loud town

Barely Surviving the Sounds of New York City

When a rare medical condition makes noise painful, but you live in Manhattan anyway.

Illustration: Michele Febbraio
Illustration: Michele Febbraio

Joyce Cohen lives in a soft apartment. Plush rugs line the floors of the Upper West Side one-bedroom she shares with her husband, and there are cloth place mats draped over the kitchen counters. An alternating system — plastic, then glass, plastic, then glass — orders the bottles in the fridge, which rest on top of vinyl shelf liners. “I know people who have gotten catastrophically injured by glass bottles clinking together,” Cohen tells me. In the bathroom, the shower curtain is terrycloth, as is the toilet-seat cover. “We can’t have two hard things together,” her husband explains. Call it a house rule.

Cohen has hyperacusis, or acoustic trauma, a rare condition in which ordinary sounds can cause discomfort and, in severe cases, extraordinary pain. Hyperacusis remains little understood, but it is a disruption in the way the brain’s central auditory processing center “perceives noise,” according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology. There are emerging theories about what causes it: Damage to auditory nerves. A problem with the facial nerves that control sound intensity. Some as-yet-undiscovered other trigger. (Researchers are “so far from understanding” hyperacusis and its onset, a professor of otology at Harvard Medical School said in 2013, “that it’s not productive to make anybody think there’s an answer.”) It’s a small community of people who have it — one in 50,000, by some estimates — and Cohen and her husband, who met through an online hyperacusis message board, are among an even smaller contingent who have this extreme sensitivity to noise and live in New York City. It’s a loud place — among the loudest in the country. Why live here if you can avoid it?

Cohen says her acoustic trauma started around 16 years ago, after prolonged exposure to a loud workplace fan. She is also a carrier of a noise-susceptibility gene, which may impact between 10 to 20 percent of the population. (Her husband says his symptoms first developed after years of going to concerts — hyperacusis is closely associated with tinnitus — and some workplace noise exposure.) Cohen found the early years of dealing with the extraordinary pain almost like grieving, writing once that she began “giving things away, like people supposedly do before they die.” Her ability to manage her condition improved over time, as she learned how to navigate life in a way that minimized noise.

I am not the first person to ask Cohen why she lives in New York City. For one thing, density is on her side: Living elsewhere would likely require her to drive. A car is, she says, really just a noise-making machine. Here she has access to the things she needs with little friction: Shops are close, delivery is plentiful. But living comfortably in a city of sirens and 4 a.m. door buzzers did take some retrofitting. “We made the inside of the apartment as quiet as humanly possible,” Cohen says. She counts herself lucky: The rent-stabilized apartment she’s lived in for nearly 30 years happens to be on a quiet side street, and the building doesn’t have any kids, dogs, or elevators. They’ve installed soundproof windows and solid interior doors to try to block out the noise of errant ice-cream trucks, impatient drivers, or excited teenagers. Protective earmuffs are their saving grace and are basically part of the interior design: In each room, a pair sits within arms reach in case a fire truck blows by. “They’re all over the house in case something happens,” Cohen says. “I look like a baggage handler wearing them.”

Cohen, a freelance real-estate reporter, works from home, but can generally move around the city if she needs to, even taking the subway on occasion. Before walking out the door, she arms herself: earplugs inside of industrial earmuffs. She’s developed a number of tricks to help her navigate the loud streets — looking up the status of digging permits to avoid loud construction; ducking into the lobby of nearby buildings when a siren goes by. Typically the doormen are nice about it, but if she gets any pushback, she’ll pretend to slowly tie her shoes until the noise passes. People’s sympathies can vary: She once asked a subway performer to pause his drumming to no avail. But the employees at her preferred Gap will now turn the music down for her, and the manager at her local Fairway tries to make sure there’s no one using power tools while she’s inside. But there are parts of the city that are pretty much off limits. She and her husband avoid restaurants and movie theaters, but sometimes they will take late-night walks in Central Park. (Even those can be hazardous — people whistling for their dogs, bikers ringing their bells.)

Restaurants are similarly a nightmare for Gina Briggs, who lives in Boerum Hill and has a much milder condition — she is sensitive to sound but doesn’t feel pain. (“It makes me irritable, almost like the feeling you get when you have a pebble in your shoe,” she says.) She first realized she might have an issue with noise while having brunch one day. “I felt myself get kind of enraged,” Briggs says of the restaurant — all hard, clattering surfaces, music blasting, and a rowdy bridal shower eating nearby. “I was like, This is not normal. I’ve got to figure out what’s going on.” In an effort to ease her own experience of the city and share that information with others who might need it, Briggs created a site called Quiet City Maps where she took decibel readings of different establishments. (She reminisces fondly about a monastery-themed bar called Burp Castle, where bartenders would kick people out for making too much noise. “I spoke to them and was like, ‘Oh my God, this is such a civilized place.’”) She doesn’t wear ear protection when she walks around, but she does often have earplugs on hand for situations like an office party. For sudden noises — a subway screech, an ear-piercing siren — a relatively lo-fi method works: She plugs her ears with her fingers.

Not every New Yorker with a noise condition makes the same choices as Cohen and Briggs, though. Jon Wallace, a calm and careful talker who works for a hedge fund, says he believes he developed hyperacusis after a number of banal events — ear pressure from a flight, a crate slamming down from a truck on the city street. The last straw, he tells me, was accidentally putting his headphones in at full volume while quarantining in Connecticut during early COVID. “I kind of laughed it off, but within 24 hours I was on a work call and bam, it was like a light switch — the whole world changed,” Wallace says. “I had tinnitus, and suddenly I found that I was sensitive to all sorts of sounds.”

It took Wallace a year and a half after the headphone incident before he could even step back into Manhattan. His few trips to the office took planning — he had to perfectly execute every move: ear protection everywhere, routes that minimized time on the street. It wasn’t long before he realized he needed to leave permanently: “There are just so many surprising ambulance or car sounds or construction noises. It was no way for me to live.”

But is any place truly quiet if every noise is a potential hazard? Cohen sees tradeoffs everywhere. The country has birdsong and cicadas; the suburbs mean leaf blowers and lawn mowers. “You end up trading one noise for another,” she says. Though she did consider moving out of the city, at least temporarily to avoid a nearby construction project. There was a house in a rural part of Connecticut that seemed promising. Then she talked to the only neighbor, trying to understand the local noise landscape. She only needed to hear one word, she says, before deciding the place wasn’t for her: “Woodpeckers.”

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Barely Surviving the Sounds of New York City