loud town

It’s Noise Week at Curbed

Stories about the people who make it, are trying to stop it, and are losing their minds over it.

Illustration: Michele Febbraio
Illustration: Michele Febbraio

Anyone who was here in the spring of 2020 will remember the empty streets, the uncanny New York of lockdown. Yet two other sensations, rather than the mere view of the Raptured avenue outside my window, stick with me. One was the smell, because I had never experienced (and will possibly never again experience) city life without a dominant top note of petroleum. The air was dramatically sweeter and cleaner, and occasionally I could pick up the faint scent of the ocean, not quite half a mile off. And the other, of course, was the silence.

It was especially alien because my apartment is just down the block from a bump. If you too have ever lived near a bump, you know what that means. Most mornings, starting around five, delivery trucks go over said bump, float up on their suspensions, and then crash down and bottom out. That’s one ka-chunk-dunk for each axle. The repetition gives way to a steadier hum as the sun comes up and the trucks give ground to lighter vehicles, but for a couple of hours there, it’s the least celebratory parade imaginable. I’m lucky enough to be a deep sleeper, but when my wife, who isn’t, first joined me in this apartment, she was taken aback by just how loud it was. (She adjusted, eventually, sort of.) My kid, a city child who has never lived anywhere else, can tune it out—but only the familiar parts of the din. During lockdown, he asked me to remove the wall clock from his room, because the ticking was keeping him awake. He’d never heard it before.

Noise Week

Stories about New Yorkers who make it, are trying to stop it, and are losing their minds over it.

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Even though the offices lining that avenue are still only half-full, it’s as loud as ever. It is easy, in the absence of historical recordings, to imagine a pre-truck-bump era when cities were pastoral, when the only sounds in the streets were chatter and birdsong and the occasional whinny, no louder than an outdoor cocktail party would be today. It may have been that way at the very beginning, in the tiny village of New Amsterdam, but the surviving documentation tells us that it was a boisterous city full of taverns and bar fights. In any case, it got noisy fast. Nineteenth-century cities didn’t have gasoline and diesel engines thrumming everywhere, but in 1835, a Parisian described “this unceasing racket—this rattling of the cabs and other vehicles over the rough stones, this rumbling of the omnibuses. For the street cries—one might have relief from them by a file and handsaw.” New York, with its unceasing focus on commerce and a comparable culture of late nights, was surely no quieter. Who’s to say if it was better with horses’ hooves clattering on the Belgian-block paving, drawing carts that had wrought-iron tires? It may well have been as bad as its modern-day equivalent, the metal-on-metal screech as the train goes around that curve in the 4-5-6 tracks at Union Square.

Perhaps more maddening, though, is not the sound echoing from the street but the thumping and hammering coming from those jerks in apartment 4B. In the twentieth century, the multistory apartment building and the tenement came to dominate our blocks. Early on, apartments were tough to sell to the rich, who were used to single-family homes and disdained living in an egg carton. One resident howled at the prospect, saying “Gentlemen will never consent to live on mere shelves under a common roof!” (He lived approximately on the spot now occupied by 432 Park Avenue, where the shelves go a quarter-mile up.) In this new residential arrangement, your floor was someone else’s ceiling, and your ceiling was another person’s floor. A cavorting toddler upstairs, or an E. Power Biggs enthusiast with a powerful loudspeaker below, meant a new kind of personal disruption. In tandem with the increasing standards of living that were beginning to cement a sense of personal privacy, especially among the affluent, came tighter and tighter spaces that commingled our noises. That could be fun if you were a little voyeuristic—the audio equivalent of Rear Window, at least before the murder plot takes over. Most of the time, though, you’d probably rather skip the neighbors’ marriage soundtrack, whether they’re fighting over money or shouting at the kids or having what Sally’s having.

That grows ever truer with each “innovation” in lightweight, quick-to-build construction techniques. For many years, postwar modernist buildings, with their thinner walls, were widely denigrated relative to their predecessors. They’re both constructed more stoutly than most contemporary buildings, in which drywall is typically laid over light-gauge galvanized-steel studs to build a wall slightly thicker than an Amazon carton. Bounce a tennis ball against one of those walls, and it sounds like a bass drum. Try a baseball, and it might go clean through. Wealth might buy you some extra distance, but even a hedge-funder high up in a Billionaires’ Row thousand-footer might daily hear the sound of the trash going down the chute “like a bomb” and the elevator rattling in its tracks. At least the street noise is far off, replaced only by the ghostly hum of the wind.

All of this means that New Yorkers think about noise a lot. For this week’s stories, Curbed’s writers and editors, in their customarily obsessive way, took that thinking to extremes. (Last August we got obsessed with trash, and this year with noise; suggestions for next August’s urban-misery topic are welcome.) You will, in the coming days, have the chance to read about how hypersensitive residents overhaul their apartments to dull the sounds both within and outside, the soundproofing only the wealthy can buy, and what happens when a noise dispute between neighbors ends in the worst possible way. Noise (like trash) is, after all, one of our great urban shared experiences. Yes, money buys you quiet, but you can’t stay inside forever. Eventually you, like everyone else, will have to go outside and face the jackhammers and the car horns.

As in so many aspects of New York existence, access to the best parts of our way of life (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, world-class pizza or Shanghai-style noodles at a moment’s notice) comes with some sacrifice (clean country breezes, communion with the natural world, counter space). New York City is a literally deafening place. The Department of Health tells us that about 20 percent of us have hearing damage and/or loss, and surely some of that comes from our noise exposure. I discovered a few months ago that I may have paid for my lifestyle with my ears. (It was the return to the office that made me realize it: I was straining to hear voices at the far end of the conference table, doubly so when the speakers were masked up.) My suspicions fall on the subway, the aforementioned bump, and what Cole Porter called “the roaring traffic’s boom.” (I suppose I could have husbanded my hearing as a resource, wearing earplugs everywhere for decades, but who does that?) Instead I have been fitted with hearing aids—they’re tiny now, nothing like the clumsy thing my grandfather dealt with when I was young—and they get me almost back to where I was. Their sound is only slightly unnatural, and they are remarkably sensitive to certain high frequencies, like the clicks of computer mice, which I can pick up from way across the office. (It’s the dullest of superpowers.) The good news is that my hearing loss does not seem to be progressing fast. Even without electronic assistance, I can still hear the bump on my block —ka-chunk-dunk—and post-pandemic, it remains the worst neighbor around.

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It’s Noise Week