NEW YORK — First Disney's Mickey Mouse started muscling the strippers out of Times Square. Then the Taxi Commission clamped down on rude and nasty drivers. Now, the noise police have arrived.
In a move surely destined to undermine New York's rowdy reputation as the city that never sleeps, the City Council this week voted to double and triple the fines for repeat noise offenders.
Got a dog that won't stop barking? It could cost you more than $500. Caught for a third time with a blaring boom box? You may have to fork over more than a thousand bucks. Gridlock's so bad you're leaning on the horn, again? You could be fined as much as $2,625.
"It may be an uphill battle, but short of issuing all New Yorkers earplugs, we have to start making progress," says Councilman A. Gifford Miller who wrote the ordinance.
For supporters, it's a victory for quality of life in the beehive-like island where more than 8 million people live, work, and often bump into each other every day. But to opponents, it's a triumph of the dulling of New York. Yet another attempt to sanitize the brash grittiness that is integral to the city's character.
"Noise is what makes this city tick and if someone doesn't like it they can just leave," says Duncan Levin, a native who recently moved to Washington, D.C., which he finds it "much too quiet."
New York is a city in transition, attempting to transform its mean streets into more mellow urban thoroughfares. But neither outsiders nor natives are quite sure what to think of this change.
The city's crime rate has dropped so low, it's now safer than Des Moines, Iowa. Since the Disney Corp. bought up most of Times Square, two imposing statues of Mickey and Minnie hover over the shuttered doors of porno shops and peep shows. And once Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signs the new noise ordinance, which he has pledged to do, any nightclub that gets too loud for the neighbors could face fines as large as $24,000.
"I think that's a little ridiculous, let the punishment fit the crime," says former Mayor Ed Koch.
And it's not just the natives who have mixed feelings about the changes in the city. In a recent Gallup Poll, Americans named New York the most dangerous, ugliest, and rudest city in the country. At the same time, it was their top choice for a place to live or visit on vacation.
Why has the city suddenly decided New York needs to trade nasty for nice?
"New York nice? Why not?" says the Taxi and Limousine Commission's Allan Fromberg.
But in the eyes of many New Yorkers, that attitude has already taken too heavy a cultural toll. Just look at the newly muzzled cabbies. The famously gruff "Where to?" has been replaced by perky, prerecorded messages from the likes of Dr. Ruth, Placido Domingo, and Judd Hersch.
"Don't forget to buckle up!" croons Dr. Ruth with a hint of an Austrian grandmother's genuine concern as the cab lurches forward with kamikaze-like fury. "Don't forget your receipt or personal belongings," Mr. Domingo soothingly intones as half a dozen horns angrily blare the moment the cab slams on the brakes.
"I think it's so superficial that it's an insult, frankly," says Loren "Tex" Hightower, a retired actor and dancer, who has lived here for 50 years.
Other New Yorkers are also decidedly quite unhappy about the changing tenor of the town. "Disney everywhere, Williams-Sonoma everywhere, if I wanted to live in a suburban mall I would have moved to one," says restaurant broker Leslie Siben, who was born and raised in the city. "What kind of a world is it going to be with Giuliani taking away all of our after-hours clubs?"
But Mr. Koch insists there's nothing wrong with New York "getting very nice," and there are plenty of New Yorkers who agree with him.
"It's not so dingy anymore and I'm not accosted by prostitutes on the street anymore," says Michael Brugger, a Wisconsin native who's lived in New York for the past five years. "I wouldn't say people are necessarily nicer, but it's a more fun place to live now."
Most New Yorkers are taking the changes in stride - and not too seriously. Take the new noise ordinance, for instance. "When the car alarm goes off at night and wakes you up, who's going to go around and give it a ticket?" shrugs Fred Hakim, the owner of the Grand Luncheonette on the "New 42nd Street" between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in the heart of Times Square.
Mr. Hakim is also hesitant about the Disneyesque renovation under way all around him. He bought the hamburger-and-shake joint 58 years ago. In the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, Times Square was "jumping day and night" he says, you could always "have a ball here."
It wasn't until the late '70s and '80s that the porn shops, pimps, and prostitutes moved in. He's not sad to see them go, but he's not sure about what's coming. He does know that he's been forced out. The last of the original storefronts on the block, his bright-white tile and celadon-colored linoleum luncheonette will shut its doors on Sunday.
"When I see the final outcome I'll let you know how I feel," says Hakim, looking down the block to the Times Square Brewery and the Brooklyn Pastrami Company both hip, cartoonesque reproductions flashing with bright-colored neon. "Right now, I'm sad, because I'm leaving."
NYC NOISE FINES
1st violation $90-350
1st violation $45-175
1st violation $100-250
1st violation $130
(excessive engine noise)
1st violation $440-1,400
Jackhammers (at night)
1st violation $440
1st violation $2,000-8,000
Source: The New York Times and Associated Press