Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Saturday, 21 February 2009

Life in the city that cannot sleep

Matthew Price finds one aspect of New York rather hard to cope with.

Noise is said to be the number one quality of life issue for New Yorkers

The honking is possibly the worst, or the thundering.

Well, that and the rumbling, screeching, thudding, clacking, droning, whining, whirring and wailing.

Not to mention the barking, bleating, bickering and bitching. You get the picture.

No wonder New York is the city that never sleeps. It is a city that is sometimes near impossible to sleep in.

So I have joined the ranks of the Big Apple weird. Earplugs. On the subway. Essential.

Silent zone

I have managed to slightly disguise my weirdness with a pair of in the ear noise-reduction headphones connected to an iPod, but since I do not always listen to anything on the iPod (that would after all add to the noise) I for one know I am being slightly strange.

But I feel all the better for it. Once the 20-minute journey along the dirty and poorly maintained tracks of the C-train was eardrum-bursting, the screeching of brakes and of metal on metal.

The thuds and clanks of the ageing railway stock. The "tss tss tss" of everybody else's music players.

Instead, just like putting your head under the water in a loud indoor public swimming pool, I now enter a gloriously muted world.

You have to expect a bit of clamour in Manhattan of course. This is a city of more than eight million people, more than 18 million if you count the metropolitan area as a whole.

But the mayor's office says noise complaints remain the number one quality of life issue here.

Deaf to one another?

A number of years ago Local Law 113 was brought in. A noise code that tries to get people to honk less, dogs to bark less and air-conditioners to whir less.

New Yorkers are noisy people, perhaps their city made them that way, or perhaps they made their city that way.

Yellow Taxi in New York
Yellow cabs honk their horns regardless of noise laws

This morning, once I was out of the subway and the earplugs were out of my ears, I strode along 33rd Street towards the office, the Empire State Building rising high above me, and a New York Yellow cab clearly ignoring Local Law 113 with a loud honk of the horn.

Alongside me as the herd of commuters moved past the burnt coffee smell of a pavement vendor's stall, a woman on her mobile struggled to be heard over the sound of the street: "He didn't love me any more. I want kids. My doctor says I gotta move on."

No-one else seemed to hear. They were all too busy shouting their own personal tragedies down the phone.


Still there is a charm to New York's noise. It defines the city in many ways.

The wail of police sirens, the clatter of the subway trains, the shout of a delivery man, all have their own romance to them.

There is something about the background sounds of a city and the energy that comes with them.

The problem people seem to have here is the large spikes in volume that occur every other second.

Time Square
New York traffic noise can be 10 dB higher than recommended levels

I used to live on one of the busier corners of Manhattan, 14th Street and 2nd Avenue.

Now our cat can sleep through anything, but even she would jump as the fire engines went blaring past.

In winter the building's old steam pipes would clang as if they were being hit with a hammer. That would wake me in the morning even if the fire engines had not.

Defining feature

The Environmental Protection Agency here, says people should not be exposed to more than 75 decibels.

New Yorkers seem willing to accept the day-in day-out assault on their ear drums.

New York traffic, they say, is usually at 85 decibels. The subway, 95. An ambulance siren, 120.

Noise, the city law says, is a "menace to public health."

A study at New York Public School 88, some years ago now, found that children working in classrooms overlooking elevated subway tracks lagged behind students on the quiet side of the school by up to 11 months.

Nevertheless, despite such warnings, New Yorkers seem willing to accept the day-in day-out assault on their ear drums.

Which is just as well. As the would-be enforcers of Local Law 113 are finding there is probably little that can be done about the noise.

In fact, New York would not be New York, if it was not loud and in your face.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 February, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

The sound of silence
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