loud town

The Noise Next Door

Tyquan Pleasant knocked on his neighbor’s door to ask her to stop the ear-shattering music and banging. Shaun Pyles heard a threat.

Illustration: Michele Febbraio
Illustration: Michele Febbraio

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Jayvonna Rucker was eager to move into 808 Elsmere Place as soon as the building could take her. It was a brand-new, six-story concrete cube in what seemed like a quiet area, a residential street sandwiched between hilly Crotona Park and the shops along East Tremont Avenue. Rucker and her high-school sweetheart, Tyquan Pleasant, had been living with their daughter in shelters for two years. It had been hard enough to find a landlord who would accept the family’s housing voucher; here was a two-bedroom apartment with new appliances, solid-wood cabinetry, and a fresh coat of soft-gray paint. Rucker would be 15 minutes by bus from her sister and could send her daughter to a preschool at the end of the street. It seemed like a good place to start fresh.

They moved in on New Year’s Eve 2021, the day Amiyah turned 3. A few months in, they realized there was a problem. A constant, bass-heavy noise came through the wall of Amiyah’s bedroom, which they shared with a neighbor next door in 2E. To Rucker, it felt akin to living next to the stacks of speakers you see at a block party. The idea of putting down carpets, hanging tapestries, or stuffing towels under doorways seemed completely pointless. “It wasn’t coming through the little cracks or whatever, the doors and stuff,” Rucker said. “It was coming through the walls. Like literally through the walls. That’s how loud it was.”

On top of this, the neighbor seemed to play sounds designed to grate on them. They heard the jarring pops and smashes of what they thought was the video game Roblox at top volume. And then there was the sound of a movie. Which wouldn’t have been so strange, except that it was the same movie, day after day after day, with the bass turned up so loud they couldn’t hear the dialogue, just the boom-boom of its action sequences whose patterns became more and more familiar.

Rucker would get headaches. Their daughter couldn’t play in her own room and would drag her toys into the living room. Rucker’s mother gave them a portable speaker to plug into their electronics so they could hear their own television, but Rucker hated competing. Drowning out noise with noise just meant she was even further from peace.

About a month or so after they moved in, Rucker decided to go over and introduce herself to plead for quiet. That’s when she met her neighbor for the first time. Shaun Pyles had long, straight hair and stood about her fiancé’s height. Rucker told Pyles about her daughter, how the sound affected her. She wanted to get her neighbor to see her angst and to discuss the issue like adults. But Pyles was combative: “I’m not turning shit down,” she said. Plus, she argued, “nobody says nothing to y’all when y’all be arguing.” Rucker was confused. She had been arguing more with Pleasant, she says — over the noise. But when they did, they made a point to be quiet, so Amiyah wouldn’t hear too much, or Rucker would even just leave, taking their daughter to her sister’s place nearby. But she didn’t try to argue. Instead, she told Pyles that if they had been loud, they’d try to be quieter next time. Pyles didn’t seem to hear her. She called her and Pleasant “bums.” “That’s when we knew we couldn’t talk to her,” Rucker says.

Rucker’s attempt at diplomacy seemed to have only made her neighbor angrier because afterward the sound that came through their wall started taking a different pattern. When Pleasant put Amiyah to sleep, he played her a recording of raindrops on a low volume. Now, sometimes when he did that, he would hear the same sort of sound — a recording of rain or thunder — coming back at them but louder. Another time, the family was playing Pop Smoke. Seconds later, they heard their neighbor blast the same songs back at them “on top of ours,” Rucker says. The mimicry seemed to pick up: When they turned on the shower, the neighbor would blare noise back.

In the meantime, the errant loud noises never stopped. They only got worse. In December, they started coming at night, as the family slept, waking them up at 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m. Rucker and Pleasant would shout through the wall at Pyles, begging her to turn it off, but that didn’t do anything. Rucker started blowing up an air mattress in her bedroom so she could drag Amiyah there, hoping the toddler could sleep through it. But Rucker couldn’t. She couldn’t close her eyes until it stopped, sometimes in the early morning. She would oversleep her alarm and miss taking Amiyah to school. “It was frustrating to the point where I didn’t want to live in my house.”

Pleasant started searching online to learn about their family’s legal rights to a quiet apartment, Rucker said. “He was like, ‘What can we do? Like is this supposed to be happening? Like are we supposed to just take this in and just deal with it?’”

The city’s own guide to the noise code said Rucker should call 311, and so did the voice recording at the local precinct. Rucker made her first 311 complaint over noise from Pyles on December 11. The operator responded via text that officers would show up within eight hours. To her knowledge, no one ever came.

So she called 911. That dispatcher informed her she wouldn’t be able to send the police in but suggested she could instead take her complaint to court. Pleasant didn’t think there was any point, anymore, in making complaints. He told her to quit the 311 calls. So they tried a different tactic. On December 14, almost a year after they moved in, they together drafted an email to the building’s management, Skyward Developers, with the subject line “Emergency.” “I’m coming to you as a respectable tenant,” she wrote. “I feel like this situation is going to escalate.”

The email landed in the inbox of Usher Zelik, who manages 808. When I called the number he left for Rucker, he introduced himself as the building’s landlord, and estimated that he gets anywhere from 60 to 120 emails per day from tenants across about 1,500 units he oversees. He said Rucker’s message didn’t seem to be a top priority because it was the first one he had gotten about noise in Apartment 2E and the only complaint he had gotten about that tenant.

He says he took three typical steps that he takes with noise complaints: He sent an email to Pyles citing her lease, which stipulates that she stay quiet after certain hours; he sent an email to Rucker that advised her to call the police; and he called the police himself. “It doesn’t cost us money. Why shouldn’t we call the police?” Zelik said. “The problem is the police show up six hours later.” And by then, the building is quiet. For a landlord to do more over a single noise complaint would start an eviction proceeding that Zelik joked could outlive him. “It’s quite hard to do to take a bit of an aggressive action when we don’t know for sure what’s going on.” It would be impossible to know for sure exactly what was going on. Like most buildings in the city, 808 has surveillance cameras—but they don’t record any sound.

Jayvonna Rucker and Tyquan Pleasant lived in shelters for two years before moving into their first apartment at 808 Elsmere Place. The building was brand new and opened just two months before they moved in at the end of 2021. Photo: Adriane Quinlan

On Valentine’s Day, a little over a year after Pleasant and Ruckers moved in, the couple had a new baby. They named him Ayden, to match the A in his sister’s name. The family developed a routine. Rucker would go to bed around ten, and Pleasant would stay awake for the first night feeding, or sometimes they’d both be up on newborn hours.

On March 24, shortly after midnight, Ayden had just fallen asleep following his first wake-up, and the couple had put him down to head to bed. It had been an unusually quiet evening. Rucker had been cuddling the baby, and Pleasant had been listening to music on his phone. They hadn’t so much as turned on the shower.

Which is why it might have grated Pleasant more to hear the noise from the neighbor start up again, at full blast, through the wall. First, a fuzzy static sound, then Pyles banging on his daughter’s bedroom wall and yelling through the wall that they’d woken her up. “Literally everything in my house is off. Like how did we wake you up?” Rucker said. “And then that’s when it escalated.” Pleasant was fed up, pushed over the edge. He grabbed his jacket and went into the hallway, and at Pyles’s door he told her to come out into the hall to talk it out. “Let’s handle this as adults,” he said. He told her nobody in their house had been making noise.

Pyles refused to come out, so Pleasant yelled at her through her door. Chad Boggs — who lives in the apartment across the hall and came out to hear what the fuss was about — remembers hearing Pleasant insulting Pyles, calling her the F-word (Pyles is a trans woman). And he remembered Pleasant making a threat. “He said he was going to beat her up every time she came out of her door” if the noise didn’t stop.

Pleasant and Rucker went back inside to check on the kids and then Rucker heard Pyles unlock the door of her apartment. Pleasant went back out to the hallway. Boggs, who was standing nearby, said Pyles rushed out with a knife, that there was a fight, “and it looked like they were slamming against each other.”

By the time Rucker got out into the hallway, she saw Pleasant slumping over, falling to the floor. She caught him and pulled him back into the apartment. That’s when she saw the blood. Later, she learned Pleasant had been stabbed in the back. He was likely dead in minutes. “I saw his pupils go from large to pinpricks,” says Boggs, who says he helped try to resuscitate him.

Tyquan Pleasant was 27 years old when he was killed in March. Photo: Courtesy of Kawanna Pleasant

Most New Yorkers know the reality is that we can’t really reasonably expect silence. Though often that reality makes us miserable: We rent without knowing about the neighbor’s dachshunds, or the kids stomping upstairs, or the gamer blip-blip-blipping across the hall. Then we can’t sleep, and we get desperate: calling 311 or 911, contacting landlords and lawyers, writing baroque Reddit threads or letters we post to elevators and doors. Even the wealthiest among us aren’t shielded. In 2009, Madonna was sued by an upstairs neighbor in her fancy Central Park West building — they were being driven nuts by the the sound of her thumping rehearsals.

There are noise laws in place. The judge who let the neighbor’s complaint against Madonna move forward cited the “warranty of habitability,” a state law that forces landlords and co-op boards to make sure the people paying to live in their buildings “shall not be subjected to any conditions which would be dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to their life, health or safety.” Technically, a landlord could be found at fault for unhealthy levels of noise coming from another tenant. Still, judges have generally ruled with the understanding that New Yorkers cannot expect Zen retreats, upholding the rights of opera singers to practice (during certain hours) and declining to kick noise-makers out of their homes, finding an eviction over loud kids to be “disproportionate to the offense.”

And getting a noise complaint to a court in the first place is, needless to say, expensive and time consuming. One has to hire not only a lawyer but the person who can prove the problem even exists: an acoustical consultant, who will measure the offensive sound with decibel meters.

Buildings are also supposed to be designed to ensure that a New York apartment is quiet enough in the first place — basically, when your neighbor is talking, you might hear something, but you shouldn’t be able to hear each word. In the world of acoustical consulting, that’s defined as a “sound transmission class” rating of 45 or 50, and every sheet of drywall, paneling, and sheetrock has its own “STC rating.” Architects and engineers are the ones who are supposed to make sure they meet that rating in the first place, but Walter Marin, an architect who designs multifamily homes, says that it’s more of a “goodwill item.” No inspector is measuring decibel levels, says a spokesperson for the DOB. Evaluations are “visual only.”

Real-estate attorney Steven Sladkus says he has seen a trend line at times when developers are rushing projects to avoid rising interest rates. “That’s when you see a lot of problems.”

In 2019, 808 Elsmere Place broke ground and got the sign-off from the Department of Buildings to open in fall 2021. Like a lot of new buildings, especially ones for low-income tenants, it feels cheaply built. An electric line runs from a pole on the street into a hole in the façade that looks like it was gnawed out. A tenant on a high floor told me she moved there in November 2021 and found issues with water pressure, with her lights, and with her cabinet doors. “Things are just falling apart,” she said. “It was a fast build. They just wanted to move people in.”

And 808 is loud — not just in Pleasant and Rucker’s apartment. As I interviewed other tenants in the building, they said they were worried neighbors were listening in through the walls. On the first floor, Renita Goodson said she couldn’t just hear sounds on the street; she could hear people talking and moving above her. “These walls are thin. You can hear everything. You can’t even talk without everybody hearing your conversation.” The walls are so thin that, on another floor, when another tenant would take a phone call in his own apartment, the person on the other end of the line would sometimes assume he had friends over. On the night of the murder, that tenant — who was awake and making candy apples with a friend — heard everything. The burst of music, the sudden fight, exactly what was said during that sudden fight. From his apartment, they both went quiet and listened.

Rucker and Pleasant had two children, Amiyah and Ayden, who was born five weeks before his father was killed. Photo: Courtesy of Kawanna Pleasant

Most New Yorkers who have issues with noisy neighbors don’t call in the building inspectors or attorneys. They do what Rucker did and call 311. As a city, we call 311 about noise a lot. Complaints have been steadily going up in what may be a mass collective delusion. A study by the state comptroller found that over a six-year period, police issued a summons in response to only .3 percent of noise complaints. An arrest? .05 percent of the time. And it’s unclear whether police are even showing up. When Councilmember Robert Holden called 311 on a party raging at 3 a.m., the party kept raging. “Why are we giving people who are disturbing the peace the benefit of the doubt?” he said at the time. He’s now trying to change how complaints get enforced. “The city must do more to hold those responsible for disturbing their neighbors’ quality of life accountable.”

Police might see noise complaints as the lowest priority — crimes that aren’t actually endangering anyone. But they might also be seen as cries for intervention when the problem of living crammed up against each other and feeling stuck becomes untenable. Just before Pleasant was killed, there was Dillon St. Clair, a father of four boys, who was fatally shot in December in a fight with his neighbor who could hear their thudding feet. And there’s Tyrone Quick, who was visiting a friend at her apartment in January when her neighbor stabbed both of them because he was apparently “enraged over noise,” according to the Daily News. Those incidents all took place in the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough. But still, in each of those incidents, noise might have just been the simplest problem to name in a more complex fight between neighbors. The building where Tyrone Quick was killed housed New Yorkers with mental-health issues, who might have a hard time living crammed up against almost anyone.

Shaun Pyles moved into 808 Elsmere Place in late 2021, before most of her neighbors. Like Rucker, she was looking for peace after a more chaotic living situation. At her last apartment in the Bronx, someone had broken in twice. “I had to move because of safety issues there,” she said, speaking to me from the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, a women’s jail, where she is now awaiting trial.

808 seemed nice for all the reasons it would seem nice to Jayvonna Rucker a few weeks later. But almost immediately she realized the place was loud. There was Boggs, across the hall, who always seemed to have friends visiting. There was what she thought was a club, operating one block over, and loud music. And there was a woman down the hall whom Pyles says she could hear arguing. “It was just like a choir, a symphony of noises,” she said. “Like it was ridiculous.”

If anyone was a noise victim, Pyles says, it was her. And the first culprit, she says, was her upstairs neighbors. (Those residents told me they did not want to participate in this story.) “They had kids, and at all times in the night they’ll just start thumping.”

Just like Pleasant and Rucker, Pyles felt individually targeted, as if the upstairs neighbors wanted to make her life a living hell. And all that noise made her — well, make noise. “Sometimes they’ll be playing games where I’ll knock on the ceiling and they’ll stomp back.” At first, she warned them by knocking on the ceiling with a broom, but she noticed she was damaging the ceiling and changed tactics, setting up speakers and a subwoofer at the top of her closet. “It had surround-sound speakers so it would really shake and rattle the ceiling, because I wanted their feet to shake.” Pyles said her system worked, getting the neighbors to notice and settle down. And then she’d turn it off. “Most of the time it only lasted a few minutes.”

At some point last year, sound from Rucker and Pleasant’s apartment started joining the “choir” and bugging Pyles, too. So then, “I was not only having problems with people one street over, and people on top of me, but also those neighbors beside me.” But still, they weren’t her first concern the way she was theirs. In December, when Rucker started hearing Pyles blasting noise at 3 a.m. and felt things were escalating in their war, Pyles says she believes she was actually blasting music as a warning to her upstairs neighbors.

Like Pleasant and Rucker, she was calling 311. It wasn’t going anywhere. “I’m not even gonna try to stop it at this point. I’m just gonna play my stuff and drown out the sounds and mind my business. That’s the only thing I could do at that point. I got used to it, and that was my way of settling it instead of sitting there mad sitting on the phone for hours trying to contact the police or something else. Trying to contact a landlord that never responds.” One of the things she said she regularly played was a meditation vibration. “The only way to describe it is like a jackhammer,” she says. Which likely explains the noise Rucker described as a “fuzzy static.”

I asked Pyles why she chose to warn her neighbors and the nearby club by blasting music instead of talking to them. “I didn’t feel safe going to people’s doors as a trans woman. I just felt like it could escalate to something more serious.” Pyles grew up in Virginia and Florida, where she had an easier time finding peace and quiet. She missed that quiet, but she needed to hang on and stay in New York for a while longer: She was here for gender-affirming surgeries and working with a program to help other trans people in the same position. “I’m very sensitive to loud noises, crowds, which is pretty much just New York City. So I didn’t plan on staying here this long. I knew that it was gonna be hard for me to live here. I just thought I could tough it out until I finished my surgeries.”

And she was wary because since she’d moved to the city, she’d lived by herself. “I always liked to have some kind of weapon to be able to defend myself in case I needed it,” she said. “I just always like to be protected because it’s only me. I don’t have a family or anything. Just literally me in a big city.”

All of which is why she says that when Pleasant showed up at her door after midnight on March 24, she didn’t hear a neighbor trying to solve a problem or trying to reason with her. The knife she used to stab him, she says, was just the one she always carried on her for protection. (Pyles also denies calling the couple “bums” and intentionally mimicking their sounds.)

In the days after the murder of Tyquan Pleasant at the age of 27, his aunt Kawanna Pleasant found herself reaching out to the press. She was worried that the news might frame her nephew as the aggressor. On almost every phone call with reporters, Kawanna brings up how her nephew wasn’t in a gang and didn’t have a criminal record, how he was a family man who wanted peace for his two children. She made a GoFundMe for their care and education, titling it “The Music Was Too Loud.” To her, the fights over noise should have been an early warning for police or management to intervene. She latches on to the email that Rucker sent to the landlord, to her repeated calls for help, to the city’s failure to show up. No one knocked on Rucker’s door to chat with her about what was going on, to ask a follow-up question about when the noise could be heard. Pyles said the police never knocked on her door, either.

Rucker is now living at her mother’s place. Most of her things are still in the old apartment, but she can’t bear to go back. She pulled Amiyah out of the school nearby. She is a single mother now, leaning on her family for help watching the two children so she can take courses at the Mildred Elley campus downtown, where she’s studying to be a medical assistant. Her requests for an emergency transfer of her voucher to another apartment haven’t panned out, even though she heard from the mayor’s Bronx Borough director soon after her fiancee’s murder, pledging to help transfer her. She says when she found a place that would take her, she texted in May to follow up and didn’t hear back. (A City Hall spokesperson claims to have no record of having heard from her then but is “engaged with her to try to figure it out.”)

Meanwhile, next door to her old apartment, the studio Shaun Pyles used to rent is no longer vacant. Anthony Hunt moved in from a shelter on June 1. He can hear the stomping of neighbors above him, a sort of regular “thudding,” nothing too unusual. But if Rucker and her sister are visiting Rucker’s old apartment, 2D, he can hear everything: someone rifling through a closet, turning on a tap. “You can literally hear a mouse piss on cotton,” he said. “It’s very thin walls in here. Like paper thin.”

Hunt was only comfortable talking to me in his home because, he said, no one was in the apartment next door at that moment. He watches his words. “I can’t talk how I want to in my apartment.” He’s thinking about moving when his lease is up in December. “I’ll go back to the shelter if I have to,” he says.

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