New York Becomes the City That Never Shuts Up

By Winnie Hu

Taxis at a crosswalk on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Noise has become an increasing problem there.CreditJustin Gilliland/The New York Times

Richard T. McIntosh has never heard such a racket outside his window.

Traffic roars through his neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at all hours. The whine of refrigerated grocery trucks by the curb makes things worse. And construction of a new apartment tower across the street forces him to flee his own home. There is the deafening rat-a-tat of jack hammers and the incessant banging and high-pitched wail of construction equipment that echoes in his head.

“I’ve had two years of absolute violation of my right to peace and quiet,” said Mr. McIntosh, a television producer who has lived on the Upper East Side for more than five decades. “I think it’s against the Geneva Conventions to have this much noise.”

New York City has never been kind to human ears, from its screeching subways and honking taxis to wailing police sirens. But even at its loudest, there were always relatively tranquil pockets like the Upper East Side that offered some relief from the day-to-day cacophony of the big city. Those pockets are vanishing. As the city grows more crowded, with a record 8.5 million residents and a forest of new buildings, finding respite from loud cellphone chatter, rooftop parties, backhoes digging foundations, or any other aural assault has become harder and harder.

In other words, New York is really living up to its reputation as the city that never sleeps.

Five years after The New York Times took a noise meter to restaurants, bars, stores and gyms across the city and found dangerous decibel levels, the city’s noise problem has only gotten worse, according to noise experts and residents. Citywide, about 420,000 noise complaints were lodged with the city’s 311 hotline in 2016, more than double the number of 2011.

“Noise is the No. 1 complaint,” said City Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and has been inundated with hundreds of noise complaints in the past year alone. “We need to take this problem seriously — take it head on without excuses — and give every New Yorker the peace and quiet they need.”

Hailing a cab on the Upper East Side last week. “Noise is the No. 1 complaint,” said City Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side.CreditJustin Gilliland/The New York Times

Though the city in 2007 put into effect an overhauled noise code for the first time in three decades, complaints have continued to grow. Excessive noise pollution is not just hard on the ears, but is also linked to higher levels of stress, hypertension and heart disease.

“Noise affects us all,” said Ben Wellington, a visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute in New York who has studied noise for his data-driven urban planning blog, I Quant NY. “We’re a lot of people crammed into a very small space.”

Mr. Wellington has used the city’s 311 data to map out the noisiest neighborhoods. The noisiest was, not surprisingly, Midtown Manhattan, the epicenter of business and tourism. Other loud neighborhoods were the East and West Villages, both popular night life destinations, and Lower Manhattan, where nonstop building has overtaken the physical devastation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But increasingly, noise has become an issue even in places removed from the bustle. The Upper East Side, a bastion of family-friendly apartment buildings, schools and senior centers, was where people moved to get away from noise.

Sarah Gallagher and her neighbors along a stretch of First Avenue recently mobilized against a hookah bar whose rowdy patrons spilled onto the sidewalk and kept everyone up with their yelling and fighting. The bar is now closed.

A worker drilled for a new street sign on the Upper East Side. Development is a large contributor to the city’s noise pollution.CreditJustin Gilliland/The New York Times

“There’s noise and then there’s noise,” said Ms. Gallagher, a writer and producer. “To have a happy society, we need to have some restraints on our public behavior.”

Mr. Kallos has made curbing noise one of his top priorities. He and Costa Constantinides, a councilman from Queens, are proposing legislation that targets some of the most grating sounds by requiring city noise inspectors to respond within two hours when possible to catch noisemakers in the act. Inspectors currently have no legally mandated deadlines but follow departmental guidelines for responding within a certain period of time.

A breakdown of last year’s 311 noise data by The New York Times and Mr. Wellington found that the majority of complaints involve human interaction, or conflict. The biggest irritant, by far — with 224,070 complaints — is loud music and parties. Banging and pounding sounds brought 64,905 complaints; loud talking, 40,494; and loud televisions, 4,033.

Alan Fierstein, the president of Acoustilog, a consulting company, said that as people pay more to live in the city, many feel entitled to do as they want, with little regard for their neighbors. For instance, he said, affluent families are combining apartments to create larger spaces to run around in and make noise. Restaurants and health clubs are installing bigger — and louder — sound systems. And many buildings are repurposing their rooftops for outdoor gatherings that can be heard around the block.

“I’m sure there’s more people making noise than before,” said Mr. Fierstein, who receives a half-dozen calls a day about noise problems, or twice as many as he did five years ago. “I think a lot of them feel entitled because of the prices they pay for real estate.”

A bar on the Upper East Side. The majority of noise complaints in the city involve human interaction, with loud music and parties the biggest irritants.CreditJustin Gilliland/The New York Times

Another leading source of noise complaints is the rampant construction reshaping the city skyline. The Buildings Department has increasingly allowed developers to continue work beyond the agency’s designated hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Noise complaints late at night, early in the morning and on the weekend have soared in tandem, to 27,979 in 2016 from 7,635 in 2011.

Joseph Soldevere, a department spokesman, said such construction was allowed “when it’s safer or less disruptive to the neighborhood to do the work during hours with lower pedestrian or vehicular traffic.”

City buildings officials issued 61,199 permits for before- or after-hours work in 2016, up from 29,222 in 2011. But Mr. Soldevere said that officials knew of only 1,335 specific projects with those permits that had drawn noise complaints. He added that street and infrastructure construction also contributed to the noise.

Though the Police Department handles the vast majority of noise complaints, inspectors with the Department of Environmental Protection also investigate mechanical sources and environmental noise, including after-hours construction, air-conditioners and ventilation equipment, alarms and even barking dogs. There are 54 noise inspectors, with eight more to be hired in the next year.

In 2016, inspectors handled 58,493 noise complaints, up from 32,838 in 2011, according to department records. Nearly half of those complaints were in Manhattan and, in fact, the second-highest concentration anywhere in the city was within the borders of the community board representing the Upper East Side. (The highest was in the community board area covering Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.)

An ambulance on the Upper East Side. New York City has never been kind to human ears, from its screeching subways to its wailing sirens.CreditJustin Gilliland/The New York Times

Construction before and after hours was the top complaint over all and in every borough, except for Staten Island, where barking dogs reigned.

In many cases, noise inspectors can take a while to arrive. The analysis of 311 data showed median response time for noise inspectors was four days in 2016. The median response time for police officers was 152 minutes.

City environmental officials say their investigations require more time because inspectors may have to schedule visits to measure noise levels at the apartments of people who made complaints, which can take days to set up. Or they may have to wait for the next time a noise occurs.

Edward Timbers, a department spokesman, said the proposed noise legislation by City Council members would require hiring far more inspectors. Even when inspectors are on hand for after-hours construction noise, he added, they cannot issue a violation to a company with a permit for those hours, no matter how noisy it gets.

Instead, Mr. Timbers said, the department was considering other measures to empower inspectors. “While the legislation is well intended, we are actively evaluating possible adjustments to the noise code that will aid in our enforcement efforts,” he said.

But a lack of inspectors is one reason for the city’s growing noise problem, Mr. Kallos said. Increasing their ranks would not only deter noise but also result in more violations and fines that would offset the cost of the legislation. “It is time for the city to hire as many noise inspectors as it takes to respond to complaints when they happen,” he said.

Even for New Yorkers used to living in a blaring city, the growing clatter has become too much. Pamela Tucker, a management consultant who has lived on the Upper East Side for more than two decades, said she always liked returning home from busier parts of the city. It was quiet enough to leave her windows open.

But these days, Ms. Tucker keeps her windows closed because of the construction across the street.

“I wish there was less noise,” she said. “I feel there really isn’t any quiet spot in the city.”

Griff Palmer contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Welcome to the City That Never Sleeps (and Never Shuts Up). Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe