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Is New York Getting Too Loud, or Are New Yorkers Just Too Whiny?

Noise complaints in NYC are way up this summer, but it's not clear the decibel levels are actually rising.

Image via Flickr User Nicholas Wang

New York City is always loud, but residents' tolerance for roof parties, loud bars with outdoor seating, traffic, and noise in general might be lower than ever. This week, a reporter at amNewYork did some impressive analysis of NYC OpenData's unwieldy 311 Service Request call logs to reveal that there has been a noticeable increase in noise complaints compared to summers past.

In July, there were nearly 18,000 residential noise complaints and nearly 8,000 environmental noise complaints (i.e. noise coming from the street or sidewalk). That's a big increase from July 2013, when there were just over 11,000 residential noise complaints and fewer than 3,000 complaints about sidewalk and street sounds

Many people told amNewYork that the problem was the city was getting louder, for a variety of reasons.

"Longtime New Yorkers and gadflies say a number of trends have conspired to profit party people at the expense of peace seekers," wrote reporter Sheila Anne Feeny. "Laws prohibiting smoking have driven more drinkers outdoors. Ever-growing invasions of tourists (56.4 million last year) who do not have to get up early to afford NYC housing costs also pump up the volume. An explosion of luxury residences offering rooftop 'event spaces' and balconies as well as the construction of more hotels—many of which sport rooftop and outdoor bars—also add to the din."

But it's worth keeping in mind that an increase in noise complaints over a two-year span doesn't necessarily mean New York City is getting louder and becoming some kind of toxic waste dump for awful sounds. Could it be that residents are just complaining more instead? Maybe, said Dr. Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist who helped revise the city's noise code and advised multiple mayors about how to reduce sound pollution.

"Is New York a noisy city? Yes. Has New York always been a noisy city? Yes," she told me over the phone. "But here's what's changed: We are less likely to tolerate it anymore."

Bronzaft suggested that when the NYC noise code was updated in 2007 (the previous one dated to the Reagan era), residents became more aware that there was actually something to be done about loud shit going on next-door or down the street. NYC's 3-1-1 hotline, which provides residents with non-emergency services, has been around since 2003, but the noise code update—and publicity surrounding it—may have led to an uptick in complaints.

Bronzaft says she's personally received an influx of calls from aggravated New Yorkers (some who were recommended to her by 3-1-1 operators, according to the psychologist) looking for advice. "I would say the calls have multiplied," she told me. "People want to know that somebody might listen to their grievances, even if the problems aren't resolved."

John Longman, president of acoustic consultant firm Longman Lindsey, told me that he thinks the rise in complaints is a function of a shift in the zeitgeist. "The younger generations are now more concerned with quality-of-life issues than before. Gone are the Wall-Street, dog-eat-dog type of New Yorkers you found in the 80s," he said. "People have different values today... New Yorkers, believe it or not, are more socially responsible these days."

Matthew Schaeffler, a senior associate with acoustic consultancy Cerami & Associates, added that certain areas of the city are being "rezoned from industrial to commercial or industrial to residential." He thinks this is a good thing because the zoning changes require that residential buildings in the area receive an additional (E) designation, and must upgrade building façades and add thicker windows (often tripled-glazed or laminated glass) to deal with environmental noise such as traffic. But there may still be an interim period between when, say, an industrial area is transitioning into a residential one, and it could take time before those renovations are handled by property managers and landlords.

"A lot of people call 3-1-1 about neighbors, but that type of noise relates to lease law and your landlord," Bronzaft told me. "Various types of noise complaints get split up and handled by different bodies of authority, specifically the police, the Department of Environmental Policy, and lease law. And not everyone knows that, so they just call 3-1-1 every time there's an issue. Or they call me!

"There's a greater expectation that we have a right to complain," she continued. "Once you educate people that they can complain, there's going to be an increase. The only downside is that many don't get responses."

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