New York City tries again to turn down the volume

Mayor Bloomberg pushes an initiative to quiet blaring stereos, noisy construction sites, and honking cars.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New York, the city that never sleeps.... Or is it the city that just can't get to sleep?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire bachelor well known for his own love of the night life, wants to be sure that if his constituents want a restful 40 winks, they'll get it.

This week, he proposed a sweeping overhaul of the city's noise code, the first in more than 30 years. Contending there is nothing "frivolous" about complaints about loud noises, his new plan targets everything from jackhammers to barking dogs. Even Mister Softee ice cream trucks, which for almost 50 years have announced their presence on the city's narrow streets with their cheerful, childlike jingles, would be silenced except for the delicate tinkling of a bell starting in 2006. (As a result of that particular proposal, a New York Post headline deemed the mayor Mister Meanie.)

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While he may lose some popularity with the local ice cream set, antinoise activists around the country are hailing Mr. Bloomberg and his new assault on noise. Indeed, from Los Angeles to Chicago fed-up residents have prompted lawmakers to consider bans on everything from leaf blowers to car alarms. But in New York, Bloomberg's consistent championing of the need for a little calming quiet has put him in a league of his own.

"The most important thing about the ordinance and Bloomberg's efforts are not the details, but that he's setting community standards and expectations," says Les Blomberg, founder of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in considerably quieter Montpelier, Vt. "People assume that New York City is going to be noisy, but it really doesn't have to be the case."

That comes as a great relief to many sleep-deprived natives. To them, the Bloomberg noise offensive is both a much-needed crackdown and long-overdue application of common sense to one of the city's biggest quality-of-life complaints.

Police officers and others charged with enforcing the new noise ordinance would be able to use their ears as opposed to cumbersome meters to determine just how loud is too loud. And construction sites - the source of some of the worst, incessant pounding sounds - would be required to produce "noise mitigation plans" with real "noise abatement measures." We're talking blankets around jackhammers to muffle the sound.

But what they're going to do about pile drivers is another question. And that's what Suzanne Barbetta wants to know. She's standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, with one such pile driver hammering away across the street, buses and trucks groaning down the avenue, and the occasional horn and siren blaring. The actress says rush hour is sometimes so loud she can't hear her own cellphone ring, let alone carry on a conversation with friends.

"If they can do something about it they should, but I don't know how effective they're going to be," she says. "There's always construction. Old buildings are always being torn down and new ones being built." That's not something the city would care to regulate to a halt, but it will try to limit construction on weekends and at night.

Still, many New Yorkers share Ms. Barbetta's skepticism. Nes Bienaime, who was standing on the same corner, notes, "They tried it before, and it didn't work." Early in his term, Bloomberg initiated "Operation Silent Night," which targeted the city's 24 noisiest neighborhoods with cops and inspectors. That resulted in almost 34,000 criminal court summonses and many bars posting signs warning patrons, "This is a residential neighborhood, PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL when you leave."

Even Rudolph Giuliani, the operatic-like stern city father who wrestled the crime rate to historic lows, couldn't keep taxis from blaring their horns. As mayor back in 1997, Mr. Giuliani doubled and tripled the fines for disturbing neighbors with a blaring stereo, but noise remains the No. 1 complaint, with more than 1,000 calls into the city's 311 line a day.

But Mr. Blomberg the antinoise activist (no relation to Bloomberg the mayor) is more optimistic about the ability to reduce noise in cities over the next decade, than he is about reducing those disturbing decibels in suburban and rural areas. That's because as he puts it, "the nature of the noises and the nature of the solutions." It's easier, he insists, to stop honking horns than it is to move a roaring highway out of a nice suburban neighborhood.

And while Blomberg does applaud Bloomberg, he thinks the mayor could cut noise down in cheaper and easier ways. For instance, people could refuse to tip cabbies if they honk their horns in anything other than an emergency. Or all motorcycles in the city could be required to have the Environmental Protection Agency stamp, which would quiet them down considerably. And then there are the sirens. Instead of them blaring in all directions, unidirectional alternatives could aim alarms where they're most needed.

"There's no reason that someone on the 13th floor needs to know that a fireman is responding to a fire [down the block]," he says. "It will actually improve public safety because when you hear it, you'll know you're involved in some way - like you have to move your car out of the way."

But then, of course, there are those that like New York just the way it is right now, full of night life and noise.

"You don't move into New York for quiet," says "L" Sheridan, who lives downtown in TriBeCa. "You'll turn New York into any other town with all of these rules. This is a city is full of creativity and partying. That's what makes it New York."

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