The Politics of Peace and Quiet

Michael Bloomberg’s much-ballyhooed pitch to revise the city’s noise code for the first time in 32 years gives him a quality-of-life crusade in the tradition of Rudy Giuliani. But while the noise plan may turn out to be a winner, staking his political life on comparisons to Giuliani is a losing proposition.

Even by New York standards, Mayor Giuliani was a big personality—his take-it-or-leave-it stance proof of his cojones, his political savvy lending his initiatives the air of a mandate. Bloomberg, however, remains guarded and difficult to define. Only nominally a Republican or a politician, the former CEO often appears to rule by technocratic executive fiat. Where Rudy used quality-of-life laws to establish himself as a crime fighter, this mayor’s prior shot at that kind of reform—banning smoking in bars—may be the city’s most ridiculed piece of commonsense legislation since Mayor John Purroy Mitchel introduced vocational education just before World War I. (Bloomberg might also note that Mitchel—an outsider candidate who improved much about the city but had no ear for public sensibilities—was voted out in favor of a Tammany hack.)

Bloomberg says this measure is responsive, stemming from the fact that the city’s 311 hotline gets more calls about noise—around 1,000 a day—than about anything else. It’s the mark of a good official and a smart campaigner to make personal needs synonymous with new laws, and Bloomberg, who too often looks like the political neophyte that he is, seems to be taking on some polish here. Already enjoying the endorsement of City Council speaker Gifford Miller, the noise policy is expected to sail through the council this fall. Ultimately, it will be judged on the basis of perception: Will New Yorkers find the city more livable because it’s quieter, or less livable because they’re being harassed over their air conditioners? The most promising aspects of the proposal deal with lessening noise at construction sites with sound barriers and blankets for jackhammers, welcome at a time when construction is booming (although beware the generous exemption allowances).

The problem with legislating noise is apparent in the rest of the bill, which is long on details for imposing fines on nightclubs and ice-cream trucks (the proposal’s bah-humbug low point) and ticketing citizens for their barking dogs and monster-bass auto stereo systems, while remaining disappointingly short on guidelines for the big boys, especially the airplanes and trains that plague the outer boroughs. Just ask somebody who’s suffering through a ball game at Shea while La Guardia’s flights roar overhead if he’s concerned about how loud Mister Softee is, and you’ll see why Bloomberg is often seen as out of touch.

In fact, things like ice-cream trucks produce very few 311 complaints. The biggest beef is noisy neighbors. It’s hard to say whether we’ve grown more sensitive or more petty (I suspect that dogs bark just as loudly in Fairfield County), but it remains obvious that living in close proximity—and the noise that entails—is a defining part of city life. Even serious enforcement of the code is unlikely to change that.

It’s also true that no legislation can curb the new sound of the city, one that has less to do with ferry horns, sirens, and garbage trucks and more with the steady buzz of disengaged fellow travelers conversing privately with unseen companions. The moment-to-moment rhythm and melody of the city—walking the streets, riding the trains, sitting at a lunch counter—has been irrevocably transformed by the cellular age, and not for the better.

Still, Bloomberg’s noise plan is worth a shot, at least with some modification regarding the larger targets. After all, no one thought Ed Koch’s “pooper scooper” law would stick, but with vigorous enforcement it won out. Perhaps one day covering your ears with a pillow will be as unusual as scraping your shoe clean on the curb.

The Politics of Peace and Quiet