurt the sides, and the motor will be quieter.” They listened to me. They should have done this on their own, but they asked the company that was manufacturing the fans to cut the tips.
Along the system, they have ways of checking whether it’s noisier. What you’re really checking is not noise but potential vulnerability of the system, which could lead to some sort of breakdown. That was the effort of what I suggested. They were clued in that quiet vehicles means less problems about potential breakdowns. Anyone that owns a car knows that that’s true. I don’t own a car, so I had to do it with the trains.
Which mayors have been the best to work with?
I’m not a Republican — you can figure that out, right? But I did very well with Giuliani. He said, “Look — Arline does her thing. Just leave her to it.” He’s the only mayor that’s protested aircraft noise.
Are there any advancements in noise control you’re excited about?
I think the noise camera is a good idea — if that works. Are you familiar with a noise camera?
No, what is that?
In the city, we now have a pilot project on a noise camera. When a car speeds through a red light, there’s a camera. Now we are testing out a camera that will register the amount of sound that a car is emitting to see if it’s beyond what is acceptable.
That’s really cool.
It’s a health issue. We’re not talking about being bothered or annoyed. We’re talking about not getting enough sleep.
Are there any New York City noises that have gone extinct?
I don’t see boom boxes anymore; that used to be very common. People now have earbuds. But you also don’t hear children playing in the street. When I was a youngster, more children were playing on the street, shouting. Although we went upstairs at six o’clock for dinner. I personally think that’s sad — now they’re in their homes with their technology.
Yeah, they’re inside. I guess when we talk about New York City, we all live on top of one another and it’s a lot of neighbor-to-neighbor noise.
I serve on the board of GrowNYC, and if you go to the noise section, it says, “If you have a problem, contact Arline Bronzaft.” Imagine: Anyone could contact me in the City of New York with a noise complaint.
What are some of the strangest noise disputes that people have called you about?
I had a call about a windmill. Did you hear the word I used?
An old-fashioned windmill. Today, we’re talking about wind turbines, so you know how long ago this call must have been. This was over 30 years ago. A person put a windmill in his own backyard. This was in New Jersey. How would you like to wake up each day listening to a windmill?
I wouldn’t! What did it sound like?
It was vrooooooooom. I went on the person’s terrace; it was such an awful sound. I went into the apartment after I left the terrace, and it still stayed with me.
What was the windmill milling?
It was for the energy. For his personal use. I went out there, explained how the noise was a problem, and got the windmill shut down.
What about in the city?
Neighbor noise is big. Once, I got one about a neighbor who brought a parrot in the home. The person ended up moving shortly after, but I don’t think I could have stopped the parrot. Oh, I got one. It deals with sex. You’ll like that one, right?
This one was in my own building. I got a complaint that, late at night, a couple next door were having sex and kept their bed close to the wall. So while they were having sex, the bed was banging into the wall. So how did I deal with that one? I knew the housekeeper for that couple with the banging sex, and we were down in the laundry room talking. And I said, “Oh, you know, the neighbor occasionally hears the bed banging against the wall. And I think if that happens often, it may harm the wall. Could I make a suggestion? Could you just move the bed like an inch away from the wall?” She moved it. End of story — no more complaints. So people say, “You deal with noise?” I say, “No, I deal with sex. I deal with crime. It goes beyond noise.”
It seems like noise is as much about our relationship as humans as it is about decibels.
I think that if we were more respectful of others, so much noise would be cut down. But I’ll tell you who’s the least respectful of us: What about the aviation industry? Aircraft noise has become a major, major problem in New York City. This isn’t just on the personal. What about the construction industry? The government should get back into the noise business. Congresswoman Grace Meng has introduced legislation to refund the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC). Hopefully it will pass. The studies show an increased risk for cardiovascular disorders for people who live near airports, and they go to the hospital for treatments for stress. So if the airlines feel they don’t want to abate noise because it may cost them a few bucks and the government yields to that request, then the people of the United States are paying those medical bills. We should not forget that the cost to all of us — because we all end up paying higher taxes for medical costs — will be greater if we don’t stop the noise.
I’m with you.
I do try to get people to help themselves. If you are affected by noise and you get no one to listen to you and no one to do anything, you can get a disorder called learned helplessness, in which you feel that nothing you do can ever resolve the issue. People that call me, some of them are crying, and even though I haven’t solved their problem, I listen to them for five or seven minutes and they are so thankful that someone listens. I get rewarded with thank-you notes and occasionally candy, which is fine.
I really relate. I have a horrible problem on my street, where it’s so narrow that when a car is double-parked, often the other cars can’t pass and then everyone honks. It happens three or four times a day, and it drives me crazy.
Have you ever spoken to the police precinct?
No, I haven’t.
Okay. Have you asked your council person? Who’s your council person?
I’m not gonna chastise you; that’s not my role. But your council person should look into how that could be corrected.
That’s a good idea. Thanks. Do you ever complain about noise?
I had an upstairs neighbor set up a basketball court in a child’s bedroom and had teams playing on the weekends. Do you think that lasted long with me in this building? It stopped quickly. But I have not personally been so upset by noise. There are sounds I don’t like, but do I want shouting at Yankee Stadium because I want the Yankees to win? Yeah.
Do you have a favorite noise?
Favorite sound? They’re two different words.
What’s the difference?
Sound is a physical phenomenon that you measure on a scale. Noise is sound that is harmful.
My favorite sound is my great-grandchild. She’s 11 months old. I talk to her, and she answers back with sounds. And those sounds are music to my ear.
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
As long as my health is okay, I don’t think so. I’m much more reasonable today than I was 40 years ago. I think with age comes some wisdom. And I’m hoping I can stay around a little longer so I can still contribute —
[Siren wails.] Sorry, that’s on my end.
— because see? You hear the siren.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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